Preschool Rape Case Belies Justice for India Women Born to LoseTom Lasseter
Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- The 3-year-old was limp on the family bed in New Delhi, staring at the ceiling. She didn’t want to eat. She wouldn’t speak. She barely moved. “Lying around, like a dead body,” her father said.
She usually came skittering home from preschool full of joy, a whirl of noise and motion, giggles bouncing off the concrete walls. Her stillness worried her family. Then she vomited. After a doctor prescribed medicine for an upset stomach, she threw up again. Her mother peeled off her clothes to find splotches of what looked like blood inside her daughter’s pink and white pants, and her genitals were swollen.
Shaking, her mother pressed her to talk. The little girl told her about a man at the preschool -- “the uncle,” she called him -- who assaulted her in the bathroom and threatened to hang her from a ceiling fan if she didn’t keep quiet.
It was devastating, and complicated. “This is a matter of our child’s honor,” the father said when his wife called him at work. He had to be careful. Reporting a sexual assault in India could bring shame. The preschool owner’s family was rungs above his in social and economic status. The police tended to treat rape as trivial, especially if the accusers were poor.
At least, that was how it had been. This was December 2012, and the country was roiling after a brutal gang rape on a bus in Delhi. Pent-up outrage over routine sexual violence against women propelled thousands of people into the streets. Members of parliament demanded action. And the father went to the police. He wanted justice for his daughter.
The journey he decided to take would plunge him into a byzantine law enforcement and judicial system, and expose his family to the prejudice that defines life for women and girls at almost every turn in the world’s largest democracy. A skinny 35-year-old whose hair is shot through with gray, the father of two daughters, Kumar said he knew he first had to make certain his youngest understood the gravity of what she was saying.
“You can’t ruin a man’s life on the basis of one doubt,” Kumar said. He and his wife, Kiran, asked that their full names and their daughter’s not be published to protect the child’s prospects in a society where girls can be shunned for having sex, even forced sex when they’re just out of diapers. Indian law generally forbids identifying adult rape victims and all minors who’ve suffered sexual abuse.
Anjali -- it means divine offering in Sanskrit -- repeated the details, over and over, to her parents, to her grandmother. Kumar said doubt melted. “Imagine how painful that must have been,” he said. Struggling to explain his feelings, he switched to English from Hindi. “Against humanity,” he said.
It was Dec. 19. The gang rape victim was on a ventilator at New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. About 10 miles away, in a police station with paint peeling off the wall and old chairs jumbled on the roof, Kumar’s trek through the system began.
At first, the process moved quickly. Anjali was interviewed by police officers, a magistrate, a therapist and a representative of the Child Welfare Committee. A doctor took vaginal and rectal swabs. The doctor filed a report noting that the child’s hymen was intact, there was no history of “penile insertion” and there were no signs of external injuries. The report does note a history of “fingering & penile rubbing around external genitals (around vagina & rectum).”
Anjali identified Pramod Malik, the husband of the woman who ran the preschool, as the man who “put his pee pee in my pee pee,” in the words she used to police. Malik, then 40, was arrested. He signed a two-page statement at the station that said he “touched her private part with my finger and did wrong things” because of the “devilish thoughts” in his head.
On Dec. 21, the Hindustan Times ran a story on Anjali’s case: “More shame: 3-year-old girl raped in playschool.” The fury grew over the gang rape five days earlier, which happened one day before Anjali came home so quiet from preschool. Demonstrators faced off with police on the way to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the president. Surgeons had removed much of the gang rape victim’s intestines, which were destroyed by the metal rod her assailants thrust into her.
Anjali’s case sparked a protest too that day in her neighborhood, which sits near a city jail and is cleaved by a sewage canal. Kumar met in the morning with elders at the local residents’ welfare association, and they decided to confront Poonam Malik, the woman who ran the preschool. They wanted to know: How could she bring dishonor on the community by letting this happen?
She greeted them from a balcony of the family house -- the school was on the first floor -- defending her husband and yelling that the men below weren’t without sin. “Haven’t been bathed with milk” is the phrase Kumar said she used.
Soon at least 75 people had gathered outside, some calling for Pramod Malik to be executed. “Hang him,” they shouted. Two men tacked a piece of paper to the red door. “Not a play school, this is a rape school,” the script on the paper said. Nearby was the school sign, illustrated with a bunny rabbit and a clown juggling five balls.
