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NCW notice to Kamal Hassan: time to revisit the rape victim-naming law?

S Murari | Updated on: 15 July 2017, 22:37 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

The decision of the National Commission for Women (NCW) to issue a notice to Tamil film star Kamal Hassan – for disclosing the identity of a Kerala film star who was gangraped in a moving car – has reopened the debate on whether the identity of the victim should be kept secret.

Section 228 of the IPC was amended after the Nirbhaya incident in New Delhi in 2012. After the amendment, no one is allowed to make the identity of a rape victim known by any means. Violation of this law is punishable with imprisonment of up to two years.

The Kerala incident happened last February. But it caught the attention of the national media only after the arrest of fellow film star Dileep, on the charge that he hired a gang to rape the actress and videograph it. The motive, police said, was he had a score to settle with her.

While the Kerala press has kept the identity of the victim secret, the national media, including Tamil channels, have gone to town, showing even her video clippings.

Kamal, who revealed the name of the actress at a press conference in Chennai a few days ago, has justified his action by saying that the victim has shown exemplary courage in complaining to the police against her rapists, and the media should hail her by naming her. He believes that in issuing a notice to him, women's rights groups are shooting the messenger.

The Nirbhaya case

The question over the identity of the victim being revealed came into prominence after the Nirbhaya case – the shocking rape and murder of a 23-year-old paramedic on a cold December night in 2012 by four men in a hijacked bus in Delhi.

The irony is the victim's own father told a foreign publication that her name was Jyoti Singh. He said: “We want the world to know her real name. My daughter didn't do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.”

Her mother also told a television channels in December 2015 that she was not ashamed of disclosing her daughter's name. “Whoever has suffered should not hide their name. It is the offenders who should be ashamed and hide their name. I want to tell everyone that my daughter's name was Jyoti Singh,” she said.

Though the victim's photo was available on the internet, the mainstream media, by common consent chose to name her Nirbhaya, the fearless, even though her parents said they had no objection to revealing her identity.

The Geeta and Sanjay Chopra case

Hiding the victim's identity was not always the norm. In 1978, Geeta Chopra was abducted from a park in New Delhi and raped by notorious gangsters Billa and Ranga. Her kid brother Sanjay, who came to her rescue, was also killed.

Like the Nirbhaya incident, the Geeta and Sanjay Chopra case also shocked the collective conscience of the nation. But the government of the day named bravery awards in their names, which are given out every year. The award has survived the post-Nirbhaya law on identity of rape victims.

The idea behind naming the award after the victims was that it is the rapist who should be shamed. Concealing the name of the victim, though well-intentioned, assumes that she has done something she should be ashamed of.

Difference between the West and India

Desiree Washington, a 19-year-old girl, visited famous boxer Mike Tyson in his hotel room in California at two in the morning and had a few drinks. When he made sexual advances on her, she resisted, but was overpowered. She reported the incident, and the US courts upheld her contention and swiftly punished Tyson. They did not ask, as Indian courts are prone to do, why she visited him at such an odd hour, that too in his hotel room.

The Indian reality is different. The gender insensitive police refuse to register a complaint even if a victim picks up the courage to lodge one. It takes years for the case to come to court. In court, the victim is subjected to merciless cross-examination by the defence, so much so she has to relive her traumatic experience over and over again.

That is one reason few rape victims go public with their complaints. The second reason is the stigma: few men are ready to marry such victims.

The Padmini case

That was not always so. In June 1992, Padmini, a domestic help, was gangraped by a sub-inspector and three other policemen under the jurisdiction of the Annamalai Nagar police station in Tamil Nadu.

To lure her into the station, the police arrested her husband, a casual labourer, on the intervening night of 29/30 May 1992, on a false case of petty theft, and subjected him to the third degree.

When Padmini rushed to the station, she was gangraped, that too in front of her husband and another remand prisoner. Nandagopal was found hanging in the lockup on 3 June.

After a protracted legal battle, the Madras High Court awarded a three-year rigorous imprisonment sentence to two sub-inspectors, and 10 years' RI to four more policemen.

Activists of the CPI(M) had taken up Padmini's cause, despite the attempt by the J Jayalalithaa government to sweep it under the carpet. After justice was eventually done, and Padmini was paid compensation by the government on the direction of court, one of the activists married her.

The point was that Padmini's name was widely publicised by the print media, and neither the court nor the media felt it was anything wrong.

Time for a fresh debate

Another irony is that the Delhi Police, not too long ago, sought to book the Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal, on the grounds that she had circulated to the print and electronic media a notice she had sent to deputy commissioner of police Madhur Verma, in which the name of the victim was mentioned.

Last year, Rajasthan Women's Commission member Somya Gurjar resigned after her selfie with a rape victim went viral. She said: “I have not done anything wrong, but tendered my resignation on moral grounds if my action has hurt anybody's feelings.”

With the NCW's notice to Kamal, the time seems to be ripe for a fresh, progressive, and sensitive debate on the issue.

(The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.)

First published: 15 July 2017, 19:51 IST