It’s time lawmakers addressed the injustice suffered by men due to inadequacies in the law, and it’s important the media tells both sides of the story
A ‘hapless’ woman in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, tries to file a gang rape case, and is turned away by the police, forcing her to seek help from a court. She files a private complaint with the court, but instead of taking action on her complaint, the police officer in charge of the case demands sexual favours from her. She records her conversation with him and submits a CD as proof to higher police officials.
So far, a perfect case for a media storm, and it indeed becomes one.
“Rape victim asked for sexual favour by police”, headlines scream out loud, shaking up the entire police administration in Uttar Pradesh. In the backdrop of the government setting up anti-romeo squads, where police is out on streets to nab the stalkers and protect women, the case comes as a huge blow to the credibility of the police force, dubbing protectors as predators.
Media houses question the sensitivity of the government towards crime against women and the credibility of its police force. Front-page coverage of case follows; story goes viral with international media picking it up almost immediately, adding one more case to dub India as the rape capital of the world.
Daily Mail Online tweeted not one but several times on the story drawing angry reactions from the world over.
As the outrage was building up, with news channels ready to capture the next big development, the unexpected happens – the case turns out to be false. The alleged rape survivor, a con, had framed the cop because he was about to file a final report in a false gang rape case filed by her!
Unlike the usual cold response of police to false rape cases, this time officers from UP Police, who are active on social media, provided details of the conspiracy and confirmed that the woman had been arrested on charges of cheating and lodging a false case. The official Twitter handle of the UP Police reached out to media organisations, and asked them to report on actual facts of the case.
But now, there was an eerie silence. One could see only few regional papers following up on the story. No debates, discussions, thorough investigations or detailing of the conspiracy by the woman, or what the officer falsely accused of the crime went through. The truth behing the story of how a protector became a predator that reached millions in India and abroad now reached only a few thousands. This is a pattern I have observed for the last several years while working on false accusations of dowry, molestation, rape, sexual harassment against men.
So why does the media, particularly the mainstream one, remain indifferent to such cases or doesn’t take them as seriously as they take a rape complaint by a woman?
"Sensationalism sells," says Additional Superintendent of Police Rahul Srivastav, adding "reporters in the Rampur case were told that the gang rape case filed by the woman has been found to be false by the investigating officer, and she is acting in revenge against him. But a leading English daily published a misleading headline, which was picked up by international media as it is, tarnishing the image of UP Police badly."
It was Srivastav’s tweet on the reality of the case that got some traction on Twitter. However, his request to Daily Mail Online—that tweeted about the case drawing angry reaction from its readers—to retract their story went unheeded.
Srivastav, who is also Lucknow Police PRO DGP, agrees that media needs to look at both sides of the story while dealing with false accusations under women protection laws in India. “No one wants to listen to the other side of the story, no matter how strong the evidence is. While reports of alleged crime appear on front page, its falsification or actual facts are reported deep inside the newspaper in few lines. TV media loses interest. Despite repeated requests, Daily Mail Online did not care to even respond to us. These accusations cause an irreparable damage. Media trial adds to the misery as the person is already shown as guilty in the eyes of the world. It is high time that people start talking about this nuisance and media goes in depth into these stories too, and report in an unbiased manner,” he adds.
While the response of UP Police in Rampur case is appreciated by Barkha Trehan, a men’s rights activist, she believes the police reacted in a swift manner in this case only because the accused was a policeman. “We don’t see such immediate reaction and response by police when a common man is falsely accused of rape. I wanted them to see how such reports by media go viral without any fact check even if the case is later found to be false and they immediately reacted to my tweet,” she says. It was Trehan’s tweet that was responded to by Srivastav on Twitter, gathering more than 1,500 retweets.
Trehan’s hesitation isn’t misplaced. Rising incidents of false rape accusations rarely get any attention from the media, even if the one falsely accused commits suicide leaving behind proofs of his innocence and details on how he was framed. I have rarely seen any prime time debate on this issue. The infamous case of the Rohtak sisters also hardly got any attention in the mainstream media, especially TV, when the boys, who were accused by the sisters, got a clean chit by the court.
While hours were spent on listening to the lies and applauding the bravery of the girls over the half-an-hour journey inside the bus, few seconds meant too much for editors to listen to what the boys went through for two years, while they were tried for a false criminal charge. Prominent television journalist Arnab Goswami, who probably caused the maximum harm, forcing the Indian Army to ban the boys from writing their exam, never organised a debate after the court’s verdict, even though he said he would, during one of his debates in which I was a participant.
It is ironic that the media, which puts in much effort to dig out antecedents of a rape accused or a man accused of a sexual crime by a woman, never puts in the same effort to unravel the stories of women who are serial false accusers. In the Rohtak case, no one reached out to those families that had been blackmailed or falsely accused by the sisters or their family in the past. Once the case fizzled out, it was over. I wonder if it no longer remained a human interest story.
