A courtroom date for Suresh*, Geeta*, their three-and-a-half-month-old daughter and their two-year-old girl – for whom the epithet ‘8-month-old baby’ has stuck like a permanent band-aid – is a very eventful one.
Suresh and Geeta are up at the crack of dawn on ‘courtroom days’, packing lunches into makeshift potlis to eat at the Rohini Court canteen later. Then, once their respective ablutions are done, they set about waking up the kids and getting them ready for the day.
Two-year-old Chhukti* and her elder sister, Pari*, are roused from the single bed in the single-room living space, their sleepy faces doused with water and their tiny mops of hair drawn back. They are then put into new frocks or trousers, depending on the weather, and served breakfast.
After locking the door (and re-checking it a dozen times), Suresh and Geeta cradle their babies, sheaves of papers they may or may not need, potlis of food they may or may not eat, and clamber on to a Rohini-bound bus – or an auto, whichever is nearer, and reach the POCSO courtroom that’s hearing the rape case of their two-year-old girl. They’ve been doing this every couple of months for a year now, on the heels of summons.
On Wednesday, 24 July, the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday passed a bill entailing amendments to the POCSO Act by including death penalty for aggravated sexual assault on children, besides providing stringent punishments for other crimes against minors.
The bill will now be send to the Lok Sabha for approval.
On the debate over death penalty, Smriti Irani said that it was just a option given under the amendments to the bill.
"The punishment now goes to 20 years till the entire life and death as deemed fit by the court, given that the court wisely uses these kind of descriptive punishments," Irani said adding, "We can rely on the wisdom of the courts to use death penalty in rare of the rarest case."
But, here’s a thought – considering a majority of offenders are known to the minor survivors/victims (their neighbours, relatives, family members, etc.) – how many such cases would even go to court, considering so many would want to keep izzat in the loop, and a ‘family name’ under wraps?
Even worse, how many offenders would let their victims live, fully knowing that they might be killed if the child went to the police?
What’s Been Happening at the Hearings so Far?
How do most hearings go? They begin, at least, with a phone call to Suresh from ASI Parvati or one of her colleagues at Subhash Nagar Police Station. Parvati has been the IO (Inspecting Officer) on the case since 28 January 2018, when Chhutki was first found lying in a pool of her own blood and stool, crying in anguish.
She had been raped, a local clinic could detect, preceding confirmations from another hospital in the area – and then the country’s premier AIIMS, when the government got involved.
Since Parvati’s involvement in Chhutki’s case, her constant accompaniment to the couple and the police’s subsequent arrest of 28-year-old cousin Suraj (Chhutki’s cousin) for the rape, Parvati has become a friend.
She is usually the one, therefore, to let them know a summons is on its way. Once they’ve received it, Suresh and Geeta know which date to prep for. Conversations with their lawyers – who are the Delhi government’s Public Prosecution team handling trials under POCSO – ensue, and Suresh and Geeta are able to voice their fears.
I’ve heard some of these myself. Last August, it was Chhutki’s mother who fretted and worried over what she would be asked. She was determined to speak her piece, though.
“I’ll tell them exactly what I saw. How I walked in that Sunday morning and discovered my baby – who I had left in the care of my husband’s relatives – lying alone in that bed and crying. I couldn’t even trust our family. I’ll tell them how Suraj tried to go away from the place. How none of my husband’s brothers or their wives supported me. I’m going to stand up and ask for justice...”
And so would continue Geeta, resolute at the outset, and needing very little conciliation from the prosecution. She would only cradle her baby closer and far more fiercely when someone told her what she could possibly be asked in court – “I’ll answer them all,” she would say firmly.
Of the 24,212 FIRs for child rape registered this year, 11,981 are still under investigation – while in 12,231 cases, police have filed a chargesheet. But trial has commenced in only 6,449 cases – while it is yet to commence in 4,871 cases.
Only 911 cases have been decided in trial courts so far – which is four percent. A mere four percent out of all the child rape cases registered in India this year have seen any kind of decision.
The Early Hearings...
