The rape of a six-year-old in a Bengaluru school and the responses to it point to the need for a specific, targeted law to deal with paedophiles. Imran Khan reports
Bengaluru hasn’t been a pensioners’ paradise ever since it turned into Silicon Plateau, home to the largest tech-savvy, transient-migrant population of any Indian city. People come to this city mostly to earn enough to be able to leave. In the decade between the Censuses 2001 and 2011, Bengaluru added to its 740 sq km a full 3 million people — or 35.5 percent of its current population. This once-pleasant urbe minutas is today one of the five most unsafe cities for women in India. The city’s growth rate of crimes against women (2011-12) was a stunning 10 percent, shooting up from 5.6 percent of the national average to 6.1 percent — in one year.
But because it is also, paradoxically, home to a population that is as educated and conscientised as it is transient, the popular abreaction to the rape of a six-year-old student inside her school on 2 July was immediate and massive.
The Class I student of Vibgyor High School in East Bengaluru first complained to her mother of pain. A week later, the parents found out that two instructors had raped her. They lodged a police complaint on 14 July. The school authorities tried to hush up the matter and were initially reluctant to share the CCTV footage, leading to public outrage against the institution. On 20 July, the police arrested one of the accused, skating instructor Mustafa alias Munna, 30, under Section 376 (rape) of the IPC and Sections 4 and 6 of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.
To already traumatised parents of other children, the revelation made by the then police commissioner Raghavendra Auradkar came as a jolt. In his press conference after the arrest, Auradkar informed that “the accused used to click photographs of children, and show obscene videos to children”.
As is usual with the police, their delayed reaction to the crime was to strike out at everyone in range: One of the casualties of the crackdown was Auradkar himself, who has been replaced by a new commissioner, MN Reddi.
Mustafa had been sacked in 2011 from Deens Academy in the city “for touching girls inappropriately”. However, neither his previous school thought it fit to register a police complaint against him, nor did the present school check his antecedents before hiring him. In its defence, Deens Academy said he was sacked for “gross misconduct” but there was “no culpable incident whatsoever” that required them to report him to the police.
It was hard for some parents to swallow. But not for the many child rights activists working on the ground. “While this incident managed to get attention, hundreds of similar incidents have not,” says Kushi Kushalappa, coordinator for the Collaborative Child Response Unit project, Enfold Proactive Health Trust.
India is a signatory to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, 1992, and is party to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, 1959. But various governments have failed utterly to even nominally safeguard the interests of children.
Kushalappa points out that as far back as 2007, a government report, Study on Child Abuse in India, had highlighted the seriousness of the issue. Even a cursory glance shows how deep-rooted the problem is in our society.
According to the study, children in the 5-12 age group reported the highest levels of abuse. Of the 12,000 children surveyed, 53.22 percent reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse; 21.90 percent reported facing severe forms of sexual abuse and 50.76 percent, other forms of sexual abuse. “Boys and girls are equally at risk of abuse. Moreover, 70 percent of abused children never reported the matter to anyone,” says Kushalappa.
Street children, child labourers and children in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault. And in half of the cases, the perpetrator was someone the child knew or in a position of trust and authority.
“No one wants to believe that anyone would do something so terrible to a child, so there is a collective denial about how pervasive child abuse is. Yet, everyone knows a family where sexual abuse is taking place. In most cases, children never tell anyone that they have been abused. They don’t feel it’s safe to talk about it,” says Kumar Jagirdar of the non-governmental organisation CRISP-India (Child Rights Initiative for Shared Parenting).
Today, India has a law to deal with child abuse and child rape: the POCSO Act, 2012 reads well on paper, but it is a law aimed at mollifying the growing number of concerned citizens rather than actually making it illegal de iure et in praxim. What is the rationale behind the lawmakers making the law inapplicable in Jammu & Kashmir? As a cursory reading makes it clear, the driving reason is that the law brings into its jurisdiction “police officers… armed forces or security forces” — and the Centre has for years been determined to keep them from being nailed for a smorgasbord of excesses in J&K.
What India still does not have is a specific, well-defined law to deal with the likes of Mustafa: paedophiles. Mustafa has what is called “a past”. He had photographs of other children. Since paedophiles tend to hunt out other paedophiles — the shared-interests syndrome — it is likely that he is part of, or has knowledge of, a paedophile ring. In the current furious condemnation of “sexual deviants”, the charge is being led by the most vocal women’s activists, whose agenda — valid on its own terms — is to expand “women’s issues” to include matters dealing with violations of minors.
As for the POCSO Act, it is a work of enduring vagueness. While it mandates that “whoever commits sexual assault shall be punished with imprisonment… for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine”, the punishments, after all is said and done, range from simple to rigorous imprisonment, of varying periods, and with fines — all of it so open-ended that the courts will have the run of deciding which paedophile gets put away for how long, if at all. Meanwhile, the law dealing with the violations of adult women, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, mandates that virtually every sexual assault be dealt with as rape, to the maximum reach of the law. Sexual assault on children is a matter of graded severity; sexual assault on adult women is a matter of near-homogeneous maximum punition.
Meanwhile, National Crime Records Bureau data show that child rape has increased by 336 percent in the past 10 years, while Karnataka State Crime Records Bureau data also show a rise in child rape of 46.39 percent from 2008 (97) to 2012 (142).
“The situation is extremely bad,” says Shaibya Saldanha, co-founder of the Enfold Trust. “Most perpetrators are (seemingly) normal people, leading (seemingly) normal family lives…” Not too long ago, she says, child sexual abuse was thought of as a mental problem and the perpetrators were marked as, literally, “paedophiles”, a word that was first mentioned in a Krafft-Ebing report of 1900 and meant “child lover”. Today, the original meaning seems almost quaint, even benign. But, says Saldanha, “there is no such thing. There are no family stereotypes, and definitely no medication for paedophilia.” The only defence against paedophiles is, she says, “creating awareness” among parents and the public, and “the education of children”.
There is no denying the value of awareness about adult predators — and the ubiquity of predation — in the world at large. But, as in all developed societies that recognise paedophilia as a crime deserving of its own set of laws, punishments and medical interventions, every drive towards ‘awareness’ will have to be strengthened by disincentives to criminality.