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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Tale of a Rape Accused in Modi Sarkar

While horrendous reports of rapes, molestations, kidnappings and murders of women across the country continue to pour in every day, the new government has recieved an additional cause of worry with a sessions court in Jaipur, Rajasthan issuing summons to Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Mr. Nihalchand Meghwal along with 17 others in a four year old rape case. The Minister is accused of sexually assaulting a woman from Haryana.

The opposition, justifiably, has demanded the resignation of the Minister until the completion of the enquiry. Coming close on the heels of the shocking Badayun gang rape and double murder case, the presence of a rape accused occupying a ministerial berth in the cabinet deflates the government's claim to be tough on crimes against women. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Meghwal has vehemently refused to resign and has instead tried to brazen it out by asking hostile reporters "Did you make me a Minister?"
I wish I could say that such an attitude is shocking, but frankly, it is not. For anyone familiar with India's political landscape, such issue specific somersaults have become frustratingly common. They signify the classic doublespeak of the quintessential Indian politician who promises all the riches and wonders at the time of campaigning for elections and conviniently turns his back on those promises when in power. The present administration rode to power with women empowerment being one of its major electoral planks. In the 15th Lok Sabha, speaker after speaker belonging to the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), then in opposition, slammed the UPA-II government for failing to do enough on the question of women's security. Most of those speakers, who have been re-elected to the 16th Lok Sabha while their opponents cool their heels outside the parliament, have gone oddly quiet now.

It is important to recognize the fact that a major part of the whole problem starts when political parties decide to field tainted candidates in the elections. According to a Press Release by Association for Democratic Reforms dated 9th May 2014, 1398 (17%) of 8163 candidates contesting the Lok Sabha 2014 elections declared criminal cases against themselves with 58 candidates declaring cases related to crimes against women on them. 6 candidates declared cases of rape. Out of 58 candidates with cases related to crimes against women, 6 candidates were fielded by BSP, 3 candidates by AITC, BJP, INC and SP each, 2 candidates by JD(U), 1 candidate by AAP, CPI, CPI(ML)L, MNS, RJD, Shiv Sena and YSRCP each and 18 candidates contested as independents. Fortunately, only two contestants with cases related to crimes against women on them, Adv. Joice George (an Independent from Idukki constituency, Kerala) and Ahir Hansraj Gangaram (BJP, Chandrapur constituency, Maharashtra) were able to emerge victorious (ADR Press Release dated 18th May).

Voices have begun to emerge questioning the Prime Minister's silence on this issue. This, after the rape victim revealed that the concerned Minister sent his men to threaten her to take back her complaint and offered her a job. While Mr. Meghwal may have succeeded in getting his name cleared in obscurity with resources and political power backing him in Jaipur, it would be interesting to see if he can repeat the same under the glaring spotlight of the media and the hawkish scrutiny of the National Commission of Women, whose chief has expressed her intention to write to the Prime Minister seeking his dismissal. However, this whole case has further highlighted the fact that regardless of the political party in power, the disparity with which law applies to the commoners and those held dear by the establishment continues to hold.

Mr. Modi would be well advised to rectify this imbalance.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Movie Review: Steven Zaillian's "The Civil Action"

We live in a world where huge multi-national corporations have more annual income than the entire GDP of many nations. While elected governments can be held responsible for the crimes committed on their behalf in the court of law, how does one compel the MNCs to accept their wrongdoing when they have huge resources to make a mockery of the entire legal process? Steven Zaillian’s The Civil Action is a legal take on the traditional David v. Goliath battle which assures its viewers that there can be a victory beyond defeat. 

The hard bargain that takes place over the worth of an individual's dignity at the beginning of the movie epitomizes the extent to which life has been commoditized in contemporary America. The clearly artificial concern that Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta’s character) shows for his clients in the courtroom, starkly contrasting with his own abundant and luxurious lifestyle, highlights the propensity of the practitioners of the legal profession to use the argument of morality in pursuit of their borderline immoral ends.

It is such frustratingly effective argumentative capability that sums up Jan's outlook towards his work when he says that “the lawyer who shares his client's pain, in my opinion, does his client such a great disservice, he should have his license to practice taken away”. Ignoring the ridiculously meagre measurements of the proverbial box that such an outlook confines the definition of the term 'service' to, one is not surprised to see him almost reject the 'Woburn case' even though it involves the death of eight children - due to the absence of any defendants with deep pockets. Yet, deep pockets emerge from the margins of the case and Schlichtmann, Conway and Gordon Co. begin their work to drill holes in those pockets.

Suddenly, we see a parallel fight emerge. This is a fight beyond that of the plaintiff, the respondent or even the courtroom. This fight is the my-brand-is-better-than-your-brand fight and the name of the two fighters is Harvard and Cornell. Jan refuses to submit to an inferiority complex while practicing law in the backyard of Harvard despite not being its alumni. His reasoning is simple – he sees Harvard alumni as bullies and simply refuses to submit to them.

