While we know what punishment awaits him if he is found guilty of this crime, we don’t really know what will happen if he is found innocent in this case.
A young Indian boy was accused of raping a girl he met at a bar earlier this year in the US. The boy was detained by the police on receiving the complaint and called for questioning. After long hours of questioning, he was let go by police and later granted bail by the court. I would not like to name this person since he was honourably discharged of the charges levelled against him after it was established that the duo had indulged in a consensual activity. CCTV footage clearly established that it was the girl who led the boy and signalled her friends that she was going to have sex with him. This boy was falsely accused.
From this real case, I wish to draw your attention to just one factor – this boy was not arrested despite the fact that he had rape charges levelled against him. He was heard and the court too released him on a very high bail bond, but still. His right to liberty was not compromised.
He was considered 'innocent until proven guilty', which is the cornerstone of criminal justice system across the world. While it is the same in books in India as well, in all realities, we have completely overturned this rule especially in cases of crime against women or if I may say alleged crime against women.
A man is considered, treated, reprimanded, abused, harassed and many a time tortured by law, police, media and society alike as 'guilty' until he proves his innocence. Not just him but his family also is often called as “molester, rapist, sexual harasser’s” sister, brother, mother or father. A case in point is that of Sarvjeet Singh, whose parents were addressed as “molester’s parents” by media just because he was accused of molestation by a woman in a Facebook post she shared after having a brawl with him on a traffic junction. She said he abused her with sexual remarks. He said he did not. Singh was also publicly proclaimed as guilty. He was arrested because of the furore in the media. Most people believed the girl until an eye witness narrated what actually happened at the junction, absolutely different from what the girl alleged. The case still continues in the court.
Over the last few days, we have seen another man’s face as that of “molester” and “sexual harasser” of a minor in newspapers, social media, television channels and more. His name is Vikas Sachdeva. He has been accused of molesting a child actor called Zaira Wasim, who apparently shared her ordeal in an Instagram Live post. Sachdeva was sitting behind Wasim in business class of Vistara airlines. Wasim alleged that the man rubbed her back and neck with his leg and shared an image where the man’s leg can be seen on her armrest to establish her claim. Since the post went viral, Sachdeva was arrested, kept in police custody then sent to judicial custody and has been behind bars now for more than a week. He has been charged with IPC 354 and POCSO for sexually harassing a minor.
Sachdeva was picked up from his home without any kind of notice served to him by Mumbai Police or any formal request asking him to join investigation. This is in absolute violation of Supreme Court orders, which stated in Arnesh Kumar Vs State of Bihar judgement that all crimes with punishment less than seven years will have the accused served a notice before his arrest. He was picked up by cops even before any formal first information report (FIR) was lodged against him. Interestingly, police went all the way to the complainant’s hotel to register an FIR, since she had filed no complaints at the airport. In reports by media, Sachdeva is seen handcuffed by Mumbai Police as if he is the most wanted man today in India. His leg has already been called as molester's leg in the media, his wife addressed as ‘molester’s wife’ speaking out.
Various media reports have come out detailing the facts of the case. Most of the eye witnesses have denied seeing any misbehaviour of sexual nature by Sachdeva in the flight. As per the crew of Vistara airlines, Sachdeva slept off immediately after the flight took off asking the crew not to disturb him at all even for food and beverage during the flight, as he was returning from funeral of his uncle, having not slept for more than 24 hours. Co-passenger has also stated that Sachdeva did put his leg on the armrest of Wasim but did not see any sexual misdemeanour. More than 200 residents of the society, where Sachdeva lives, have given a testimony of his character and have stood by him. Prosecution has claimed that Sachdeva assaulted the minor with his right leg. A man stretching both his legs like that in a business class in my honest opinion isn’t something that can be ignored by fellow passengers or the staff of the airline. If he did assault her with her right leg, it would be likely that he touched Wasim’s mother’s hands as well. Publicly known, they both refused to file any official complaint with airport authorities even after being specifically asked.
It makes me wonder how sexual instincts of a man can go completely haywire in just one incident. It makes me wonder what exactly serves as a proof enough to establish innocence of a man. If makes me wonder why anyone who supports a man’s version in such cases is called misogynist, woman hater, anti-woman, regressive and more. It makes me wonder why any woman supporting a man accused of an alleged sexual assault needs to be ashamed of herself for standing by a man if she thinks he’s innocent. It makes me wonder if it’s not about justice anymore but just the gender.
Mumbai Police has claimed in its tweets that they have sufficient proof to take actions against Sachdeva. Court has also denied bail to him. It is of course upon the court to decide whether he is guilty or not. While we know what punishment awaits him if he is found guilty of this crime, we don’t really know what will happen if he is found innocent in this case. He has already been branded as a middle aged man who assaulted a minor on a flight, with international media also keenly reporting on the case.
I have met several men who were falsely charged and jailed in the last few years. While a trial also takes immense toll on a person in such cases, it is their time in jail that haunts them for the rest of their lives. If a man completely supports the investigation process and makes his presence available to the court of law for any kind of questioning, what is the need for an action like this against him? If he is guilty, he will be convicted and serve jail time. But what if he is found innocent? Nothing! Who gives him back the dignity and reputation he lost? No one!
Women have fought a long battle for their rights in this country. Criminal law amendment bill overturned our rape and sexual assault laws in 2013. I think what the women rights activists should now ask from the government is – overturning the criminal justice system as well.
All these laws should clearly state – a man is 'guilty until proven innocent' if charged by a woman. There should be no trial and probably only discussion on the quantum of punishment for the man. Because trying of any of these cases means questioning the woman too which is such a passe and against the spirit of justice to women. If this happens, men would at least know that the system cares zilch about the possibility of their innocence. They would know in advance that the entire system is against them. They would know that they are guilty by default just because they are 'men'.
Views expressed are personal.
Note: Vikas Sachdeva was granted bail post the publication of this article.