Since public memory is notoriously short, and the human mind forgets events and incidents that fetch no joy on being recalled or are far removed from our lives, it’s worthwhile to retell stories that would otherwise rarely, if ever, be retold. So let’s go back in time to November 1973.
A young nurse at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital, Aruna Shanbaug, was sodomised and robbed by a ward boy, Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki, in the basement of the hospital. To stop her from screaming, he wrapped an iron dog chain around her neck, choking her throat, cutting off oxygen and blood supply to her brain and causing irreparable damage. Aruna’s tormentor, Sohanlal, faced charges of assault and robbery — the fact that she had been raped was initially suppressed. He got seven years in jail.
Sohanlal’s story did not end with the verdict. It continued with his coming out of jail, moving to another city, adopting a new name, settling down in a new job, getting married and begetting children. He now presumably looks back at his life with ‘satisfaction’. Aruna’s story ended the day she was raped. She has been living like a vegetable in a corner room at KEM Hospital, long forsaken by her family and fiancé, tended over the decades by kind nurses.
Cut to 2012. A young lawyer, Pallavi Purkayastha, was murdered by the watchman of the apartment block in central Mumbai where she lived. Sajjad Ahmad Moghul plotted his crime with chilling deliberation. He cut off the power supply to her apartment, and then went with the electrician to ‘repair the fault’.
While inside the apartment, he stole the keys and returned later, sneaking in and assaulting a sleeping Pallavi. When she resisted, according to the special public prosecutor, Sajjad “cut her trachea so that she could not shout or scream”. Pallavi tried to escape; she was dragged back and stabbed to death. Her bloodied body was found by her fiancé, Avik Sengupta. He never recovered from the trauma and died a year later.
This week, the trial judge held Sajjad guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment, spurning the special public prosecutor’s plea that he be given the death penalty. Apparently, the judge decided that a young woman being assaulted and murdered in so gruesome and predetermined a manner could not be classified as a “rarest of rare” crime.
The decision reflects how indifferent we have become towards stomach-churning crime. No matter how horrific the details, they are not considered ‘rare’ any more. Sajjad will more than likely get a remission for ‘good behaviour’ and it is less than likely that the Supreme Court’s exhortation that life sentence means life in jail will be followed in letter and spirit. After all, in this wondrous land of ours, assassins are rewarded with remission of their punishment and legislatures pass resolutions to set killers free.
That brings me to a third incident which is linked to the two I have mentioned. A young photographer working for a magazine was gang-raped in Mumbai’s abandoned Shakti Mills compound where she had gone on an assignment in 2013. The six rapists, among them a ‘juvenile’, were traced and prosecuted for their crime. In April this year, the trial court sentenced three of the rapists, all ‘repeat offenders’, to death; two were given life imprisonment. All the guilty men have appealed against the verdict.
The High Court and the Supreme Court may, in their wisdom, uphold the trial court’s verdict or set it aside. Never mind the fine print of the new law to combat sexual offences; the litmus test is whether the crime qualifies, in the view of judges, to be considered ‘rarest of the rare’. In this benighted land of ours, rape is anything but ‘rarest of rare’.
Had it been otherwise, the Supreme Court would not have decided to revisit the lower court’s trial and the victim’s statement in the hideous gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012. The very purpose of a swift trial and exemplary punishment in this particular case — which had shaken the nation’s collective conscience (or the pathetic remains of it) — that were meant to act as a deterrent, stands defeated. I am not waving the flag for the death penalty. It’s just that I wonder if we have really travelled a distance since Aruna’s tragedy hit the headlines. And every time I see the judiciary allowing discretion to get the better of justice, I am reminded of a distraught Mr Bumble despairing: “The law is an ass, an idiot.”
The writer is an NCR-based journalist. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta