The Sessions Court in Goa acquitted Tarun Tejpal of all charges in an 8-year old case of sexual assault. As part of the proceedings the victim was put on trial, her sexual history and lifestyle choices were all put on trial. To be a worthy victim in India, you must be immaculate or dead, and I wonder, what is India telling its victims with that?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
Tarun Tejpal was acquitted of all charges. As far as the news cycle goes, this is old-news now and we’ve moved on to op-ed pieces about it. I remember when this first started eight years ago. I remember the day the news broke that Tarun Tejpal had been accused of rape and sexual assault. I loved Tehelka. I read every issue and amongst my limited possessions was a stack of them that I took from city-to-city. There were many issues I re-read on lazy Sunday afternoons and those I referenced repeatedly for my own research. My favourite thing about Tehelka back then was that they were out there covering the epidemic of rape in our country before Nirbhaya ever happened. There weren’t many people doing that back then, it wasn’t the hot-button issue it is now. When this happened I was halfway through journalism school and it was very clear to me what I wanted to do with that degree. I wanted to work for Tehelka and cover rape. That day I learnt the danger of having idols, which is not to say there weren’t other excellent journalists working for that organisation that exists even today, but it still shook me. I didn’t want to believe it. How could the person whose organisation was instrumental in teaching me about the injustice of sexual violence in our country be another (alleged) predator?
Of course it isn’t my job to acquit or convict but as far as sexual violence goes I’ve always had a simple philosophy: I believe the victim. There are cases where I am wrong to do that but in the grand scheme of things those cases are far fewer than the ones where I am right. Still, we had to wait for the judicial process to play out, and now it has. The judicial process has spoken and acquitted Tejpal of all charges. Now, I am not a lawyer though I am fairly well-versed the laws governing rape and sexual violence in India, and I understand that it’s not my place to speak for the guilt or innocence of a person, so I won’t. According to the court, Tejpal is innocent. I can’t say anything about that. However, I would like to talk about the process that determined his innocence. The finding of the court was based on reasonable doubt and that is, I suppose, reasonable but it is not reasonable to say that this was a fair trial, because from all accounts of the proceedings, it isn’t clear who exactly was on trial.
It is the position of the court that the victim did not behave like a victim. That her behaviour did not exhibit that she had undergone any trauma. Further it is the contention of the court that because of her position as an expert on rape law and the coverage of rape, she would have been easily able to fabricate a believable story. Ironic, since they didn’t believe it. The trial court even revealed her identity in their judgement, which is against Indian law. They questioned her solidarity with other victims of rape, presenting it as a bias, and her alleged that her knowledge, writing, independence and communication skills made her testimony unreliable. They also discussed her sexual history, fantasies and admitted gossip about her sexuality into the judgement. She is blamed for just saying no and not screaming instead. She was asked to qualify her morality by declaring whether she believes sex with multiple partners, smoking and consuming alcohol to be immoral acts. They asked her how long her dress was and whether she got on her knees. Finally, she is characterized as someone who twists and manipulates the truth.
Can someone say preposterous? Honestly, I cannot speak to whether Tejpal is innocent or not, but I do wonder, why weren’t all these questions asked of him instead? Surely the sexual fantasies or history of an alleged predator might be more telling than those of the victim, and that’s what it is really about, it’s about how we treat victims in India and you can harp on about how things have gotten so much better but they haven’t. The truth is and I say this often, that there is only one kind of rape victim in India that sees justice, and that is a dead victim. Short of that, you have to be immaculate to be qualified as sanskari enough for justice. The process by which the court arrived at its judgement in this case is telling and it is telling a terrible tale.
It is saying that you have to exhibit your trauma in a prescribed format if you want to qualify as a victim. This comes up regularly, it came up a while ago when a judge refused to believe a rape-claim because the victim went to sleep before she filed a complaint and apparently no Indian woman would do that. If you are a woman whose response to being assaulted is not breaking down publically, seeking therapy, exhibiting dysfunctional behaviour, crying throughout the testimony then you are not believable. If you are a woman who hopes to find healing by acquiring justice instead of cutting yourself, you are not believable. That’s what this process is saying.
It is saying that your sexual history is indicative of how truthful you are about alleged sexual assault. If you have fantasies, fantasies of force or restraint, then it’s not possible for you to be raped. This is a tale as old as time, only virgins are raped after all. It never occurs to Indian society that we endanger sexually liberated women even more by repeatedly refusing to believe they could be raped because they’ve had sex before, indicating to predators that it legally better to take advantage of a “loose” woman because no one will believe her anyway. A woman who does not pass the purity test does not deserve justice because no one sent the courts the memo on agni pariksha being a thing of mythology and misguided fiction which is not admissible in the process of justice. It’s saying that it’s best we teach our daughters not to have premarital sex because if they do they won’t be believed when they are raped. That’s what it is saying.
It is saying that women who are experts, well-spoken, independent and professional cannot be trusted. There isn’t even a veil here, it outrightly states that the Indian sensibility cannot bring itself to trust an intelligent, articulate woman. This line of questioning is nothing but a witch-hunt for westernised women who speak English and wear dresses, because we hate that. We hate women who don’t succumb and learn silence. We hate women who assert their accomplishments and speak their expertise. I can guarantee if instead of a woman there was a man who was an expert on rape law on trial it would work in his favour instead. Women who speak their mind, stand up for the truth and do so while refusing to embody any visibly “Indian” indicators of culture are not trustworthy. You can condemn that but think about it, when you tell your kids not to talk to someone too much, what does that woman look like?
It is saying that if you accuse someone of rape, it is perfectly reasonable for the court to put your behaviour and life choices up for trial. If you drink, smoke, have sex, wear short dresses or date openly, you are not moral enough for our society to protect. We all love to say we don’t shame victims but most of us do it everyday, a woman doesn’t have to be a victim of rape to not be condemned for her choices, and if you see a woman smoking in the street and think of her as immoral, she doesn’t need to be raped for you to be part of the problem. Legal questioning such as this only enforces the idea that women’s behaviour needs to be policed.
As far as I am concerned, Tehelka died many years ago. My hero fell almost a decade ago. Today, all I lost was another piece of my faith in another bastion I hold dear, the Indian judicial system. We may as well replace it with a group of middle aged uncles who stare at your boobs in the park and aunties who tell you to lose weight so you can get married, because that is how it is behaving. India is not here for its women. We’re on our own.