In deposition after deposition, we hear affected families narrate the manner in which they lost their children, sometimes on their way to the hospital, due to leukaemia caused by the contaminated water in their neighbourhood. Jerome Facher, played by the brilliant Robert Duvall, who represents one of the two corporations implicated in the lawsuit, repeatedly patronizes Jan as if he does not know the law at all. The evening before the settlement talks are to commence, we see a contemplative Travolta sitting in his car near the affected neighbourhood, imagining his clients trying to resuscitate their dead baby on the way to the hospital. Is there an ideological change in his character? Has his pride been hurt? Or has the grief of the victims – brought out in the detailed depositions that they gave narrating their loss – finally stirred something at the core of his heart?

As the chances of his securing a conviction grow thinner and thinner, Schlichtmann continues to be patronized by Fascher with an even blunter worldview than that held by him before. “The courtroom isn't the place to find the truth” Fascher says, “you'd be lucky to find here anything that resembles the truth”. Sitting in the hallway of that court, waiting for the jury to return with the verdict, we finally come to know of Schlichtmann's transformation in five odd words: “Eight children are dead, Jerry”. Your heart skips a beat as you realize that he has broken his only cardinal principal in the profession; he has shared his client's pain.

Often, while following the progress of the case, one gets tangled in the technicalities of the law so much that (s)he forgets that in most cases, it is the lawyers that matter in the courtroom. This movie beautifully brings out this facet of the legal profession through the eventual bankruptcy of Travolta in pursuit of justice. Through his bankruptcy, we are reminded of the tagline of the movie: "Justice has a price".

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Horror Postcard from Uttar Pradesh

The picture of two low-caste girls hanging from a tree in Badayun powerfully conveys the sense of urgency that is required to curb the crimes against women taking place all over the country.

The non-stop media coverage of the terror of rapes and molestations that women in Uttar Pradesh are living under for the past few days have rained down as hammer blows on the conscience of our nation. Scarcely had we begun to condole the family of the two unfortunate girls in Badayun who lost their children in such a reprehensible crime, that we were told about the manner in which such violence was taking place all over the state in some or the other form. In Aligarh, two men tried to rape a civil judge in her well protected home and forced her to drink pesticide. Exactly a week after the incident in Badayun, another girl was found hanging from a tree in Sitapur district in the state. A minor girl was thrown off the train near Bareilley when she tried to resist the advances of three youngsters.

There is a lengthy list of such crimes. According to a report by Center for Social Research, in 2010, out of a total of 213585 crimes against women recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 20169 were in UP (9.44%), the highest in the country. According to a Times of India report, the state recorded 23,569 crimes against women in 2012, which included 1,963 cases of rape, 7,910 cases of kidnapping, 2,244 cases of dowry death, 3,247 cases of assault on women with intent to outrage modesty, 505 cases of Dowry Prohibition Act, 7661 cases of cruelty by husband apart from other acts of violence against women. In 2013, the state registered 126 rape cases in one week alone.

Despite such chilling statistics, the state government headed by Akhilesh Yadav, son of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, is smug in its defense. Akhilesh's uncle Ramgopal Yadav blamed the media for disproportionately focusing on the crimes in Uttar Pradesh and ignoring other states. During the Election season, Mulayam Singh himself caused an uproar by casually stating that "boys will be boys and they will make mistakes" and promised his supporters that if his party was voted to power, he would change the law prescribing death penalty for those convicted of rape and murder. Akhilesh Yadav too tried to brazen it out of the current crises by asking a journalist to worry about his safety and to leave the safety of the women in the hands of the state government.

Such responses do not surprise anymore. It became apparent after the December 16 gang rape incident that the instinct of those in power in times of crisis is not to solve that crisis, but is instead to shift the limelight so that they can cling on to their power. Although not surprising, this behavior is disappointing as it comes from a government headed by a Chief Minister who was considered a part of the country's younger generation and hence embodying the hopes and aspirations of millions of his counterparts. Yet, instead of taking strict action that could have helped in healing the wounds of the aggrieved families, the Akhilesh Yadav led government has been following the routine investigation-is-going-on track. It took a week for a state government official to even visit the family of the two girls in Badayun to offer his condolences and to assure them of speedy justice in the matter.

Apart from leaving the state government red-faced, these incidents have also pointed to an urgent need to improve the sanitary conditions in India's countrysides. Various reports published in the aftermath of this incident (see, for example, here, here and here) have pointed to the absence of toilets as one of the primary threats to the safety of women. The central government slammed the Uttar Pradesh government for not utilizing Rs 293 crores out of a total of Rs 543 crores allocated to it under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme for building toilets in the state. Considering that the new Prime Minister himself had outlined his policy of "Toilets first, Temples later" during the election campaign, ensuring an end to the practice of open defecation should become one of the top priorities of the new administration.

As news of the horrific incident in Badayun spread, political leaders from various parties made it a point to visit the grief stricken family for a photo-op. It is an image that people in India have grown accustomed to. One can say with some surety that what the public would really like to see is the image of the culprits, heads lowered in shame, being sent on their way to long prison sentences. It is up for the new government to decide which image will prevail by the time its term comes to an end.