Quantifying the problem of false accusations under rape laws is a tough task. While we have statistics on how many cases were found false by police from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), false cases, which eventually result in acquittal after trial in court, do not make a statistic anywhere. They are recorded just as acquittals granted on basis of ‘benefit of doubt’. Even if a judge concludes that the case was false in his final judgement, it isn’t listed separately anywhere. So what does the NCRB data say?
According to NCRB data, a total of 32,443 rape cases were reported in India in 2015. This number excludes custodial gang rape and custodial rape. Of these, 2,303 cases of rape and 318 cases of gang rape were found false by police following investigation. Five hundred more cases were concluded as ‘mistake of fact or law’. While charge sheet rate in rape cases stood at 96.1 per cent in 2015, conviction rate was 29.4 per cent.
The table, below, details an offender’s relation and proximity to rape victims – in 7,655 cases, the accused was a known person, who had promised to marry the victim (also called rape on false promise of marriage) and in 705 cases, the accused was a live-in partner or husband (separated/ex) of the complainant. Both these categories jointly formed 25 per cent of rapes reported in 2015.
Statistics can always be debated in terms of percentage of false cases versus genuine cases, and if we need any attention towards the former. But, I wonder, if both aren’t a matter of injustice to individuals and society as a whole. Can injustice be ignored just because of numbers?
A judge, on condition of anonymity, candidly told me that a majority of such cases, where the rape is said to have happened several months or years ago, are false. It is easy, however, to get the complaint registered through the court because judges don’t look into the merits of the cases, but only if an FIR has been registered or not, in the police station. Once a case is registered and the accused is arrested, the bargain or blackmail for money begins. “There are now organised gangs who are doing this in some districts in Bihar. Women change their names and file rape cases on multiple people, extort money from them and then turn hostile. These cases will have almost the same story. I have seen cases, where the woman knows the name and address of the man, who she is accusing of rape, but if he’s standing in front of her, she cannot even identify him,” he said.
When I question him on how they can allow these things to go on, he said, “some judges have taken cognizance of this pattern and ordered complainants to submit their Aadhaar Card. In West Champaran, the Chief Judicial Magistrate started this practice and such cases almost vanished. We are also seeing arrests of the false complainant in some cases. So we are finding solutions from the problems itself.”
Incidents of organised gangs using rape laws as tools aren’t limited to one state, however. I keenly followed reports of such extortion gangs being busted in Jaipur one after another by the Special Operations Group earlier this year. What is shocking is that some of these gangs were being run by government advocates and high court lawyers. In their own confession, they had extorted more than Rs 20 crore by filing false rape charges or threatening people with these charges in just two years.
Local media in Rajasthan covered these exposes diligently. As a result, many more people, who became victims of such gangs came out, leading to arrest of more such criminals. These exposes, however, cut no ice with prime time debaters in Lutyens media and I saw no debates discussing the plight of victims of these false rape cases. If one expose by the police in Jaipur, and media reporting on these stories, encouraged many more victims to come out, I can only imagine the impact of a little focus by national media on these cases. The question is, would they?
So, does media apathy and lack of will to investigate claims made by women in such complaints compound the problem? Certainly yes. Those who wish to settle scores through these laws know they can use the media to their advantage by passing just a copy of the FIR to them, which gets printed as it is in news with name and photo of the accused splashed across papers.
“My brother’s photo was displayed at the centre of the page and every line in the complaint was copied as if it was gospel truth,” says Gayatri (name changed), whose brother has been behind bars for last few months over what she says is a false rape case by his ex-girlfriend.
“It’s quite a helpless situation. Media will not publish the boy’s side of the story no matter how strong his evidence is. Concocted complaint printed as news then impacts what happens inside courtrooms too. Getting bail becomes really difficult as judges don’t wish to take any chance in a case that has come in public eye and reject bail without citing any reasons, but that is a crime against society,” Gayatri tells me.
In February 2016, Additional Sessions Judge Justice Nivedita Anil Sharma made an apt observation about the prevailing situation when she handed down a judgment in a false rape case. “It is time for a law to protect men from false rape cases and think about their dignity and honour,” she stated while asking if a man honourably acquitted from such a case should be called a “rape case survivor”.
Such strong observations by a woman judge also have not led to a debate on this issue in the national media. So why is media not as much bothered about lives destroyed due to misuse of rape laws as much as it is about lives destroyed due to the actual crime?
Sneha Agrawal, a young journalist with India Today Group, who has covered many stories of false accusations on men under dowry and rape laws gives me an answer. “We do not connect reputation and dignity to a man in the same way as we do to women as a society, and it’s true for media as well,” she says.
