Trauma, Long Wait: What Death Penalty for Child Rapists Won’t Fix

While 6-yr-old Chhoti Nirbhaya’s rape case has been in trial for over two years now, an 11-yr-old is without family.

7 min read
A photo of 6-year-old rape survivor Chhoti Nirbhaya (R) with her older sister.

When was the last time you tracked a case of rape from the second you heard talk of it to the point of their actual conviction? When can you remember a case where you managed to express equal parts grief and anger at the alleged rape, and equal parts relief and gratitude when the rapist was punished, all within a perfectly reasonable period of time? All of it, before the incident slips away quietly and completely from public memory – and therefore, yours?

It’s not your fault. Rape cases in India seldom follow such a trajectory – and according to NCRB data compiled by IndiaSpend:

About 90% of child rape cases were pending trial in India in 2016, no more than 28% of such cases ended in conviction, and there is a 20-year backlog in bringing cases to trial, the latest available national crime data show.
About 90% of child rape cases were pending trial in India in 2016.
About 90% of child rape cases were pending trial in India in 2016.
(Photo: The Quint)

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The government’s insistence on passing an ordinance that will award the death penalty to offenders who've raped girls below the age of 12 will not exactly ensure speedier and quicker justice.

The Delhi HC, just two days after the ordinance was passed, in fact, raised two very salient questions – One, “How many victims will actually be allowed to live now that offenders know they will be given the death sentence?” and two, “Were any victims themselves actually heard?”

Were they? Because, if they were, perhaps lawmakers would have known about 90 percent of minor survivors of rape whose cases continue to languish in various stages of quiet oblivion in trial courts across the country.

Chhoti Nirbhaya, Still Haunted Two and a Half Years On

Take six-year-old Chhoti Nirbhaya, for instance. Her grandfather has been going to Rohini District Court for a little over two years now. ‘Chhoti Nirbhaya’ – which was what The Quint called her when it started to cover her story – has been a part of this news portal’s reportage for exactly as long as the first news-break.

Every year, since 9 October 2015 – when Chhoti Nirbhaya, all of four years old at the time, was raped and brutalised by a man she knew, just metres away from her home in a little railway jhuggi – there have been little or no updates in her case.

We’ve recorded all the important testimonies in her case. The police, the family, the neighbours, have all testified on her behalf. Only the doctors’ testimonies remain.
Raj Katariya, Assistant Public Prosecutor at Rohini District Court

Each time that The Quint spoke to Anita Sharma, who was SHO (Station House Officer) of Keshav Puram police station at the time of the 4-year-old’s rape and the IO (Investigation Officer) on the case, she sounded hopeful.

Each time we sought an update from the legal aid office that has been extending financial assistance to the family, voices remained hopeful about a conviction.

Chhoti Nirbhaya, more than two years on.
Chhoti Nirbhaya, more than two years on.
(Photo: Abhay Sharma/The Quint)

Yet, what happens in the interim?

Chhoti Nirbhaya’s older sister (who was five at the time) dropped out of school and refused to return for a month until her mother had coaxed and cajoled her into believing that the man was behind bars. Chhoti Nirbhaya herself hasn’t stopped talking about it in two and a half years.

There’s rarely a day that she doesn’t mention him, or the incident, at some point or the other. Sometimes she’ll say, ‘Mummy, maine aisa kya kiya ki mujhe woh aadmi utha ke le gaya?’ (‘Mummy, what did I do to that man to deserve being taken away?’)
Chhoti Nirbhaya’s mother tells us the last time we visited, which was three months ago

Every year, we seek an update. But the ‘latest’ on the now 6-year-old’s case lies buried under a sheaf of old court documents and a dog-eared FIR copy that her grandfather can’t even remember filing.

The last time we attempted to scour through the documents and agreed to track down the status of the case for him, the man stood at the door of his house – a lone, solitary figure – agreeing to wait until we’d gotten him some answers.

Today, Chhoti Nirbhaya – as we began to call her in 2015 – is doing much better, but her six-year-old memory hasn’t erased any demons.
Today, Chhoti Nirbhaya – as we began to call her in 2015 – is doing much better, but her six-year-old memory hasn’t erased any demons.
(Photo: Abhay Sharma/The Quint)

For him and for his granddaughter – who remains afraid of the particular abyss near her cloistered north Delhi slum where she was dragged and raped – the wait is an endless one, with only vague platitudes like “justice will surely come” that they mouth to each other (and to us) to keep them going.

10-Yr-Old Rape Survivor Waits, Sans Family

If one family’s wait for justice is shrouded in uncertainty, another minor waits alone, sans family.

