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OPINION | The Bihar Shelter Home Case Where 29 Girls Were Raped Should Be Treated Like National Calamity

I humbly submit that no female or male child in this country is safe from prying predators at school, street or confines of own home. Nonetheless, even compared with dismal national record, the Muzaffarpur saga must make us as a nation collectively put our head to shame.

Akhileshwar Sahay |

Updated:July 26, 2018, 4:37 PM IST
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OPINION | The Bihar Shelter Home Case Where 29 Girls Were Raped Should Be Treated Like National Calamity
Image for representation only. (Mir Suhail/ News18 Creatives)
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This piece is no breaking news.

It is also not an Op-Ed page article.

In the last few days, the most sordid, reprehensible and nail-biting crime committed for years on 44 hapless and helpless young girls (7-18 years of age) has become breaking news. No one has reported that dozen of them were mentally ill while most others were traumatised to core. Words fail to describe this inhuman crime. The girls who lived in the government children's home (balika grih) on Sahu Road in Muzaffarpur in Bihar were drugged, raped and physically assaulted on a daily basis. Their private parts were burnt with cigarette butts.

It’s perhaps important to say here that there can be no consensual sex with minors.

I will return to this sad commentary on the state of the nation a bit later. Let me first begin on a personal note.

I know first-hand the collateral psychic and physical damage (short and long-term) inflicted by sexual assaults during childhood. Even in 60th year of life, I have not recovered from multiple sexual assaults perpetrated for years while growing up. I was gagged, I was forced and I was threatened to be killed if I blurted out.

I kept my shame bolted in “Unholy Tower of Silence” for decades. Like girls of Muzaffarpur, my paradise too was lost at Arrah, most notorious district in Bihar with regard to forced sodomy. Also, like in the case of these girls, the perpetrators who defiled me were ones whose duty was to protect me. Over the last decade, my story been extensively chronicled in national print and visual media but there are too many untold stories.

The serial sexual assaults over years during my growing up years brought in its way unfathomable and indescribable misery—it brought with it recurrent depression, prolonged suicidal thoughts with two major suicide attempts, undiffused anxiety, perspiring panic-attacks and nightmares coupled with dissociation, fear of darkness, detest of elders and never-ending Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These also propelled me inside the vortex of “Black-hole” –severe chronic incurable mental illnesses of all hues in adulthood. It is a miracle; I have survived to tell this story.

I humbly submit that no female or male child in this country is safe from prying predators at school, street or confines of own home. Nonetheless, even compared with dismal national record, the Muzaffarpur saga must make us as a nation collectively put our head to shame.

Nuances of the story of the day are so complex it is difficult to decide from where to start. So I have picked up the positives first-to salute three individuals along with their core team. First salute goes to tenacity of fearless, selfless “Team Koshish” (field-action programme of Tata Institute of Social Sciences) that was ably led from the front by its Director Young-Turk, Mohammad Tarique (an Ashoka Fellow) for truthfully conducting “Social Audit” of 110 institutions from 9 divisions and 35 districts of Bihar in extremely tight time frame. Though I am not privy to the contents of report (it is not a public document) as a long-time associate of Koshish, I dare say it has to be of best practices standard.

For the uninitiated, Koshish team is an exemplary outfit of youth committed to cause, rooted in excellence and passion. I have often watched in awe the manner in which it works in extremely strenuous and hostile milieu to change life of marginalised destitute, homeless and beggars. Team Koshish is best recognised for its exemplary contribution to the task of decriminalisation of destitution, including single-handed war to abolish draconian Bombay Beggary Act, 1960.

Secondly, kudos to Atul Prasad Principal Secretary, Social Welfare of Bihar and his co-officers for envisioning and co-creating with Team Koshish an unprecedented “Social Audit” of all government and non-government homes in the state They get bigger credit for “Biting The Bullet” and “Walking the Talk” with unprecedented courage and accepting the unadulterated truth in the yet to be published “Report”.

But for the “Team Social Welfare of the state”, the truth would have remained buried.

I also salute Harpreet Kaur, feisty Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Muzaffarpur for promptly lodging the FIR on May 28, arresting key accused (10 so far) within 48 hours thereafter and for moving fast-forward to book culprits—the chargessheet is expected within days. It is not without reason fearless Kaur is dubbed “Lady Singham”. My informed opinion is, she has to be left free to take the case to logical end without interference.

