A tragic case of sexual violence pits two young women against each other, but the needle of suspicion points to familiar villains: policemen and patriarchy
One dawn in January last year, a young woman slipped out of her house, walked down to the Gandhi Nagar station and stepped into the path of an oncoming train.
She survived, but lost her left leg and all sensation below her waist. Last Wednesday, the woman, Pushpa*, was brought before the Special Judge for Women Atrocities and Dowry Cases to identify the three policemen who, she alleged, had sexually tortured her to the point of suicide. Also in court was Shweta*, a 20-year-old known to Pushpa, who claimed that Pushpa and her cohorts had drugged, raped and blackmailed her in December 2010.
The two women had been friends, meeting occasionally in Pushpa's room to gossip, experiment with cigarettes and alcohol and on one occasion photographed themselves kissing. In many ways, their twin trials document the contradictory impulses of the small Indian town grown big, where tech-savvy youth shun the contractual new economy for the security of the bureaucracy, the government school, and the government bank, and the sheher's liberatory promise is tempered by the lingering claustrophobia of the samaj.
The education bazaar
Beyond Jaipur's pink city of heritage havelis and palaces lies an urban agglomerate of exposed brick walls slathered with advertisements for India's most enduring asset bubble, “Education.” Each day, thousands of students flock to tuition centres offering fresher, refresher and crash courses to help aspirants crack an array of acronymic entrance examinations: RAS, IAS, MAT, CAT, SLAT, NET, BCA, BBA. Some specialise in subjects: “English, Physics, Maths, Engg”; others peddle redemption, “Failed XI? Pass XII.”
In December 2010, Pushpa, 24, and Shweta, 20, met at Ramanujam Mathuria Coaching classes where they studied Maths, English, Reasoning and Computers to qualify to become clerks in a nationalised bank.
“Who was this girl, who talked so much in class?” wrote Pushpa, in her diary, “Mamta told me she was an orphan…from abroad…with 50 crore worth of property in her name.” Pushpa, the daughter of a policeman in the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary, lived on rent with two boys from her native village near Bharatpur, while Shweta lived with her parents who were from Allahabad, not “Hong Kong,” as she told another friend.
On January 18, 2011, Shweta left her house in Pratap Nagar for her tuition centre and didn't return. Two days later, her father filed a missing person's report at the police station. On January 22, Head Constable Lalchand Meena arrived at Pushpa's house to ask about Shweta's disappearance. According to her statement before a magistrate, Pushpa was interrogated in a locked room in her house, while her roommates were taken to the Pratap Nagar police station and brutalised. The next day, the police summoned them for further interrogation.
The Pratap Nagar police station functions out of a complex of 12 residential apartments built for middle-ranked police officers. The station house officer sits in a living room; one of the two bedrooms serves as a lock-up. As her father waited in the station below, Pushpa alleges, constable Lalchand Meena took her to an empty apartment upstairs where he abused, beat, threatened and sexually molested her in the presence of Ramniwas Bishnoi, the SHO. “Today you have come in jeans,” Lalchand allegedly said, before sending Pushpa home, “Come tomorrow in a black skirt. That will make it easier.”
Early next morning, Pushpa threw herself in front of a train. “Lalchand Meena performed such an obscene act on me that my body was unable to bear it,” she wrote in a suicide note. “I am taking my life of my own volition as I have fallen in the eyes of my father.”
Pushpa's case made headlines: a police constable's daughter assaulted inside a police station. Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan's Chief Minister, announced a grant of Rs.10 lakh as compensation. Lalchand Meena, Ramniwas Bishnoi and a third police constable were arrested. Aditi Mehta, Principal Secretary for Social Justice and Empowerment, conducted an exhaustive inquiry in which she concluded that Pushpa was physically, mentally and sexually tortured inside the police station.
The policemen denied the charges. SHO Bishnoi said he never met Pushpa, though his cell phone location records indicated otherwise. A policeman told The Hindu that Lalchand Meena found a laptop with photographs of Pushpa and Shweta kissing. “He showed the photos to her father; the girl started crying, her father was shocked. That's probably why she tried to kill herself,” he said.
In May 2011, Shweta, who had now been “missing” for four months, reappeared in Jaipur. In a statement before a magistrate, Shweta claimed that in December 2010, Pushpa and her friends had drugged her, raped her and filmed the act. Pushpa then allegedly blackmailed Shweta, and forced her to have sex with at least three men for money.
