Six death-row convicts set free, Jhabua nuns, media and Michael Jackson

The 7 March edition of Note This — our round-up of media reports and opinions on sexual assault

The Supreme Court of India overturned its own order of nearly ten years ago to acquit six men who were sentenced to death in a 2003 rape and murder case. Photo: Pinakpani (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There has been a surge of media commentary on the death penalty after the Supreme Court of India reversed its own judgment of 2009 to acquit six men who were sentenced to die for the 2003 murder of five family members, including a 15-year-old girl who was also gang-raped. Another old case that is back in the news is that of the 1998 gang-rape of three nuns in Jhabua by a mob of Adivasi men. Twenty-one years after the crime, one of the “absconding accused” was arrested by the police after a tip-off.

Editor’s pick

Digital media has an advantage over traditional platforms when it comes to the reporting of stories on sexual violence, says Bharat Nayak, founding member of the Logical India. In an interview with NewsTracker’s Saumya Agrawal, he points to #MeToo as an example of why the conversation on rape is more powerful online.

Across India: news since Monday

On the night of 5 June, 2003, a group of men barged into a hut in Maharashtra’s Jalna district and “unleashed carnage” on the family of Trimbak Satote and his wife Vimlabai. Armed with sickles and knives, they killed five people and raped the two women present. Only Vimlabai and one of her sons survived the attack. Six men who belonged to a nomadic tribe were arrested and in 2006 sentenced to death by a trial court; the Bombay High Court later commuted the sentence of three of them to life in prison. In 2009, the Supreme Court not only dismissed their appeals but confirmed the death penalty for all six, including those sentence had been commuted by the high court. In March 2019, the Supreme Court, however, took a “U-turn” after reviewing the case and reversed its own order, acquitting all six men.

This development has been reported and analysed extensively in the media, which has in general taken an anti-death penalty stance.

The judgement, according to the Quint, “could be significant” because it has “brought to light how decisions taken by the Supreme Court could be grossly wrong on law and facts, which can be rectified in many cases, but not when a person has been executed”. An article in the Hindu focused on the 16 years that the men spent in prison “in anticipation of death” and highlighted their psychological trauma. An editorial in the Indian Express said the case is “another reminder why [the death penalty] has to go”, while DNA called for police reforms, noting the “systemic rot” that nearly allowed six men to be sent to the gallows. An editorial in the Hindu also criticised the death penalty, pointing out that “institutional bias against the socially and economically weak” can lead to miscarriages of justice.

In other death penalty news, deliberations continue in the Shakti Mills gang-rape case, where three death row convicts have appealed against their sentence, calling it unconstitutional (as it revokes their right to life) and disproportionate to the crime. To the Maharashtra government’s contention that rape is arguably worse than murder as it renders the victim’s life “meaningless”, the convicts’ counsel this week argued, “Such a view that considers dishonour graver than death is outdated…”

Under arrest

Twenty-one years after more than 20 men stormed into a Christian mission house in Jhabua, MP, and raped four nuns (some accounts dating to 1998 say three) after looting them, the police have arrested one of two “absconding accused” after setting up an elaborate trap. The had case made national headlines in 1998 and caused communal tensions in the area.

In contrast, it took the police in Delhi only 90 hours to “crack” a gang-rape and murder case in which the perpetrators forced the victim to write a note falsely incriminating a rival gang, reported the Times of India. The main suspect is under arrest. The police have said that the rape was part of a “conspiracy” to frame another man.

Rape culture

In Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu, a Dalit woman has alleged that she was sexually assaulted by an upper caste man who also used “casteist slurs” against her. The Hindu reported that an NGO’s fact-finding report mentioned how the man told her that “women belonging to her community must oblige men from the dominant community”. The man, The News Minute reported, is under arrest but the larger issue of caste-based sexual violence remains unaddressed.

According to a report released this week by Amnesty International, Dalits were victims in almost 70 percent of hate crimes since September 2015. According to Scroll, the report also said out of 40 incidents of sexual assault against women from marginalised groups, 33 were against Dalits.

In an editorial in Firstpost, Raghav Pandey and Neelabh Bist argue that “compelling” a wife to ‘cohabit’ with her husband “violates fundamental rights”, especially in India, where marital rape is legal.

Politics and sexual assault

Aam Aadmi party MLA Mohinder Goel has been booked by the Delhi Police for allegedly raping a woman. The complainant has said that Goel sexually assaulted her in his home as well as office. He denies the allegations.

With general elections around the corner, women’s rights activists have released a “Womanifesto” outlining their needs to political parties. Among other things, they have asked that free treatment be made available to survivors of sexual violence and that marital rape should be criminalised.

In Tamil Nadu, a woman Superintendent of Police (SP) has approached the Madras High Court, alleging that the Chief Minister and his deputy attempted to protect a powerful Inspector General of Police (IGP) whom she had accused of sexually harassing her. He also reportedly kicked her on to “human waste lying nearby” .

Unexpected deaths

In a story that has been widely reported, a man was killed after he allegedly set a woman on fire after sexually assaulting her. According to the Times of India, the woman “grabbed” the man and pulled him into the flames with her. He succumbed to his injuries and she is receiving medical treatment.

Arghya Basu, a filmmaker and former Film and TV Institute of India (FTII) teacher who was named in the #MeToo movement, has died by suicide, reportedly after suffering from depression in the wake of the accusations against him. Journalist Sandhya Menon, who has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement in India tweeted after his death, “This, for me, highlights more than anything else how ICCs [Internal Complaints Committees] are consistently failing. That women took the extreme step of public naming because they had no faith in redressal systems. FTII cleared Basu without a probe on the technicality that there was no official complaint.”

From the international press

The HBO documentary Finding Neverland has made headlines the world over (including in India) for its revelations about the alleged sexual abuse perpetrated on young boys by pop icon Michael Jackson. An in-depth Huffington Post article, however, switches focus to how the media “overlooked” the alleged abuse. Marina Fang explains how “Jackson’s otherworldly superstardom enabled his alleged abuse to evade major scrutiny from the media during much of his career”.

Read more

This roundup is curated from the RSS feeds of more than 30 English news publications from across India.

See a fuller list of rape and sexual violence cases reported today, and earlier this week.

Use our case filter to read reports on specific cases: #MeToo, #KeralaPriest, #RapeOfMinors, #Muzaffarapur, #PoliticsOfRape (use the dropdown menu in column A).

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