If the 14-year-old were molested in the #MeToo era, her convicted tormentor would be in jail for a long time. But he was a VIP invitee at the R-Day function in Panchkula.
I told you this story a long time ago, and will be failing in my duty as a journalist to not bring it back to you, especially the younger generations more sensitised on the issue of gender harassment. So read on, and reflect on the dire consequences of a mere child taking on the most powerful cop in her state by complaining that he “felt her up” at the tennis court. How it devastated her, her brother, and their parents.
The tragic story of Ruchika Girhotra goes back to 12 August 1990. She, then just 14, went to play at the Haryana Lawn Tennis Association (HLTA) courts at Panchkula, near Chandigarh. She complained to her parents that S.P.S. Rathore, an Inspector-General of Police and founding president of the HLTA, felt her up. After some deliberation, her parents, and those of her friend who used to go play with her, made a formal complaint to the then Haryana home secretary J.K. Duggal. He asked the then Director-General of Police (DGP) R.R. Singh to investigate. Singh concluded after inquiries that an FIR should be filed against Rathore.
The very next day, on 4 September 1990, the state financial commissioner accepted the DGP’s report and asked for a case to be registered under Sections 342 and 354 of the IPC. For one-and-a-half years, nothing happened. Nothing. Until 13 June 1992, when the state law department woke up again and recommended that an FIR be registered against Rathore. Now some action began but still no FIR.
Ruchika was thrown out of the HLTA a day after the incident “for indiscipline”, and from her school within a month for “non-payment of fees”. And when her brother Ashu turned 14, boy, wasn’t he going to be made to pay for his sister’s “sins”. Between 6 April 1992 and 4 September 1993, the Haryana Police, instead of moving against Rathore for molesting Ruchika, registered six FIRs against her 14-year-old brother for auto thefts. All cases went to court. In each, he was fully acquitted. But the harassment, the humiliation, the expense of litigation claimed their victim.
Three months after the sixth FIR was filed against her brother, Ruchika, then 17, committed suicide.
In early 1994, the Haryana chief secretary again recommended action against Rathore. Again nothing happened. Ruchika’s family went to pieces, even into hiding. In July 1997, Ruchika’s friends’ parents gathered the courage to file a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court asking for an FIR and CBI probe. On the court’s orders, an FIR was finally lodged in December 1999, nine years after the incident. On 16 November 2000, the CBI filed a chargesheet accusing Rathore of molesting Ruchika.
If the story doesn’t sicken you to the point of nausea already, if it doesn’t make you bristle with anger, indignation — and fright in case you happen to be the parent of a teenaged girl — read on. Ruchika’s father – who had been in hiding for fear of police harassment, kept on asking how come Rathore was charged only with molestation, not for making his little daughter commit suicide – got no hearing. The brother’s life, after the humiliation, the torture and the litigation at such a young age, became a mess. Remember, under today’s more civilised laws and awareness, he’d be treated very differently as a juvenile. But not in the 1990s.
And Rathore? He was the DGP of Haryana (when I wrote my first piece) and continued to be in that job despite the chargesheet. Here, Advaniji, I had written, is a first in your long and distinguished political career — someone charged in a court with molesting a 14-year-old child commanding the police force next door to Delhi. Surely, Sardar Patel wouldn’t have approved of this.
Had Ruchika survived the trauma, she would have been a woman in the prime of her life at 42. She would, by now, have voted in six elections, may have even raised a family of her own. But she chose to complain when she felt humiliated, and paid for it.
What lesson does her fate hold out for other young women in our schools and colleges, work-places, playgrounds? Shut up and suffer silently if some old uncleji feels you up? Particularly if he happens to be powerful, even more so if he is a cop? And mind you, this did not happen in some impenetrable political jungle of western Bihar. This happened in an upper middle class suburb, the kind of place people like us inhabit.