A member of parliament, Mahabal Mishra, weaved his way through the crowd, his hand moving above his white hair in a flutter of acknowledgment. Kumar pushed forward. He touched his head to the MP’s torso in a gesture of supplication. As he was pulled away, Kumar’s finger shot up, wagging in Mishra’s face. He yelled, “I want justice!”
Kumar could see it happening. At 5 p.m., Poonam Malik, then 35, was charged with exposing a child to mental or physical suffering, which carries a maximum sentence of six months. The charge against her husband, aggravated penetrative sexual assault, a crime under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act, can be punished by life in prison. The law applies to penetration by any body part, not just the penis.
Poonam Malik signed a statement saying she hadn’t been at the preschool the day of the alleged assault but her husband had. He’d taken sick leave from his job as an associate to the president of a New Delhi research institute, according to the statement and to documents collected by the police. She expressed remorse, according to the statement, which ended with “I have made a mistake. Forgive me.”
The Maliks declined to be interviewed for this story. Their lawyer said that they are innocent and that the statements were fabricated by the police, written up after his clients signed blank pieces of paper.
The head officer of the police station, Inspector Richhpal Singh, dismissed that accusation, though he wouldn’t discuss the Maliks’ statements specifically. “It’s the lawyer’s job to make such comments,” he said, wearing the dark khaki uniform and neatly trimmed mustache typical of New Delhi police officers. “Whatever the accused reveals is written down.”
Two months passed between the Maliks’ arrest and the formal presentation to the court of their charge-sheets -- the documents accusing them of crimes. It was the beginning of a grinding process. A trial in India isn’t a contained event with consecutive days of testimony and arguments but a series of hearings, weeks or months removed from one another, frequently adjourned and postponed. There’s no jury. A judge decides the strength of charges filed and weighs the merits of all evidence.
Prosecutors play largely administrative roles, making sure facts are presented and the law followed. Both accuser and accused are represented by their own attorneys. Kumar found a lawyer who agreed to volunteer his time. The Maliks hired one who said he has several clients facing rape-related charges.
Except in rare cases, trials last for years, in part because of a shortage of judges. India has 15.5 jurists per million people, while the U.S. has more than 100. To work through just the backlog of unresolved rape cases -- 86,032 at the end of 2012 -- the courts would have to decide more than 78 a day, every day, for three years straight.
After the preschool protest, Kumar and Kiran tried to take the advice of therapists. Don’t dwell on what happened, they said. Hide or throw out clothes or books that were reminders of the preschool. Anjali didn’t want to eat. Sometimes, her parents said, she would suddenly cry out, “He will kill me!”
They bore the days and nights, grief-stricken about Anjali and worried about the effect on her older sister. Outside, they faced deeply-rooted social attitudes about rape. People talked behind their backs, Kumar said. A month passed. Then he lost one of his two jobs, on the day shift in a pharmacy.
Kumar had missed too many days ferrying Anjali to police appointments and counseling sessions. “I was not doing the work properly,” he said. “I was late all the time.”
While he held on to his overnight job at a hospital pharmacy, making about 9,000 rupees ($147) a month, that relative good fortune was tempered by his family getting kicked out of the house they’d been renting.
Kumar didn’t believe the landlord’s explanation of needing the space for a relative; he said he thought the decision was fueled by discomfort about the rape case and the visits by police. Later, he said, the family moved a second time to get away from gossiping neighbors.
At the end of February, Pramod Malik was granted bail. By then, Kumar had found a new daytime job, as a middleman for wholesalers and small shops. He pedaled his bike from seller to buyer with the goods -- bug repellent, shampoo, diapers, laundry soap -- strapped to the frame with a black rubber tire tube.
At the pharmacy job he lost, he’d earned about 12,000 rupees a month. While this business brought in less than half that, it was steady work and he said he hoped to turn it into more. He and Kiran wanted better for their children. He said that’s why they’d decided to send Anjali to the preschool, to give her an advantage.
After college, Kumar hadn’t aspired to being a delivery man or counting out pills for a living. He’d planned to continue his studies and find a position as an accountant. He still keeps his documents from the University of Calcutta, which show he earned a degree in commerce in 1998, in a bag under the bed at home.
He became a pharmacist’s assistant because his younger brother was still in school and his parents had spent their savings on his sister’s wedding, he said. “It was my first duty to give bread and biscuits to my family.”
In March, Kumar learned his family would be awarded 25,000 rupees from a victim compensation fund. A letter from the Delhi State Legal Services Authority said the payment was made on the advice of Singh, the commanding officer at the police station, who’d said they were “living in miserable condition.”
