There’s much talk of implementing police reforms as the only crucial remedy for timely redressal of crimes against women. In light of the Hathras gangrape and murder case, a comprehensive overhaul of the police machinery has been reiterated as a long overdue exercise.
Shobhana Smriti, an independent leader of Dalit Women Fight in Uttar Pradesh, dismisses the simplistic assumptions in the argument with an oft-repeated line from B.R. Ambedkar’s last speech in the Constituent Assembly. “... however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot.”
We may have the best laws and statutes, including the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, but their effectiveness only depends on those entrusted to implement it.
“The mentality of the police force in Uttar Pradesh, their behaviour and use of filthy language when addressing Dalit women is so rampant that the very first step in seeking justice for rape victims, that is the filing of FIRs, is fraught with risks,” says Smriti who has encountered multiple threats in the past while helping victims of rape complete formalities and paperwork for FIRs or medical treatment.
Her views find echoes with a joint report released by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI) on 29 September. The report has 14 case studies on rape survivors in Uttar Pradesh and it demonstrates how police refusal and failure to lodge complaints and FIRs of victims of sexual violence in the first instance have perpetuated a heinous rape culture in the state. Registration of FIRs is in fact the first most crucial factor in the dispensation of justice.
Out of the 14 cases, FIRs of rape were registered in 11 cases only after survivors sought legal remedies. Of the 11 cases registered, testimonies revealed that the time taken by the police to actually register an FIR ranged from 2 to 228 days. In six of these cases, the police took more than 100 days to register the FIR. It’s hardly a surprise then that in the latest National Crime Records Bureau data released last month, Uttar Pradesh topped the country list in cases of crimes against women.
On 14 September, a 19-year-old dalit girl in Hathras was allegedly gang-raped and brutally tortured by four upper caste men in the bajra fields outside her house. She succumbed to her injuries on 29 September after being shunted from one hospital to the next and her body was hastily cremated by the police immediately after, without her family’s consent.
Smriti, based in Lucknow, can recount a number of brutal crimes against dalit women in her state in the recent past, which she says were supressed. In 2017, just a few months before the Unnao rape case erupted into the national spotlight, an 11-year-old girl was burnt alive while going to a shop on a cycle, recalls Smriti. Another minor was sexually assaulted in Jaunpur in 2018,
“The victim’s head was cut off, acid was thrown on her face and her eyes were gouged out,” says Smriti who is now in constant touch with another girl from Kushinagar who was rescued and later treated in multiple private hospitals after being allegedly gang-raped by eight men in a room.
“I don’t think that today any part of UP is safe for women. Even activists like us don’t feel safe alone after daylight,” says Smriti, who has been working on cases of caste-based discrimination in UP for over 10 years. Originally from Hardoi district, Smriti was married off at the age of 20. She is currently pursuing her LLB after being the first in her family to acquire two MA degrees.
“In Hathras district, the extent of caste discrimination is so appalling in this day and age, that sometimes even I can’t help laughing. Our work in the area has revealed that some shops there have a separate corner for collecting money from customers from dalit communities. That money is later washed or cleaned before being reused by the shopkeeper. If an MLA from an SC/ST community goes to a Thakur’s house, he often carries his own disposable glass for tea or sherbet! What will you call this?” asks Smriti.