What significantly differentiates the S.P.S. Rathore case from comparable atrocities of the past is the progressive and healthy shift it has caused in the attitude of the mainstream news media and people, particularly those drawn from the middle classes, to sex-related crimes against women and children. Unlike in the past, this activist concern goes beyond sympathy for the victims. It extends to more substantive and wide-ranging aspects such as the legal rights of the affected, the relevant laws, the law’s delays, the forms of judicial procedure, the adequacy of the sentence awarded to the perpetrators of the crime, and the compensation decreed to the victims or their families.

All this is reflected in the scores of letters from readers that can be read in newspapers, which published on December 22, 2009 a small report on the court verdict that sentenced Rathore to six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 1,000 for sexually molesting a 14-year-old girl at Panchkula in Haryana, 19 years ago. “At long last, justice, too little and too late, has seemingly been done to the girl, who was growing into a promising tennis player, when she chose to end her life,” a newspaper quoted a neighbour of the girl’s family as saying. (The sexual assault on the minor took place in 1990 and she committed suicide three years later, unable to bear the harassment and torture her father and brother had to suffer at the instance of the police official, abusing all the power at his command. All that the father and son did was to take the issue to court. The investigation and the proceedings in different courts prolonged the agony of the family for nearly two decades.) The media brought to light how the accused used his contacts with the political leadership not only to delay any court action against him, but also to put the girl’s brother behind bars by foisting cases against him and to inflict enormous stress on the girl’s father.

Indifference of the State Government

Over the past two weeks, the news report on the verdict has generated thousands of articles, analyses, and pictures in print and online. TV channels have vied with one another to take the message to even larger sections of people across the country. It is absolutely clear that most readers and viewers are of the view that the punishment meted out to the former police chief was not commensurate with the enormity of the crime he committed. Appeals have been made by political parties and human rights organisations to the Haryana government to go on appeal to the higher courts and prevent Rathore from getting away with this trifling verdict. Newspapers have written editorials demanding positive steps to undo the wrong done to the girl and her family by ensuring full justice and adequate compensation for the families of the victims in such cases. The indifference and failure of Haryana Chief Ministers to get the culprit punished within a reasonable period have been widely deplored. Om Prakash Chautala asserted that the molestation case was never brought to his notice; he tried to pass on the blame to two rivals, former Chief Ministers Bhajan Lal and Bhansi Lal. The present Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who promised to “re-visit the entire case,” has formed a special investigation commission. The Chandigarh administration has also ordered an enquiry to find out why the school in which the girl was studying expelled her soon after the incident. The victim’s family suspected the hand of the police official behind this.

Major initiatives of the Centre

The Union Home Ministry and the Law Ministry have also taken major initiatives on the issue. Home Minister P. Chidambaram even invited the victim’s family and their lawyer to New Delhi and discussed with them the modalities of further legal proceedings. He issued clarifications about the police force’s responsibility in registering First Information Reports (FIR) and asked the States to strictly follow the rules. These efforts have led to the girl’s family filing two fresh FIRs relating to the alleged role of Rathore in “driving the victim to commit suicide” and “the harassment and torture” of the victim’s brother. The charges include attempt to murder and doctoring the post-mortem report.

It is certainly striking that while the failure of the administrative and justice system, including the law’s delays, ensured virtual immunity and protection for Rathore over two decades, the turnaround has taken merely 15 days. How was it possible? The explanation is the investigative and agenda-building role of the news media, which has fuelled public anger. Some lawyers, including Rathore’s wife, may complain of ‘trial by media,’ which would be a serious legal issue in situations where juries rather than trained professional judges determine guilt or innocence. But what the news media, for all the excesses committed by some television channels, have succeeded in doing in this Haryana case is sensitising millions of people to the imperative need to bring justice even at this late stage to the girl’s family and obliging the government to take serious steps to rule out such tragic experiences in future. Progressive political activists, women’s organisations, and some NGO groups have also made fine contributions to the mobilisation of people through rallies, human chains, candle-light processions, and so on.

“A people’s fight for justice”

The lesson is that when the justice system is deeply flawed and everything seems to be loaded against the weak and in favour of the powerful, it is this kind of affective expansion of the support base of the victims that can achieve positive outcomes — even if these are hardly commensurate with the enormity of the wrong suffered and the grief and agony endured. And what can one say about the role of courageous Aradhana, friend and eye-witness to the molestation, and of her parents, Anand Prakash and Madhu who showed tremendous human solidarity and played a vital role in keeping the legal battle alive? Along with a top police official, R.R. Singh, himself a retired DGP, who did the investigation at a crucial stage and was instrumental in taking the issue to the court, it is they who made it possible for the media to play their agenda-building role and develop this into a “people’s fight” for justice.

Readers will agree that The Hindu was second to none in its extensive and insightful coverage of this issue. They would also have noted one difference in the nature of the coverage, the steadfast refusal to name the dead girl or publish her picture or the pictures of her family. The Hindu’s Editor-in-Chief explains: “This is certainly arguable. On the face of it, this seems absurd when everyone else, including the girl’s parents and steadfast friends, are freely naming and identifying her. Some senior journalists within our organisation have pointed this out and we have had some internal discussion on whether we needed to make an exception in this case. But we see what we do as being consistent in complying with the legal and ethical obligation not to name or identify minors who are or were victims of sexual molestation. We can understand and appreciate why others do not see the need for such restraint in this case. Nor will the restraint apply to social historians who will be writing on the subject. But we do feel that the fact the young woman is dead is no reason for a newspaper departing from the legal and ethical obligation. Also, it helps to have consistency, which rules out confusion, within a large news organisation on matters like this.”