Make Laws Gen­der Neu­tral

Men too can be­come vic­tims of sex­ual of­fences as well as false ac­cu­sa­tions

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times Nation - Sid­dharth Dhan­vant Shanghvi

She was a suc­cess­ful restau­ra­teur, he worked as an ar­chi­tect, and among south Mum­bai’s swish set they were a de­sired duo at any din­ner ta­ble, ra­di­at­ing in­tel­li­gence and spar­ring wit. When i trav­elled with them, they seemed like a cou­ple that might age well, fre­quently ar­gu­ing yet al­ways root­ing for each other, shar­ing a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion for good food, art and travel.

But when the ar­chi­tect was ac­cused of rape, the re­la­tion­ship took a turn.

As a stu­dent in New York, the ar­chi­tect had an Amer­i­can girl­friend. She re­mained in­fat­u­ated with her In­dian paramour long after he re­turned to Mum­bai. In her emails to him – to which i was privy – she claimed they were ‘des­tined’ to be to­gether (al­though nine years had passed since the end of a col­lege ro­mance). The emails in tone and con­tent os­cil­lated be­tween be­seech­ing to threat­en­ing – a de­spair­ing lover try­ing ev­ery­thing in her power to hold on to the per­son she loved.

But when news of the ar­chi­tect’s en­gage­ment hit the press – his fi­ancée was from a well-known fam­ily – the Amer­i­can ex-girl­friend com­plained the ar­chi­tect had sex­u­ally as­saulted her in their dat­ing years. Calls be­tween em­bassies of both na­tions floated fran­ti­cally. Im­por­tant lawyers were hired. The ar­chi­tect was ad­vised to flee to Lon­don un­til the mat­ter was re­solved – rape laws in In­dia can re­sult in the im­me­di­ate ar­rest of the ac­cused with bail be­ing tricky to pro­cure.

Ac­cord­ing to the ar­chi­tect, his for­mer Amer­i­can girl­friend turned on him after find­ing the man she de­sired to ob­ses­sion, and who she was con­vinced she would one day marry, would now hitch up with some­one else. With the so­ci­ety press track­ing the im­pend­ing nup­tials, fight­ing the case in court would prove lengthy, scar pub­lic rep­u­ta­tions, and more im­por­tantly im­pede the wed­ding. Close to $2 mil­lion were ex­changed in a hasty out-of-court set­tle­ment.

I felt the an­guish of my friends – their en­gage­ment could not en­dure this catas­tro­phe and they later sep­a­rated. Mem­o­ries from this in­ci­dent re­turned with TV ac­tor Karan Oberoi, ar­rested on May 5 in Mum­bai after an astrologer he dated ac­cused him of rape. Oberoi claimed he had re­buffed her ad­vances lead­ing her to fab­ri­cate the com­plaint. He spent a month in prison be­fore the case be­gan to un­ravel: The astrologer was dis­cov­ered to be mas­ter­mind­ing an at­tack on her­self to make it ap­pear as if the ac­tor had or­gan­ised an as­sault on her.

The judge hear­ing the case, Jus­tice Re­vati Dere, rep­ri­manded the prose­cu­tor for mis­han­dling the case: “You are ex­pected to do a free, fair and im­par­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” Events turned quickly. The astrologer’s lawyer, Ali Khan, was ar­rested for the fake at­tack. On June 17, the astrologer was also ar­rested. Oberoi, mean­while, be­came the face of our #men­too move­ment, and is writ­ing a mem­oir of his month in jail.

Da­m­age to pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion is not al­ways re­stored when cases are dis­proven, and flame throw­ing has pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions

Re­buffed lovers – of any gen­der – are not the only can­di­dates to re­sort to such mea­sures. When the #metoo move­ment first broke, a re­spected po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor who founded an on­line news out­let – which has been fre­quently crit­i­cal of the Modi govern­ment – was ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault on Twit­ter. Soon enough, the ve­rac­ity of the ac­count was ques­tioned, and the in­ci­dent dis­missed as one of po­lit­i­cal ven­detta. But a da­m­age to pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion is not al­ways re­stored when cases are dis­proven, and flame throw­ing has pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

Swa­roop Ray, an IT pro­fes­sional from north In­dia, hung him­self from a ceil­ing fan last year after he was sus­pended from work fol­low­ing sex­ual harass­ment charges by two col­leagues. In a sui­cide note ad­dressed to his wife he claimed the charges against him were base­less.

In­dia’s rape laws were strength­ened after the hor­rific Nirb­haya case. In the af­ter­math of her gang-rape and death, the Jus­tice Verma Com­mit­tee was formed in 2013 to re­view sex­ual of­fence laws. As a con­se­quence, In­dian women can now file a rape charge on­line. Cops are duty bound to reg­is­ter a case im­me­di­ately upon com­plaint. Rape re­mains the fourth most com­mon crime against In­dian women so these changes were nec­es­sary, and crit­i­cal.

But ear­lier in July a se­nior lawyer and par­lia­men­tar­ian KTS Tulsi in­di­cated he would in­tro­duce a pri­vate mem­bers bill be­fore the Ra­jya Sabha. This bill would in­tro­duce amend­ments in the crim­i­nal laws to make sex­ual of­fences gen­der neu­tral. Re­framed lan­guage in sex­ual of­fence laws would aim to change ‘any man’ and ‘any woman’ to ‘any per­son’ – a step for­ward to make the laws gen­der neu­tral. “Men, women, and other gen­ders can be per­pe­tra­tors and also vic­tims of these of­fences. Men, women and oth­ers need to be pro­tected,” Tulsi said.

Anti-stalk­ing laws in In­dia ap­ply only for women stalked by men. This came to pub­lic at­ten­tion after Vi­jay Nair, a mu­sic en­tre­pre­neur, was se­ri­ally cy­ber stalked by a woman – he learnt he had no re­course un­der In­dian law. Ab­surdly enough, while con­sen­sual sex on the false prom­ise of mar­riage is of­ten seen as rape, mar­i­tal rape it­self does not ac­count as rape un­der In­dian law.

Way back in 2013, the Jus­tice Verma Com­mit­tee had sug­gested ap­point­ing gen­der-neu­tral lan­guage for sex­ual of­fences, as in the United States (the US Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion treats sex­ual harass­ment at work­place as gen­der-neu­tral). This sug­ges­tion was never im­ple­mented.

Per­haps now is a time to re­view laws that might have pro­tected my friends, and so many oth­ers.

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