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Sex abuse case sparks middle-class backlash

Reaction to the sentence of a senior policeman in a child molestation case shows a growing trend of anger and public intolerance.

Activists shout slogans and wave placards in 2006, demanding a retrial after nine men were acquitted in the death of Jessica Lal.
Activists shout slogans and wave placards in 2006, demanding a retrial after nine men were acquitted in the death of Jessica Lal.

MUMBAI // The news anchor was at his ballistic best. "This man is a killer," he declared. "He is a molester, a barbarian, an animal." Joining the prime-time television news debate, which at times seemed like the proceedings of a kangaroo court, were a government minister, a women's rights activist and a lawyer. The three nodded in agreement. "Strip him of his uniform," one of them suggested. "Give him the capital punishment."

The object of their ire was SPS Rathore, the former director general of police of Harayana state in northern India, who was accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl nearly two decades ago and driving her to commit suicide. Since then, her family has fought a lonely battle for justice, and has made claims of harassment. Her brother says he has been attacked and false charges laid against him. For years police never charged Rathore, who was promoted by successive federal governments in Harayana.

The television debate, like many others raging in the Indian media, reflects the mood across a vast swathe of middle-class Indians. The molestation case, recognised as the "Ruchika trial" after its victim, Ruchika Girotra, has unleashed rare middle-class outrage against India's judicial system and politicians and bureaucrats who are believed to manipulate the system to their advantage while middle-class and poor Indians are left to their own devices.

The Ruchika trial has sparked off a rash of street demonstrations against the government, volubly demanding that Rathore be swiftly brought to justice. After he was given only a six-month sentence and immediately released on bail on the molestation charge in mid-December, Rathore emerged out of the court smiling. "It's such an old case, what's there to click?" he told waiting photographers as he left the court, a statement that infuriated Ruchika's family and provoked angry reactions from the middle class and the media.

The case represents a growing trend of India's growing middle class - who make up 30 per cent of India's 1.2 billion people - taking on power structures. This educated, urban populace has long maintained at arm's length from India's political system, which is widely viewed to be crass, criminal and corrupt. "There was a time when even decent, law-abiding citizens chose the more practical option of keeping quiet and swallowing their humiliation rather than picking up a fight they felt they were sure to lose," Sidharth Bhatia, a commentator wrote in a recent column titled "Indian middle class is striking back" in DNA, an Indian daily newspaper.

"The bureaucracy, the political class and the justice system were too heavily loaded against the average citizen. Unless you actually knew someone from within the power citadel, you could not hope to get your voice heard." The explosion in the Indian mass media, of which the middle class are the biggest consumers, in recent years, Bhatia says, is changing all that. "Though most battles have been fought by brave, middle-class people on their own, quietly and anonymously, the media, by picking those stories up, have acted as a kind of moral force multiplier," she says.

In recent years, similarly robust media coverage has brought justice in other cases pertaining to the middle class, including that of Jessica Lal, a fashion model who was shot and killed by Manu Sharma, the son of an influential politician in an upscale bar in New Delhi in 1999. In his trial, which lasted more than seven years, Sharma and the other accused were acquitted. The media called the acquittal a travesty of justice; it stirred deep emotions among the middle class and exposed corruption and nepotism in the political class.

A few months later, after much public agitation and sustained media campaigning, the case was re-opened by the Delhi high court, and in December 2006, Sharma was finally sentenced to life imprisonment. Now there is hope the same will work in the Ruchika trial, with the media putting pressure on the authorities to act speedily and justly, and that Rathore will get more than a six-month sentence. India's home ministry is reportedly considering reforming the way police complaints are filed. It is also considering revoking perks and pensions of convicted officers.

But critics accuse the media of class bias. Its focus, critics say, is limited only on the middle class who bridle at the denial of justice for one of their own. "The poor and the uneducated are still at the mercy of the system, which is heavily loaded against them," Bhatia wrote in his column. "The policemen for a poor Indian still represents tyranny and abuse of power rather than a friend or ally. The courts are not easy to access and the bureaucracy is unresponsive."

"I have breaking news for you," said Nalini Singh, a television journalist. "Now, as we speak, some girl in another large city or small town is being molested or raped. There are many Rathores in this country. Who will go after them?" The reason why the country, as a whole, appears to ravenously and angrily stand up for Ruchika's family is because of the visibility generated for the case through mass media, observers say. But India's poor who face similar harassment are not that fortunate.

"Let's not forget that each year there are thousands of Ruchikas. India's policemen, officials and politicians mistreat, torture, molest, rob and rape poor people all the time. "Because the victims are not middle class, we never get to hear of these cases," said Vir Sanghvi, the editor of Hindustan Times. "For us, in the middle class and media, I am sure our pressure will yield results. But we need to go beyond our class and our interests. Millions of Indians face injustice that is even worse."