The April 3 conviction of police constable Sunil More by a Mumbai court, for raping a teenage girl last year, has generated considerable debate about whether the public outcry after the rape and the column space and airtime given by the media helped ensure a speedy trial. More was handed down a sentence of a total of 12 years rigorous imprisonment under various counts and over Rs.25,000 in fines. Media attention certainly did help, as did middle class outrage. Both happened because the rape took place on Marine Drive, a policeman was involved, and the victim was a middle class college-going girl. But that alone could not have brought about the conviction. Ultimately, the prosecution needed to build a good case.
In this case, unlike hundreds of others, the police moved quickly and collected evidence. They assigned the matter to Mumbai's Crime Branch, incidentally headed by a woman, Meeran Borwankar. She assigned Jyotsna V Rasam of Crime Branch Unit I to head the investigating team. Rasam was quoted in the press as saying; "This was special as it (the case) involved someone from the force against whom I had to collect evidence under the watchful eyes of the media and the public-at-large."
Whether this case will have a long-term impact on rape cases in general is debatable. The judgment in the Sunil More case does not necessarily represent a systemic change. Unless the speed of investigation and filing of charges becomes the norm, such cases will remain the exception. There are too many factors that coincided in this case.
A forgotten case
In contrast, a few months after the Marine Drive rape, another minor girl was raped. But unlike the college-going middle class student at Marine Drive, this was a 15-year-old rag picker who was picked up by a policeman, Chandrakant Pawar, near Mumbai's international airport in Sahar and allegedly raped by him. This case also drew some media attention in the initial stages but was soon forgotten. Whether the rag picker will also get speedy justice remains to be seen.
Also, although the judgment in the More case is a welcome change from the past, there is little to suggest that it will change dominant attitudes of society towards women. Whenever a rape is reported, someone will inevitably question the morals of the victim. Even in the Marine Drive rape case, there were comments about the behaviour of young men and women who sit on the wall on Marine Drive to hold hands or just to be together. Every day you see scores of such couples, backs turned to the busy road, oblivious to prying eyes as they imagine for that short time they are actually all alone. For the moral police, even this is immoral.
While the media does not take this line, the subtext of many reports in the media reflects a similar approach. For instance, last month a 52-year-old woman charged the son of a leading industrialist with rape. Newspaper reports quoted the alleged rapist's friends and family saying what a "good" boy he was while at the same time hinting that the character of the victim was somewhat suspect. The fact that rape is a crime, regardless of the age or occupation of the victim, or that the woman reported the rape was medically examined and gave the police sufficient grounds to detain the alleged rapist, did not come through strongly enough. It is this kind of case that will really test whether the More case is precedent-setting.
In the meantime, the media focus cuts both ways. In the Marine Drive case, as the police also acknowledge, the pressure from the public forced them to move with speed. But the converse could also be true. If an important case is deliberately kept out of the media spotlight, or the press cannot report information about its progress, there might be no pressure to conclude the case. Something of this nature is happening in one of the two cases moved out from Gujarat to Mumbai following the 2002 communal violence. While the Best Bakery case was minutely covered by the press and has led to a conviction, in the Bilqis Latif case, involving rape and murder, the media has not permitted in the courtroom. The judge has barred the media from reporting the case altogether. As a result, no one knows how far the case has progressed and whether there is hope of an early closure to this case. Surely, the answer to excessive media scrutiny should not be complete denial of access.