CW: This article includes descriptions of sexual assault.
I was 12 when I had my first experience of physical sexual assault. As I was walking home with my siblings, a man, probably in his 60s, stopped his scooter by my side and said something that sounded vaguely like a nearby location. As I leaned in to confirm if he needed directions, he mumbled something in the local dialect about how I had big breasts and groped them before speeding away. I had no words. I had had the “big breasts” for less than a year then, I had no sense of what had just happened, but I felt violated and wronged as I hugged my brother and began to cry, while my little cousins stared at me befuddled.
I didn’t know then that was only the first time of many. It would happen again, as I walked home after work, as I tried to board a crowded train, and even as I danced in a club with my friends. And that no matter how many times it’d happen, I’d remember each incident vividly. I wouldn’t be able to help strangers with directions ever again; I’d place my backpack in front of me and clutch it a little tighter when boarding the train.
So when I woke up to the news of a Bombay High Court judge saying that groping a minor didn’t count as an act of sexual assault unless there was “skin-to-skin contact”, I had to double-check to make sure it wasn’t fake news. It wasn’t. It felt like everything my 12-year-old self had felt that day, and had continued to feel since then, had been made redundant. I wasn’t alone though.
“I felt disgusted. I felt like every traumatic experience I’d had had been devalued and reduced to nothing. Every single instance of being assaulted flashed before my eyes and I almost spiralled into a pit of gaslighting my own experiences,” Jaishree Kumar, a 21-year-old freelance journalist, told VICE.
I saw many other Indian women share similar experiences on social media, clearly giving away that an old wound (or many) had been reopened. The statement must’ve been so triggering that a woman claims she sent the judge who’d made it 150 condoms as a mark of protest. My own first experience came back to me clear as day. I had once been the 12-year-old in question, and if someone had told me then that many years later, my therapist would tell me it was assault, only for a judge to deny it, I wouldn’t have known what to feel. It was deeply unsettling, but what we were all feeling wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“In the aftermath of such abuse, the person often feels a sense of unreality, questioning themselves if it really happened, doubting themselves constantly. Often, they also have to face this sense of doubt in the eyes of others, who either don't understand or don't believe their suffering,” says psychoanalytic psychotherapist Asmita Sharma. “A judgment that dissects the traumatic experience of abuse into action or non-action, and seeks to classify trauma on the basis of 'severity' of the act takes away the focus from the experience of the victim. It serves to further alienate those who have experienced abuse. For instance, it propagates thinking that ‘my abuse is not as severe as someone else’s’, which harshly and falsely objectifies abuse—a deeply subjective and personal experience of violent intrusion.”
But even as I, and others, took to social media to vent about the triggering language and the overall problematic nature of the statement, there were these law student dudebros on my timeline who took it upon themselves to bash the women opening up their experiences and condemning the judge’s statement without complete knowledge of the specific court ruling, saying dismissive things like, “You guys need to chill. Don’t overthink it.”
Justice Pushpa V Ganediwala was modifying an earlier punishment meted out to a man accused of groping and trying to undress a 12-year-old under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO). She (yes, it was a woman!) said, “In the absence of any specific detail as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside top and pressed her breast, the act would not fall in the definition of ‘sexual assault’.” She thus acquitted the man of sexual assault charges under the POCSO, but recognised the act as use of criminal force with the intention to outrage a woman’s modesty defined under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
A few days later, while presiding over a different case, Ganediwala said that holding the hands of a minor and unzipping a pant does not amount to sexual assault under the POCSO Act either. I tried to understand if these statements even made sense. Section 7 of the POCSO Act reads as, “Whoever with sexual intent touches the vagina, penis, anus, or breast of the child…..or any other act with sexual intent which involves physical contact ……is said to commit sexual assault.”
I don’t know about you, but to me, it seems like the judge didn’t know what exactly she was talking about. A lawyer friend told me that the only possible explanation could be that the conviction rate is much higher under Section 354 of the IPC, which might’ve made the judge classify these acts as such.
But I don’t think these intricate details about how India’s judicial system works make a difference to simpletons like me, who continued to reel under the invalidation of every bit of trauma we’d accumulated growing up in a country where 16-20 percent of the reported incidents of harassment in big cities involve groping or inappropriate touching. Most of these instances happen in public, while the unassuming victims are fully clothed.
“Declarations like these—however much we might justify make sense legally—have immense sociological impacts on the sexual, mental and emotional wellness of our specific society which experiences a lot of cultural shame in naming sexual assault,” says Neha Bhat, sexual violence-focused trauma therapist. She goes on to explain the harmful impact such statements can have, especially when coming from an authority figure.
“By reducing sexual assault to such boxes, we actually do a tremendous disservice, not only to survivors of abuse, their families, our teachers and our therapists, but also to the perpetrators themselves because we miss opportunities for people to understand the impact of their actions. These condensed narratives keep us distanced from the reality of harm, encourage binary thinking and do not offer space to account for the difference between intention and impact.”
Victims of sexual abuse in India often face unfortunate consequences that go far beyond the abuse itself. The stigma attached to survivors in such cases often convinces the judiciary that the appropriate solution would be for the victim to marry their rapist. In 2020, a gang-rape victim was put behind bars for “misbehaviour and disrupting” court proceedings. In another horrifying incident, a judge claimed he found it “unbecoming” that after being raped, a woman fell asleep out of weariness, adding that it was “not the way our women react when they are ravished”. These decisions betray the misogynistic bias of the Indian legal system that still seems to place perpetrators above survivors, exacerbating the survivors’ mental turmoil in the process.
Eventually in the case on “skin to skin contact”, the Supreme Court put the High Court order about sexual assault on hold, saying that it was likely to set “a dangerous precedent”. A recommendation for Justice Ganediwala to be made permanent was also withdrawn.
But the damage might be done.
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