Since August of 2018, I have attended a majority of Chhutki’s hearings, with Suresh and Geeta in tow.
The POCSO courtroom in Rohini District Court (as anywhere else, or should be) is a closed-door proceeding. Therefore, one attends as a friend of the family. I sat, therefore, and watched as Geeta took the stand and answered first, the questions that the public prosecutors gently prodded her to answer.
She said everything – all the details of the morning she left home to work as a household help, trusting in the fact that her husband’s family, who all lived in the same house, would protect her two daughters.
She spoke of her return, the pit of imminent dread in her stomach at the unfamiliar sight in her bedroom and of the rushed hospital visits right after, as also one to the police station when she began to grasp what was going on. She identified bed sheets and clothes from the day, and she spoke, largely, unwaveringly.
Her cross-examination by the defence – the accused’s lawyers – did not faze her.
All the while, Suresh sat holding his two children, who occasionally squirmed and struggled to get off – and had to be told off by the magistrate for bringing babies as tiny as this to the courtroom.
No one was unkind, even less so as Suresh explained, “What can we do, sir? We cannot leave them at home. There is no one we can leave them with.”
On Monday, 15 July, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the number of child rape cases filed in 2019, seeking district-wise data on cases that await justice.
The top court has asked for said data to be collected before 24 July, so as to hear ways in which investigation could be improved and the backlog of cases pending trial could be cleared.
According to a DNA report, the SC bench told advocate V Giri: “Have you seen the pendency rate in Delhi. Of 729 cases, only two were disposed of this year. If this is happening in the national capital, what would be happening elsewhere?”
(A total of 24,212 child rape cases have already been registered between January and June of this year.)
The Next Few Hearings...
While Geeta’s testimony and cross-examination stretched out over three hearings, they got progressively shorter over time. One hearing saw only the testimonies of the police team that investigated the complaint right at the outset and they identified objects from the scene of crime as well, wrapped precariously in multiple sheets.
Most hearings, Suresh and Geeta look hopeful. They are not circumspect, however – and most conversations with them (held outside the now-familiar courtroom, on a long wooden bench, in one of Rohini’s many labyrinthine passages) consist of them insisting “today” is the day their daughter gets “justice”, with me equivocating on how things might take time and they must have patience.
Most such conversations are also intermittently interspersed with Chhutki and Pari running around in circles, laughing and pirouetting on the cold court floor, entirely oblivious to the reasons for their being there.
Most such times, I will catch Suresh looking wistfully at the duo, occasionally extending a hand to scoop up one of his children from falling.
The Last Hearing...
The most recent hearing in Chhukti’s case took place a week ago. This time only Suresh was in attendance, as he was going to present his testimony for the first time and had been advised to leave the children at home. Geeta, therefore, had stayed behind with them.
I spoke to Suresh a day before he was scheduled to appear in court and testify, and he sounded far more worried than Geeta had, almost a year ago. For one, he was going to be alone; for another, he was apprehensive about “untoward questions” from the defence, should they come his way. After a few minutes of phone conversation, he said – almost to himself – that he would tell the truth and he believed it would suffice.
Chhutki and Pari could be heard at the other end of the line, squawking in glee as they raced each other on the terrace in front of their one-room house that, incidentally, is also just a floor below the part of the house Suraj used to live in – and where his wife and little son still do.
Geeta’s advice to her husband, she tells me, is to “handle it as strongly as she did”. “I’m telling him not to be afraid and that we will call him right before the hearing and right after too,” she says.
Suresh’s testimony went off without a hitch and he sounds more sure of himself now. The next date the POCSO courtroom in Rohini District Court has sounded, is towards the end of September. It’s a long way off, I ask him. It is, he agrees, but he remains as hopeful as he was over a year ago.
“Jald hi faisla suna denge (they’ll pass judgment soon). I don’t think it will be long now.”
Geeta echoes him as she speaks into the receiver. “It will happen,” she promises – her husband? Herself? Me? The oblivious, laughing children in the background?
*Names changed to protect identity.