Let us look at the evidence of culpability of culprits—video-tapes of victims, mark of extreme physical abuses, and most recent confirmation by K. S. Diwedi Bihar Director General Police (DGP). The report of Medical Board of Patna Medical College regarding the incident clearly states that 29 girls out of 44 were raped. The report on 9 others are still awaited. Two were not examined due to illness. Add the angle of missing girls and confirmed death of three girls, and the mystery gets just deeper.

Make no mistake, culprits include a man with high-profile political connections, Brajesh Thakur, another arrested member of District Welfare Committee, supposedly is deemed to have magisterial power and the accused Chairman of Committee is absconding. Other staff and officers may be willful accomplice or just pawns in the hands of big sharks.

Family of an arrested officer in a released video has named a more powerful offender and they also claim to have incriminating evidence of his culpability- he is no other than husband of a powerful state minister. These allegations have to be thoroughly investigated, and guilty has to be brought to book unless proved innocent.

It is heartening that Bihar Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister have committed on front foot – “no culprit, however powerful will be spared”. It is time to walk the talk. There is no “Buddha” middle path for the state supremo.

The now confirmed rape of minors fall within jurisdiction of POCSO, 2012 (as amended in 2018) which presumes that a culprit is guilty till he proves himself innocent. The Act also provides for fast track court to deliver swift justice.

But moot question is what next? Where do we go from here?

There are no easy answers. But I do submit, there are series of expeditious actions needed at once and time starts now. Urgent action are needed at local level (the case), province level (the big picture) and the country level to stem the similar termite eating the national fabric.

With not much time left, here are a few recommendations. We need to act resolutely in all fronts.

Firstly, my conviction is, the country will not find a police officer (not even in CBI) more committed to the case than ‘Lady-Singham’ Kaur to handle this case. It is time to set her free to complete filing chargesheet within the next 15 days if need be, by temporarily relieving her from other responsibilities. It is her investigation which has made skeletons tumble out. Her integrity should be trusted. It is also time to stop all mudslinging and fishing in troubled waters by political dispensations within and outside national and state legislature and media.

The nation has witnessed human tragedy of monumental proportion; we need to act like matured adult with utmost restraint.

Secondly, I accept, the case-trial is ambit of judiciary. Nonetheless, at face value it seems to be open and shut case. A nationally reputed NGO based on evidence of inmates’ reported repeated instances sexual assault; state government (social welfare department) and district police acted with lightning speed to file FIR and book the culprits. Understandably, the police has video-graphed evidence based on statements of victims and now, independent medical board from reputed medical college has corroborated the incidents. Many more are likely to be added when medical report of 11 more are received. These are clinching evidences for a court of law.

Thirdly, judiciary has a procedure to follow. But I pray that it sets a new benchmark for speedy disposal of case and award maximum punishment prescribed under POCSO to those it finds guilty. This is a rarest of the rare case, where culprits deserve death sentence. But I have different disposition, irrespective of nature of crime; the state has no right to take away what it cannot give—“Life”. I prefer a punishment similar to what was meted recently to the doctor who serially abused sports-women in USA—“150 years in jail with no opportunity to come out even for a day”.

I know that POSCO 2018 ordinance was created hastily under political pressure after the Kathua rape now allows death sentence for rape of minors below 12. However, I urge honorable Judges to use own independent mind.

Here is what I plead –

Let a dedicated judge in District Court dispose the case in record time based on uninterrupted daily hearing preferably in-camera but if transparency demands with presence of accredited journalists under strict code of conduct for reporting. Let guilty verdict be pronounced within 30 days of police submitting chargesheet. Let the touchstone be recent benchmark set by Indore District Court which in May 2018 completed hearing and arguments in a case concerning rape and murder of a four-month-old girl in just seven working days and awarded death penalty to the convict within 23 days of the incident. Culprits have right to appeal the judgment. But let the High Court and Supreme Court set the bench mark of disposing appeal in maximum 30 days each, without giving any liberty to conceited culprits any bail during the appeal period. Pathological criminals deserve no mercy.

I prefer that the remainder life of convicts to be spent in jail without parole or remission for the, but if capital punishment is awarded, let all appeals and mercy be heard and dismissed within 90 days.

