The Flip Side Of Women’s Empowerment

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Yesterday, the Mahila Police Station in Bhubaneswar registered a case of rape against Saubhagya Swain, the inspector-in-charge (IIC) of the General Railway Police (GRP) station in the capital city, based on an FIR lodged by the victim, a lady sub inspector (SI) who worked under his alleged rapist at the time of the incident. Her statement was duly recorded under Sec 161 of the CrPC today and a medical test would soon be conducted as per procedure, DCP Satyabrata Bhoi has said.

The first thing that strikes one about the complaint is the time lag between the alleged incident and the filing of the case. As per the FIR lodged by the lady SI, the incident took place on September 24, 2015. That makes it well over two years and three months! No wonder the accused officer pounced on this inordinately long interval to ridicule the charge and defend himself. In defence of the lady, it must be said that she did complain against the same officer at the office of the GRP SP in Cuttack where she is presently posted. But curiously, her complaint filed in 2015 only pertained to ‘mental harassment’ and made no mention of rape or even sexual harassment.

That brings us to the more important question of whether a medical test at this stage can establish rape. Medico-legal experts are of the view that it cannot. Of course, her testimony in court, along with circumstantial evidence, might still be enough to convict the accused as we saw in the case of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. But till that happens, the accused officer does deserve the benefit of doubt because ‘innocent till proved guilty’ is at the core of Indian – and indeed world – jurisprudence.

While all that is in the future, a case in the recent past has proved how the redefinition of rape and sexual harassment in the relevant laws amended in the wake of the dastardly Nirbhaya gang rape case in Delhi has become a handy tool in the hands of some women, who use it to deadly effect to settle personal scores with men who fall foul of them for some reason. It was the sexual harassment allegation leveled by a reader in the Hindi department in Ravenshaw University against Abhishek Sharma, the head of the department. Not only was the allegation proved to be false by the inquiry committee of the university; it was serious enough for the vice chancellor to announce that disciplinary proceedings would be initiated against the lady teacher for leveling a false charge against the HoD.

These are just two recent examples of how in our zeal to set the gender balance right, we have tilted our criminal jurisprudence system heavily against men. It has got to a stage where men are at the mercy of women, constantly fearful of disgruntled female colleagues accusing them of sexual harassment or rape. [A friend of this columnist is so scared of something like this happening to him that he never allows a female subordinate into his room unless she is accompanied by someone!]

Of course, it is nobody’s case that sexual harassment does not take place at the workplace or even that the overwhelming majority of such complaints are not genuine. But the problem with the current system is that it places the man at a great disadvantage. Our efforts to restore gender parity has unwittingly has made it a battle of unequals all over again. The woman can hide behind what is called the ‘advantage of anonymity’ while the accused has his name, photographs and visuals splashed all over the media once a complaint is made – even if there is not a shred of evidence to back the charge. Reputations, as anyone knows, take years to build but only seconds to destroy. In contrast, there is not even a ripple if and when the accused is exonerated by a court of law. In the media’s scheme of things, news of such exoneration rarely makes it the front pages – or the top of the run order on TV – where the charges against the accused are invariably placed. Given the speed (the lack of it, to be precise) at which our justice system works, exoneration – or conviction – can takes years and even decades. During this period, the accused has to live with the ignominy of being an accused in the public eye. While ‘innocent till proven guilty’ may be the golden principle of criminal jurisprudence, it is the exact opposite when it comes to public perception. It is thus a double whammy for the man unfortunate to be charged with sexual demeanour.

This anti-man tilt in the law is not confined to the laws on sexual crimes alone. Another case in point is Sec 498 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), popularly known as the Dowry Act. The misuse of this provision in the law was wide and serious enough for the Supreme Court of India to rule on July 28, 2017 that the veracity of the charge must be ascertained before the accused is arrested. The ruling, which put an end to the practice of ‘automatic arrest’ once a complaint is filed, was a paradigm shift in judicial perception according to which the woman is always the ‘victim’.

May be it is to time for a similar judicial ruling or an amendment in the relevant law in cases related to sexual misconduct to get the gender balance right.

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