“It is difficult for people to even think that a woman can lie about such a crime. Until it happens to them, no one understands the gravity of such an accusation, the harm it can cause and what’s happening in reality today. It is true that media rarely follows up on a rape case until its final judgment. Prima facie it is the allegations only that the case is reported upon. Once an FIR is filed, it is considered that the crime has happened. Reports are printed even before the medical tests are done or the report is out. Even if there are glaring gaps in the story, journalists refrain from writing anything negative because then you run the risk of passing judgment on a sub-judice case. Even though the situation is better than before in terms of reporting such cases, I feel media should take a stand. We should not support people taking undue advantage of the law,” Agrawal emphasises.
Discussing false accusations against men can have repercussions – not only for media but for anyone. People or platforms discussing this are usually dubbed as anti-women and misogynists. Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, drew flak from women members of Parliament last year, when he answered a question on 'Misuse of Domestic Violence Act by women' in Rajya Sabha. Even though he was just quoting data from NCRB, a woman member of Parliament branded his answer objectionable and improper, and sought an apology.
Justice Virender Bhat, who has made strong observations in rape cases that were found false during a trial, was asked to go for gender sensitisation training by Delhi High Court after a against him. There can be personal threats too.
Hardik Anand, who reports for Hindustan Times and covers crime in Haryana, wrote several articles based on facts, evidence and CCTV footage, bringing the other side of the story in a gang rape case in Rohtak, where the complainant alleged that the same boys raped her again to force her into a compromise. The case was covered by almost all known news channels with a special focus by Times Now. Anand followed up on the case after the initial media hype and kept writing about its developments, where police found no evidence against the accused and glaring inconsistencies in the complainant’s version, including her own location at the time of the alleged incident. Anand received a threatening message from the complainant’s family on his mobile phone. “It was a very threatening message. They asked me to stop writing about the case else they will see me,” he says.
The accused in this case were released after spending three months in jail as the evidence revealed that the girl was with two other men in a hotel during the time of the alleged incident, and all the accused were also far away from the place of the alleged crime on that day. The trial in the case continues. To my question, if an accused is contacted ever to know his version of the story in such cases, Anand replied with a clear ‘No’.
Apart from the risk of upsetting the common narrative, it is also an issue of giving importance to a story, clarifies Agarwal. “National editions have important stories to be picked from across the country and these cases do not really carry so much importance unless there is a huge damage to the life of the accused and shocking evidence pointing to his innocence. After a point monotony also seeps in,” she says.
I reached out to Jai Prakash, the Sub Inspector, who was accused of seeking sexual favours by the woman in the Rampur case, to know the damage the episode caused him. Still recovering from the shock of what happened, he laments, “I have been in service for 19 years. No complaint of any kind, leave aside of sexual nature, has been made against me. This blame has broken me deep inside. I was not able to face my children for a few days. My relatives called me and questioned me. I was deeply hurt. I couldn’t sleep for several days, not because I was afraid of any enquiry, but thinking what if action is taken against me without any investigation under pressure from media. I could have lost my job, my family’s only source of earning. I was presented like a devil in news despite my clean record. They added as much spice as they could and called me by such disgusting names. But after the case was proven false no one cared to see what I went through.”
So what’s the solution?
Srivastav makes a point on the responsibility of the police in these cases, emphasising “it is the police that have to be vocal about such cases because while it is our duty to punish the criminal, it is also our duty to protect the innocent. We need to be active on the social media. We need to be updated with the set-up and have our own communication strategies – it is our responsibility to inform the press that the case has turned out like this. Police should not buckle under any pressure or popular narrative. There can be no alibi for not telling the truth. We have to do what is right.” He also urges men, who are victims of false accusations to speak up, and independent journalists, civil societies to seek truth without any bias.
“We have seen what happened in case of misuse of IPC 498A. Grant of bail was a rarity once, today it’s a norm. Supreme Court has passed strict orders against any mechanical arrests in dowry cases. If misuse of rape laws continue and the system is overburdened with these cases, we will see ease of bail in such matters too. Even in genuine cases, victims will suffer as the accused would secure bail. So the solution lies with the lawmakers. I strongly feel that amendments in rape laws in 2013 were a knee jerk reaction. The 150-year-old provisions were changed in just 15 days. Everyone is scared to look at these provisions objectively now because women organisations will not spare that person. But this isn’t justice,” says a judge, who I spoke to for the story. He believes that victims of false accusations should be compensated for their loss, and it’s time the legislature thinks seriously about the situation.
When and how these solutions will be implemented is a question no one has answers for. A common view, however, is that it is important for both sides of the story to be told by media as its reports shape public opinion before any trial. Gender justice is a goal that every government, organisation, courts, media and systems should strive for, in zest for true justice.
It, however, seem like a farfetched goal if I recollect what a judge in the Punjab and Haryana High Court told me, when I went to invite him for the screening of my documentary film Martyrs of Marriage, which was on misuse of IPC 498A in Chandigarh.
Not mincing his words, he said, “As long as there is one genuine case of rape happening in this country, I don’t mind if 10 men are falsely accused of rape”.