The misogynist remarks of director-general of police V Dinesh Reddy that fashionably dressed women run the risk of rape take us back to the debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s about the role of past sexual character and mitigating circumstances in cases of rape. Those of us who were active in the campaign for justice for Rameeza Bee in AP and Mathura in Maharashtra actually believed that by forcing investigations and prosecution of sex crimes and initiating public debates on how such crimes must be understood, we contributed significantly to a “justice cascade”.
But soon enough we realized that women's battle for the basic right to dignity and integrity is most difficult and painful; also, one that cannot end. At one end of the spectrum, we have judicial officers who say high caste men will not deign to rape dalit women. (That's what the Rajasthan court did in the case of the unparalleled fighter Bhanwari Devi. All DGPs should meet her as part of a mandatory refresher course on criminal justice.). In the middle of the spectrum, we have officers who say an offer of marriage by a rapist must be viewed as a mitigating circumstance in conviction. At the other end of the spectrum, top-notch officers continue to believe that women are assaulted because they dress provocatively.
The idea of dignity for women is absent from this entire spectrum. The idea of the rule of law, fundamental freedoms and rights guaranteed by the Constitution is also absent. If an officer of the government entrusted with the responsibility of physically safeguarding the fundamental rights of women and men alike says his officers cannot ensure the security of women, his speech is an infringement of the Constitution. The right to freedom of movement is justiciable, and nowhere in the law is a police officer given the authority to set out the conditions within which this right must be exercised. Nor does the law say that a police officer can excuse himself from carrying out the duties he is paid to carry out, whatever the immediate circumstances. Speaking at all times in complete conformity with the law and the Constitution is an intrinsic part of his duties; his individual beliefs are immaterial. He is bound to school himself into exercising self-restraint and propriety at all times in public. The failure to do this is a grave dereliction of duty. So in fact, it is not women as a class, but men in public office who must conduct themselves with propriety on the pain of punitive action. Illiteracy about the law is not a mitigating circumstance for a law enforcement officer. Where such an officer’s individual beliefs are concerned, it is indeed pathetic that a person can rise to the highest echelons of service and continue to be completely oblivious of the growth and development of the justice cascade and contemporary debates on the rule of law.
Finally, a word about what this says about men in general. As women we have lost count of the battles we have fought - in the family, at school, on the street, at workplaces, in courts, everywhere. We have lost most of these in real terms, but with each defeat, we have moved consciousness and understanding by a fraction, and that has been our victory. But if today, the DGP says men will assault women who dress in a particular way, he is in fact making a statement about himself and men as a class. It is not the interests of women alone to hold the banner of protest aloft. This kind of statement is dehumanizing for men as well.