At first Kumar was suspicious. “We don’t want money for our child,” his wife recalled him saying, “we just want justice.” She said he calmed down after they met with legal services officials and learned accepting the money would have no effect on the case. They put it aside for Anjali’s wedding.
On the first Saturday in March, as Kumar was making his delivery rounds, a motorbike sideswiped him. He tumbled and hurt his hand, but his bicycle wasn’t badly damaged.
A month later, two strangers visited him at the hospital pharmacy. In the graininess of a security camera frame, their faces are hard to make out -- a man is beside Kumar, another is following. One mentioned the bike accident, Kumar said, reciting what he heard: “You were saved last time but next time we’re not going to let you go.” They told him to drop the rape case, he said. Frightened, he filed an application for police protection for Anjali.
The application included the license plate number of the men’s car, and Kumar later gave police a copy of the security camera image. Singh said the application was transferred from his precinct to the one where the hospital is. The head officer at that station, Inspector Pramod Gupta, said he wasn’t aware of Kumar’s request.
The Maliks’ lawyer, Vinay Sharma, said they had nothing to do with any attempts to intimidate Kumar. “Whatever allegations are leveled, they are false, totally false,” he said.
Leaning forward in his chair, Sharma said Anjali’s allegations were fabricated too. She’d been put up to it by her family, he said, in an attempt to extort money after a dispute over the monthly tuition of 500 rupees at the preschool.
“It is a big problem now,” because of all the attention paid to the gang rape case, Sharma said. “These days many false cases of sexual harassment are lodged by the parents of the minor children to settle their old scores.”
Sub-inspector Kusum Lata, the investigating officer in Anjali’s case, voiced a similar sentiment. Ever since the gang rape, Lata said, there’s been a flood of complaints, and it’s difficult to sift through what’s genuine and what’s not.
“A lot of women register sexual assault cases against people they want to get even with,” she said. “I shouldn’t say this, but about 80 percent of the cases are based on revenge.”
Asked if that includes Anjali and her father, Lata said, “that can only be decided on the basis of statements in court. I can’t say such things about a child’s case.”
The weight of summer settled on New Delhi, and the narrow alley outside Kumar’s home filled with clouds of flies. On one of the main room’s dirt-streaked walls, the telephone numbers of the local police station, child welfare and aid groups were scribbled in pencil. They were for his wife, he said, should someone threaten her while he’s away.
Kumar was anxious every night when he left for his shift at the hospital. On a Thursday about three months after the strangers visited him there, he caught the bus as usual, rode north and got off at the Metal Forging stop to transfer to the No. 108. He strolled over to a clutch of vendors, and asked for 5 rupees-worth of fried lentils. Someone yelled that the No. 108 was coming. That’s when the group of people approached him.
A woman began to shout. Bystanders told police she yelled that Kumar was trying to rape her. The men pounded him with their fists. Reeling, he said he heard one say, “You are the only earning member of the family and we will make sure you’re behind bars.” Kumar was detained and accused of attempting to assault the woman.
Interviews with witnesses persuaded police that he wasn’t guilty, said Inspector Raman Lamba, the head officer of the local police station at the time. “They all support the version of the man, that this is just a collision” -- two people bumping into each other -- “that there was no molestation,” the inspector said from his office, the door open to a hallway where a pair of lizards climbed the walls.
Kumar filed a complaint with the police saying he suspected the incident was designed to keep him from going to court for his daughter’s case.
The officer assigned to the bus-stop beating, Sub-inspector Ram Gopal, said no link was found with Anjali’s case. Gopal declined to discuss his investigation. Lamba said the men and woman involved in the beating wouldn’t be pursued because the injuries they inflicted on Kumar were “not serious.”
Kumar was demoralized. He’d filed a sexual assault case on behalf of his daughter and then he himself was accused of attempting to assault a woman.
“He came to my office and said, ’Sir, I cannot fight any longer,’” said D.S. Rawat, the head of a neighborhood charity who befriended Kumar. “He was totally broken.” Kumar had made the mistake, after all of the attention paid to the gang rape, of thinking that “their case would be treated the same way,” Rawat said. But “such cases happen in every corner of the country, all the time.”
Rapes are vastly underreported in India, as they are around the world. Though the numbers are rising, up 902 percent between 1971 and 2012, Indian government data show there were 24,923 reported last year, in a country of more than 1.2 billion.
