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NOTWITHSTANDING our usual disinterested, even unconcerned, attitude to incidents of sexual molestation, including that of minor girls (unless they involve rape and brutality), there are clear indications that the ‘much in news’ case of Ruchika Ghirotra and S.P.S. Rathore, former DG Police of Haryana, may mark a welcome break from tradition.

In itself, even if this sounds cynical, the unwelcome interest in and molestation of a young schoolgirl who happened to catch the eye of a powerful official is in not that uncommon. Usually, such incidents are sought to be buried and forgotten, often with the active connivance of family members fearing shame. Unusually, in this specific case, the victim, confidence bolstered by her close friend, Aradhana Prakash, decided to protest and lodge a complaint. Equally unusually, the complaint was not ignored and the then DG Police, R.R. Singh, speedily investigated the matter and recommended filing of criminal charges. And then, the empire struck back.

For the next three years, no FIR was filed. Meanwhile, Rathore and his associates used every dirty trick in the book – intimidating the girl, her family and sympathizers, organizing demonstrations at her house, pressurizing her school into expelling her for failiure to pay fees, even implicating her brother in false cases of car theft and torturing him in custody – all to have the case dropped. Pushed to the brink, Ruchika decided to take her life. Despite this long and distressing litany of horrors, the case took an agonizing 19 plus years for the courts to deliver a judgement – that too a mere six months in prison and a Rs 1000 fine. Of course, Rathore was immediately granted bail.

In other situations and different times, it is likely that this is where matters would rest. The case, after all, had hardly excited media attention, barring episodic coverage in local media. But the pictures of S.P.S. Rathore, beaming a big smile and flashing a victory sign, as if the courts had vindicated his claims of injured innocence, snapped the cycle of predictability. Over the next few weeks, we witnessed incessant national media coverage and investigation to unearth the murky details of the case, ordinary citizens across the country mobilized to protest the travesty of justice, even Parliamentarians discussed the case in the Lok Sabha.

And suddenly, our otherwise uncaring and apathetic administration was spurred into action – reopening the investigation into Rathore and all those who assisted him, stripping him of his police awards, petitioning the courts into re-examining the sentence, even revisiting the laws on sexual harassment. And while public attention is fickle and it is unclear that Rathore will get his just desserts, it is likely that we may well witness the unfolding of a different script.

It is worth asking ourselves as to what so incensed the ordinary public and spurred the demand for retributory justice. One suspects that more than the fact of sexual molestation, the abuse of power by a well-connected police official, or the excruciating delays in our justice system – though all these matter – it is really the open display of blatant arrogance and confidence by Rathore that, despite what anyone else might feel of say, he can and will get away which has fuelled the public demand for action. Equally, and for this we need to thank the media, the piecing together of the full scale of horror – from the role of political masters and officials in ‘protecting’ Rathore, to that of the school where Ruchika was studying – resulting in the near devastation of an otherwise ‘normal’ family that is no longer acceptable.

Whether or not, as columnist Gurcharan Das writes, this indicates that dharma may be rising rather than falling in the country, that our populace wants civic life to be shaped not by who is powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right, is debatable. It is, however, difficult to ignore that there is today, at least in increasing sections of the middle class, a growing impatience with the chalta hai and blase attitude of our officialdom, even less that they are above the laws and values governing the rest of us and can thus be confident of getting away with their misdemeanours, no matter how grave.

Be it because of our growing middle class prosperity, the many campaigns for transparency and accountability culminating eventually in the RTI Act, or even the presence of a far more activist and interventionist media, it does appear that we are in the process of crafting a new public culture. Hopefully, our politicians and lawmakers are listening and will take note that citizens are no longer willing to be taken for granted. Maybe then, Ruchika Ghirotra will finally get justice.

Harsh Sethi