This is the account Shweta gave of what had happened to her: On January 18, 2011, she said, she was abducted and injected with an unknown substance before she regained consciousness on a Pune bound train. En route, she met a group of truck drivers, including Bunty Tomar who, she says, took her home to his village in Mathura, confined her against her will for four months, raped her and forced her to have an abortion. Pushpa “is responsible for all my sufferings. She devastated my life,” said Shweta in her statement.
Yet, Shweta's account of her disappearance is riddled with contradictions; the police claim to have evidence proving that Shweta accompanied men to hotel rooms in Jaipur on three occasions in December 2010. But the police are yet to produce the central piece of evidence: the supposed video clip that Pushpa allegedly recorded. “The clip was deleted,” said Investigating Officer Yogesh Dadich, “Data recovery was not possible.”
In Jadongaon, where Shweta was allegedly confined, villagers insisted she came to Bunty Tomar's house of her own accord. Bunty's father, Sauran Tomar, said Shweta introduced herself as “Kashish,” a doctor with an MBBS degree who had run away from home. “I begged her to go home, but she said she would jump into the Yamuna if I forced her to leave,” he said.
Tomar, and other residents, claimed that Shweta/Kashish had fully adapted to village life when the police “rescued” her in May that year.
“But she came back soon after,” said Gopal Singh, a village elder, “and so finally her parents came and solemnised her marriage to Bunty in front of the whole village.”
Yet no one in Jadongaon could produce photographs or documents to prove that Bunty and Shweta did marry or that Shweta's parents visited the village. The only remaining trace of Shweta is an incongruous blackboard in a cowshed. “She said she wanted to open a school and teach,” Tomar said, “So we made this classroom.”
On searching Tomar's house, the police found a visiting card in the name of Shweta Tomar, a Marketing Manager for Empire Edusoft, an Agra-based firm. An Edusoft manager said that Shweta worked for them for two weeks during her disappearance and had a work cellphone. Yet, Shweta declined to contact her family.
Earlier this year, the Rajasthan High Court ordered the arrest of all those connected with Shweta's abduction. On February 29, Pushpa, paralysed and incontinent, was arrested and detained in a city hospital. The Supreme Court was forced to intervene when the district and High Court refused her bail. Seven men, including Bunty Tomar, are still imprisoned in the same case.
A month later, the Jaipur police filed a charge sheet accusing Pushpa of conspiring to drug, abduct and gang rape Shweta. Simultaneously, Pushpa's family told the press that she was under pressure to recant her accusations against the policemen.
Shweta, it turned out, used to coach the children of Ramniwas Bishnoi, the SHO accused of assaulting Pushpa, and the disgraced policeman was acquainted with her family. The activists who took up Pushpa's case suspect the abduction and rape charge against her was made in order to get her to drop her own complaint against the police.
Though the police deny this, community leaders from Pushpa's village recently suggested a samjhauta, or compromise where both girls refuse to recognise their tormentors. Both cases would then collapse, and the jailed men would ultimately walk free.
On May 21 this year, Pushpa's father texted Kavita Srivastava, National Secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, who had helped take her petition for bail to the Supreme Court. “I don't want to compromise my self-respect…[but] understand my obligations. I cannot bear any more troubles in my family. If Shweta's testimony is in our favour, I too am obliged.” That evening, Srivastava and Lad Kumari Jain, Chairperson of the Rajasthan State Commission for Women, visited Pushpa, who told them she was under tremendous pressure to change her statement. In an email, Ms. Jain quoted Pushpa's mother as saying, “There was a meeting of our community and they told my father-in-law that they must save the boys that Shweta had accused of rape.”
Pushpa's father initially refused to comment except to say, “We have been humiliated in front of the world. Everyone has obligations, everyone has to live in a community.” Speaking of his situation, he said, “A man feels like a puppet, someone tugs you one way, then another.” Pushpa refused to speak at all.
Shweta and her parents didn't meet this correspondent. A person close to the family denied any external pressure from the police, but said they were exhausted by the prospect of a prolonged and intrusive trial.
Two days later, on May 23, the girls were presented in court. Despite naming her attackers in her statements, suicide notes and diaries, Pushpa said she was sexually assaulted in the Pratap Nagar police station, but could not recognise the perpetrators.
Shweta denied ever accusing anyone of blackmailing, drugging or raping her. She said she left home because an unknown person, calling from an unknown number, claimed to have recorded an obscene video clip of hers.
According to a local news report, she said she didn't recognise any of the accused brought before her. Not even Pushpa.
(*Name changed to protect her identity.)