“The whole thing is so traumatic and it takes so long that people feel that it’s better to keep quiet and forget all about it and carry on with life,” said Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-director of the HAQ Centre for Child Rights in New Delhi, an advocacy group for young victims of sexual abuse that helps train law enforcement and court officers. “There is no guarantee of justice at the end of the day.”
Rajat Mitra, a psychologist and director of a trauma counseling center in New Delhi, said sexual predators know it. He interviewed about 200 men charged with or convicted of sex crimes between 2000 and 2005. He said the men were consistent: They didn’t think anyone was interested in solving rape cases.
“One of the major things that came across from the pedophiles and the rapists was that, ‘We can get away,’” Mitra said. They told him that either the woman wouldn’t file a complaint “or the victim will not be believed.”
The gang rape, and the death of the victim 13 days after the attack, spurred some change. The Indian Parliament revised the country’s sexual harassment and assault laws, imposing harsher penalties on men who attack women and on police officers who fail to properly act on rape reports.
The accused in the gang rape were tried under the country’s fast-track system and convicted in September, nine months after the crime. Four men were sentenced to death by hanging; they later appealed. A juvenile was sentenced to the maximum three years. A sixth defendant was found dead in his cell in March.
Anjali’s case dragged on. One day at the end of August, she was passed out in the middle of the family bed, wearing black shorts and a red shirt with a silver stripe. Kumar scooped her up in his arms and moved her to a pillow so that visitors could sit with him on the bed, which takes up most of the main room.
“My child has been questioned over and over, again and again,” Kumar said, looking down at Anjali and the skinny legs sticking out of her shorts. He sounded tired, and said a moment later, “This incident took place a long time ago.”
The fan creaking overhead hardly stirred the air, and sweat trickled down Kumar’s forehead. Roaches crawled on the walls, the bed, the floor and the Mickey Mouse sheet draped over his stock of wholesale goods in a corner.
Anjali turned over. Her father paused. Had she been pretending to be asleep? A few minutes later, the girl quietly slipped off the bed and walked out of the room.
A tear welled as Kumar talked about the next hearing. “If you don’t want to give justice to such children, then why file cases in the first place?” he said. “Just say that your children were born to be assaulted and leave it at that.”
At a courthouse on the western edge of the New Delhi a few days later, Kumar sat in front of a pillar mounted with security cameras. He wore his usual outfit of a short sleeve blue cotton shirt, jeans and brown sandals. He didn’t peer through the window in the door to see what was happening in the courtroom. “I don’t want to watch,” he said. “My heart is too weak.”
Kiran was inside with Anjali, who sat atop a table before the judge’s bench. The girl’s eyes were wide under dark hair shorn in a bowl cut. To Anjali’s right was the family’s attorney, to her left three lawyers for the Maliks.
The lawyers began to wave their arms in disagreement, leaning toward each other with scowls or smirks. Anjali disappeared from view as the cluster of their black suit jackets closed in. At the back of the courtroom, the Maliks stood behind a cloth screen hung on a white metal frame.
It was Sept. 4, the seventh scheduled hearing so far, according to lawyers on both sides, and the second time she’d testified in court about what happened in the preschool bathroom on Dec. 17.
Kumar’s father, Ashok, said it was crushing for his son to have worked so hard to give his daughters opportunities only to face tragedy. “He doesn’t talk freely with us about this, but he is in mental anguish,” said Ashok, who works at the family’s tea shop with his wife on an alley beside the sewage canal.
Anjali, now 4, goes to a different preschool and walks home with her mother. While her sister bops around the house and makes jokes, Anjali often just watches, mostly silent.
In late November, Kumar walked out of his neighborhood, past the hodgepodge of houses wedged between shops with mobile phone displays, old sewing machines and caged chickens. He crossed the sewage canal as narrow lanes opened to streets big enough for a car, under thick webs of crisscrossing phone and power lines.
He continued for several minutes, until he got to a nicer district, which he said he rarely has time to visit. His daughters and wife met him at a park. The girls ran together in the grass. Their father watched them, and smiled. He said he’d pursue the case for Anjali, however long it took. In four days, it will have been a year since his daughter came home such a different little girl than she’d been in the morning.
With the sun dipping down, Kumar gathered his family. It would be getting dark soon, and they headed back to their rooms on the alley.
To contact the reporter on this story: Tom Lasseter in New Delhi at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Voskuhl at firstname.lastname@example.org