All said, nation should target not maximum 300 days from today for repeated confirmed rape of over 30 minor girls to those send those found guilty to gallows. It is naïve to pre-empt Honorable court decision, but I do hold a personal opinion, we have all the proof needed to punish offenders.

Fourthly, while law catches on criminals, much bigger issue begs attention—the socio-psychological rehabilitation and re-integration to society of victims, who are psychically and physically shredded has to be the primary mission of state. No quick-fix and the band aid for such trauma exists.

Bringing psychiatrists from AIIMS or Timbuktu cannot reverse entrenched psychic-trauma. Psycho-social rehabilitation of repeated sexual assault is an excruciatingly slow calibrated long-term process even with expert handling and sadly the country has few such experts, they too exist largely in metropolitan cities.

Psychiatric intervention is necessary and is welcome but mere dependence on it will spell disaster. To my knowledge, the best institution capable of providing long term psycho-social rehabilitation and eventual societal integration is Chennai based “The Banyan” pioneered by two brave-heart ladies Dr Vandana Gopikumar (also a Professor in TISS) and Vaishnavi Jayakumar.

The Banyan over past 25 years has changed life of million plus destitute homeless mentally ill women (50% plus homeless mentally ill women are victim of sexual abuse often repeatedly). Koshish is second organization whose services state must use. “The Banyan” and “Koshish” complement each other and often work together. I too am ready to chip in with my services for my state.

Fifthly, I hope the state government fast-tracks the journey of formulating and expeditiously modularly implementing various components of reforms with monitoring and periodic evaluation by Koshish with full state support and protection. It would also be wise for state to “Make Koshish Report Public” to allow informed discourse on the contents. The “Big Picture” path-breaking difference will happen with a deliberate governmental nudge to change the narratives in desired direction.

Sixthly, it transpires that a small but highly sensitive three page portion of Koshish report titled “Grave Concerns” involving 15 homes, has some-how found circulation in press, I have noticed certain print and visual media (particularly vernacular) over past two days deliberately distorting the content and sensationalizing it for cheap publicity and TRP gain.

I accept there cannot be gag-order on press in democracy, but a self-imposed code of conduct and sensitised reporting is not too much to ask in the case of such human tragedy. Also if the state finds that there are serious structural and temporal issues to be attended to, it should set up a judicial commission headed retired Chief Justice of High Court with clear mandate and non-extendable three month time-frame (with interim report in one month) to suggest actionable pathways on Grave concern cases.

Lastly, Muzaffarpur is a symptom of much deeper malaise plaguing the nation. As a mental health thought-leader, activist and past Member of National Mental Health Policy Group (2011-2014) I am painfully aware sexual abuse of girls and women in Mental Hospitals (government, private or NGO run) is more of a norm than exception. National Human Right Commission Reports testify to it.

Also as someone who has spent days and nights on Delhi streets, I have first-hand information of rampant sexual exploitation of destitute homeless girls and women living on streets. I have found even secured institutions like jails and beggars homes equally vulnerable for female inmates.

Make no mistake, if one honest audit by the bunch of committed youth icons (spirited girls and boys of Koshish are in twenties and early thirties) combined equally with speedy follow up action by organs of state made skeletons stumble out, I shudder at the mere thought as to what 100% national audit of all homes will result into. There are limited institutions which can do what Koshish has done.

But there are enough to take complete audit of all homes in a modular way in three years. No one in our country openly professes the cause of “The Girl Child” than our Prime Minister. I urge Narendra Modi to step in the way only he can do with at least following actions — (a) set up an apex level task-force with focused outcome based mandate and fixed non-extendable time frame to comprehensively examine the decay in the way homes are established, managed and run. Child care homes are specifically run as part of Central Government Integrated Child Protection Scheme, 2009 (b) Create a best practices collaboration with state governments, thought leaders, NGOs with impeccable track-record, academics, leading Indian psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, sociologists and social workers of global repute. It is time to identify the “source-code” of malaise” and “fix the problem”. No quick fix or band-aid will work for a national calamity of the proportion of pandemonium.

(Akhileshwar Sahay is a member of the Government of India National Mental Health Policy Group and contributed to the shakeup of the Mental Health Care Act 2017. Views are personal.)

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