Sometime in 2016, a 10-year-old girl in Rohtak was raped repeatedly by her stepfather, even as her mother and three siblings remained allegedly unaware. The 10-year-old was persuaded by her rapist to tell no one, and each time she did complain to her mother of a stomach ache, the latter dismissed it as a non-issue. It was ultimately her neighbours who saw her walking hunched over and notified the cops.

Image used for representational purposes. 
Image used for representational purposes. 
(Photo: The Quint)

It turned out that that she was pregnant.

The impregnation of a minor caused uproar in legal and medical circles alike, where – after weeks of deliberation – a quickly-constituted medical team decided that an MTP (medical termination of pregnancy) was safer than a delivery. She was between 18 and 22 weeks pregnant.

But what was the immediate fallout? A mother, persistent in getting her husband free, put in an unusual request at the thana: “She told me, ‘I want him freed. He earns Rs 10,000 a month and all of us depend on him. What will we eat now?’” Inspector Garima, who was IO on the case told me this at the time.

The case was far more complex than what it appeared at the time – because ultimately, it led one to deliberate on power dynamics in a tiny hamlet within dusty Rohtak, where a woman couldn’t choose between sustenance and a daughter.

Refusing to let the 10-year-old live with what was left of her family, the girl (now 11) was sent to the Child Care Institute of Haryana by Rohtak’s CWC (Child Welfare Committee) – where she currently lives.

The case was far more complex than what it appeared at the time.
The case was far more complex than what it appeared at the time.
(Photo: The Quint/Hardeep Singh)

A Wait in Oblivion...

What of her trial? Most officers on the case that The Quint spoke to had trouble recollecting whether the case had even gone to trial after the crime had been chargesheeted. Erstwhile IO Garima ultimately concluded that it had, and that testimonies continue to be heard, after the CWC applied to legal aid counsellors to help fight the case on behalf of the minor.

What of the survivor herself? Chairman of the CWC, Dr RS Sangwan assures one that she “has resumed school and will continue to stay at the CCI till she turns 18. Post that, she will be transferred to a state after-care home for courses to rehabilitate her in society”.

“In the child’s best interests, we don’t let the mother meet her,” says Dr Sangwan.
“In the child’s best interests, we don’t let the mother meet her,” says Dr Sangwan.
(Photo: The Quint/Athar Rather)

However, the psychological scars cut deep.

Uski counselling chal to rahi hai, par apni Maa ko yaad karti hai (Her counselling continues, but she misses her mother). However, in the child’s best interests, we don’t let them meet. Her mother might try to manipulate her into going back to that life, harm her further.
Dr RS Sangwan

I am not sure, like the Delhi HC wasn’t, about whether any of these survivors were actually heard.

Because, Chhoti Nirbhaya’s family would much rather know where the trial has been fought for the past two and a half years, who is fighting for their child and when they will manage to eke out the money to move out of a place that only reminds them of their child’s trauma.

Rohtak’s 10-year-old has little clue of the fact that her trial is underway, or the fact that she will possibly never see her family again.

A Known Danger

In both cases, the offenders were known to the survivor. In an expansive survey of cases carried out by the NCRB for the year 2016, it was discovered that in 94 percent of the cases of rape of both women and girl children, the offender was known to the survivor. In such cases, would families willingly and voluntarily report a rape, if it meant death to a known family member as also possible social ostracisation and more legal consequences?
Hundreds gathered on 12 April midnight in New Delhi to protest against the Kathua and Unnao rape cases.
Hundreds gathered on 12 April midnight in New Delhi to protest against the Kathua and Unnao rape cases.
(Photo: Mythreyee Ramesh/The Quint)

Acquiesces Kranti Khode, Programme Coordinator at Jan Sahas – one of the most prominent NGOs working in the space of women and children’s safety in the last couple of decades.

Death penalty is not a solution. What is most essential is psychological counselling. The criminal may get punished at the end of the day, but victim ko kya milta hai? Usse kaun poochta hai? (What does the victim get? Does anyone actually ask after her?) She needs support from all quarters – societal, familial. In fact, even the family of the survivor needs counselling; so many families step back from trial because of the fear ‘samaaj kya kahegi?’
Kranti Khode

Khode who mentions that Jan Sahas has, in the last year alone, taken in approximately 2,000 cases of minor rapes from just three states, says:

We’re working with the survivors, trying to make sure they’re psychologically healed. But what we need today is education for boys at a young age, so that they’re gender-sensitised. Why is no one talking about the men?
Kranti Khode

One wonders whether either of these pertinent points, or any of the HC’s questions were actually addressed in an ordinance that was mooted as a stop-gap arrangement in the wake of sudden anti-government outrage.

For now, minor survivors and their families continue to shift aimlessly from one court to another, year after year, waiting for a respite from the wait.

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