The then Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala’s reasoning for not removing or suspending Rathore was typically ludicrous. The CBI, he said, is famous for framing people with fictional chargesheets — he should know now, serving a 10-year sentence, convicted in a corruption case filed by the CBI. He wasn’t then willing to answer any of the questions we raised: in which civilised society would you expect as your DGP a man accused of molesting a 14-year-old who eventually committed suicide, whose brother’s life was devastated with trumped up cases, whose father went into hiding? Which parent, and which child, would feel safe in that state anymore? What view would that state’s police sub-inspectors and station house officers take of all the reforms the courts and the human rights bodies have brought about in the police’s treatment of women? As such, Haryana is not a state known to possess the most polite policemen in the country. Now, when they see their government toss aside the National Human Rights Commission’s strong suggestions to remove the DGP — based on a series of reports then in The Indian Express — or the Central Vigilance Commission’s advice to do so, they would draw obvious inferences.
Who was to tell Chautala any of this? The BJP, which then supported his government in the state, demanded Rathore’s removal, but he couldn’t care less. Following his chargesheet in 2000, Rathore proceeded on long leave and two years later, he retired. For him, it was life as usual. It still is.
This wasn’t merely one more case of police highhandedness and political protectionism. It raised some very special — and interesting — questions. First of all, why wasn’t there, in the media and Parliament, the kind of outrage that would have erupted had Rathore been a politician instead of a senior IPS officer? The Supreme Court and Narasimha Rao had in the same period, made an entire legion of ministers resign because they had been chargesheeted in the hawala case, which was like a minor traffic offence compared to child molestation. Why should the same principle not apply to senior civil servants and policemen, we asked. Innocent until proven guilty, but step aside from authority or a position of power where you could influence the case, and damage the credibility of institutions.
The second question was an even nastier one, but more relevant in the context of Chandigarh. This case dragged on for a decade-and-a-half. Why did it not evoke one-hundredth of the kind of protest that the Rupan Deol Bajaj-K.P.S. Gill case did?
It is nobody’s case that one kind of sexual harassment is different, or lesser or greater, in its severity than any other. But Rupan was a senior IAS officer and more capable of defending herself against a DGP than a 14-year-old child on the tennis courts at Panchkula. We didn’t see any women’s organisations, civil libertarians, legal luminaries that hit the streets on the Rupan case come out for Ruchika. Much of the initial impetus in the Rupan case had come from members of the civil service in Chandigarh, so outraged at so blatant a case of sexual harassment. They were all silent for four years while the file on Rathore’s prosecution was put in deep freeze, while Ruchika’s kid brother was being tortured and buried under false cases. Some may have been going out to play tennis with Rathore. If they had shown even a fraction of the outrage they had in the Rupan case, Ruchika would likely have been alive today.
We had then said that for Vajpayee and Advani (prime minister and home minister then), honourable, middle-class people with sound family values and great personal integrity, the facts were clear enough. They needed to only look at a mere chronology of events. If, after that, they did not find enough reason to force Chautala to move his DGP aside, or at least dissociate from him if he refused to listen, it could only mean that, as politicians, they were no different from the others. They could, I had written, go and see, along with their families, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Kurukshetra, which is all about a chief minister fighting to save his rapist son, killing his victim in the hospital, destroying her family. Bollywood is not particularly known for political understatement, but when you go home and review the facts of the Panchkula story, you would wonder how fast real life is catching up with cinema. And you would feel ashamed.
Epilogue: The case went through many phases of dilution after Ruchika’s suicide. Her brother never recovered from repeated police “treatment” in the fake cases. But because some in the media persisted and shamed the “system” enough so it wouldn’t let Rathore go scot-free, he was finally convicted in 2009 under the lightest IPC sections (then) of molestation and handed a six-month jail sentence with a minor fine.
It was this man whose picture you saw on the Republic Day stage at Panchkula as a VIP guest. I know Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar to be a most decent human being. I cannot see why this won’t outrage a man as upright and proper as Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The least they can do is call to account whoever not merely normalised a molestation convict like this, but put him on the VIP pedestal on the day we celebrate the founding of the Republic, the adoption of its great Constitution, and the system of laws and decencies rooted in it. And make sure this doesn’t happen again.