Make Laws Gender Neutral
Men too can become victims of sexual offences as well as false accusations
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.