Going by FIRs, most rape cases in Delhi in 2013 involved 14-year-old girls who were given intoxicant-laced cold drinks, abducted and assaulted. But The Hindu’s study of 600 court judgements shows this could not be further from the truth.
Police stations follow an informal script to record sexual assault cases, conversations with police officials and judges revealed. Madhu Mehra, feminist lawyer and executive director of Partners for Law in Development, says that their studies have shown the same.
In cases of alleged elopement, The Hindu found, the complainant was almost always named as being 14 years old in the FIR. This automatically makes her partner liable to be accused of abduction and rape and any marriage ruled invalid, police officials explained. Moreover, poorly educated parents were often unaware of the exact age of their daughters, one officer added.
To make the case sound as if the girl was abducted and did not go with the boy with her consent, an element of intoxication is added to the FIR, usually a “cold drink laced with a sedative”.
The problem is that none of this stands in court. In almost all of the 174 cases of elopement, the complainant was ruled to not be a minor by the court; only 10 cases resulted in statutory rape convictions. “So much time of the court is wasted in deciding this issue when the parents know from the start that she is a major,” one judge complained. Further on not one of 583 cases examined by The Hindu was the police able to produce any proof of intoxication.
For ‘promise of marriage’, another script is deployed: the accused is first described as having committed sexual assault on the complainant anywhere between two and 13 years before the FIR was filed; subsequently, the FIR says, she asks the accused to marry her, he continues having sexual relations with her for several years under this promise and ultimately calls it off with one last non-consensual encounter. “We tell the girl that you will have to say that at least the first time and most recent time was without your consent for it to go to court,” one police official said frankly.
None of this stands in court either; the only 12 promise of marriage cases that saw convictions were ones in which there was clear deceit, such as the accused being already married. At least two complainants interviewed by The Hindu corroborated this.
Even while activists often use the low conviction rate in rape cases (27% for India in 2013) to make the point that the police and judicial system are stacked against victims of rape, the judges The Hindu interviewed were equally insistent that the conviction rate be highlighted because it showed how poor the quality of evidence coming before them was. “The acquittal rate clearly shows that most of the cases coming before us are not rape cases as you might imagine them like the Nirbhaya case,” one judge said.
As a result of the sheer number of such cases, in off-the-record conversation with The Hindu at the least, both cops and judges said they tended to be sceptical of cases in which the complainant and the accused are romantically involved. When asked of cases in which a couple is romantically involved but the boy might sexually assault his partner, one judge shrugged it off; “If he beats her or attacks her there may be a case, but this never happens.” Intensely conscious of media scrutiny of their rulings, judges however were quick to add that their reading of ‘reality’ never biased them against outcomes.
The Hindu’s investigation of district court judgements on sexual assault indicate that a great distance is travelled between the FIR and the court judgement and at both ends of the process, risks are building. At the first instance, relying on FIRs for data on sexual assault or a framework for sexual assault in India may be unreliable. Moreover, media articles relating to a number of the cases looked at by The Hindu indicated that the media reports the FIR nearly verbatim without contacting the accused, and rarely follows up except in high-profile cases.