Image trouble


Can the police go public with “evidence” when an investigation is still incomplete?

The character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of; the tree is the real thing”. Abraham Lincoln

Though the investigation in the Aarushi murder is still ongoing, the investigating agency has not done much to generate faith in their ability to discover the truth. The over anxiety to speak to the press and to bring every possible “evidence” to public knowledge appears hopelessly misplaced.

But this is not what this is about. Whatever may happen with the investigation or trial, the image of the teenager, the victim of this bizarre double murder, has been tarnished. The investigating agency has made public the “preposterous story” of the “objectionable position of the girl with the servant” without any basis.

Legal angle

Should the investigating agency have made public this allegation without any apparent basis? The National Commission for Women has rightly insisted that they would serve a notice upon Uttar Pradesh Police for using language that shows ‘disrespect’ towards women. The dead cannot deny or contradict these remarks. Reason and prudence demand that the investigating authorities should scrupulously abstain from making statements that amount to character assassination of a minor dead girl. Sections 499 (defamation) and 509 (insulting modesty of a woman) of IPC prescribe offences for defamatory statements. The Press Council of India has provisions barring use of “such” personalised statements specifically when a person is dead.

The laws of the country and the Supreme Court hold that the identity of a girl should not be disclosed. The Supreme Court dealing with a case of rape in State of Punjab vs Gurmit Singh (1996) said, “The courts should, as far as possible, avoid disclosing the name of the prosecutrix in their orders to save further embarrassment to the victim of (a) sex crime.”

Obviously, this confidentiality is meant to preserve the dignity of the victim and not to expose her to public shame. Strict adherence to high standards of ethical behaviour by the police is what the time demands. But, in this case, the 14-year-old girl, a minor now dead, suffers repeated character assassination by the police.

Trite though it is, even a perfunctory look shows that, when the victim is a girl, aspersions are frequently cast on her character as in the case of Hetal Parekh, the 16-year-old raped and murdered by Dhananjay Chatterji, who was ultimately sentenced to death.

This brings us to the question what should we do? Should the police be at liberty to make “evidence” public when investigation is not complete? Are the police governed by a code of conduct restraining them from maligning the character of a woman? Can the victim’s personal life be subject to public discussion because of such “disclosures”? Are the investigating agencies answerable for the character assassination of a minor victim? Do we need guidelines?

The writer is a senior practicing advocate, Supreme Court of India

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