Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, July 17,2011.
Harishchandra is famous in Indian mythology for his integrity. To keep his word, he gave up his kingdom, became the servant of an undertaker, and even sold his wife into slavery. An ancestor of Ram, he is considered the epitome of honesty.
I feel judges and juries in courts around the world are yearning for Harischandras —the victim is expected to be Harishchandra. If there is the slightest doubt, the accused ends up willy-nilly a Harishchandra. This is especially true in cases of sexual assault.
So a brilliant banker, with a very rich and ambitious wife, with political aspirations, was accused of sexually harassing a hotel maid. Everyone was quick to condemn him. He was rich and male and white. She was poor and female and black. It felt good to abuse him, and stand up for her. But now the story has changed. The maid turns out to be not so innocent. Hardly a Harishchandra, you might say. She was trying to extort money from him. There is evidence. Does that make the banker a Harishchandra? When I look at the expression on his wife’s face, I am convinced she does! And I suspect, his brilliant team of lawyers will prove that nothing really happened without consent. They will prove the maid to be a manipulative criminal, which will transform the banker to nothing short of a saint in the eyes of the judge and jury. Did the crime happen? Is a rape still a rape if the victim changes her mind or tries to profit from her humiliation?
No human is a Harishchandra. We all have both Ram and Ravan within us, in different proportions, in different situations. When stories are told, however, or when the court looks at a case, there is pressure to define a very clear black and white. No one looks at the grey. That is how our judiciary is designed — based on the Western, or rather British, obsession with binary absolute truths. We expect our victims to be Harishchandras.
A filmstar of Bollywood was accused of rape. His wife is convinced he is Harishchandra, semen stains and scratch marks not withstanding. The victim has changed her story and turned hostile. Maybe she has forgiven him, or has been secretly compensated enough, or maybe she is finally telling the truth. Who knows? Neither the accused nor the victim is a Harishchandra. Both are imperfect human beings: one behaving like a brute in a moment of passion and regretting it later, the other indignant initially but eventually having a change of heart. But the court is not equipped to handle such change of hearts, such compromises on emotional and economic grounds.
It is not easy proving that you are Harishchandra if you have been sexually assaulted. You have to relive every little detail of the violation — again and again and again. The legal proceedings demand it. The humiliation is unbearable. You can persist only if your desire for justice is superhuman.
Most victims are humans. They find it easier to forgive and forget, and find emotional relief by moving on. This becomes easier when there is some hope of economic compensation. Victims often come from backgrounds where there is a greater need for livelihood than justice. Naturally, then, barely 1 in 10 cases results in conviction. And the one convicted is usually neither rich nor powerful, unworthy of media attention, and tragically in some instances, it is he who is truly the Harishchandra.