Apologies aside

Disciplinary action cannot replace legal proceedings against sexual violence.

In the aftermath of the Delhi protests, numerous women spoke out. Many read this to mean that the culture of silence is finally breaking down. Yet, what is really dismaying is how easily our institutions script impunity as a response. The response to the complaint against Tarun Tejpal illustrates the politics of impunity in the media.

Everyone knows that women journalists face routine forms of sexual violence at the workplace, yet few talk about it. When women challenge the public secrecy of rape by speaking out, publicity does not do justice to them. Historically speaking, we must remember that law reform emerges from experiences of unspeakable sexual violence. Rao Harnarain Singh Sheoji vs State of Punjab (1958) distinguished between passive submission and consent, after a young working class woman was gangraped to death by a public prosecutor and two colleagues in his home. Yet this precedent was set aside when the Supreme Court acquitted the policemen who raped Mathura in 1979.

The open letter on Mathura's case, authored by four law professors, challenged the Supreme Court's decision and thereafter, the first national anti-rape campaign resulted in amendments to the law in 1983. Although Mathura's biography changed more than 100 years of legal history, the law denied justice to her.

Similarly, the Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace emerged from Bhanwari Devi's protest against the acquittal of the men who gangraped her. No proceedings were initiated enquiring why her appeal against the acquittal languishes in the Rajasthan high court. Neither were tort proceedings instituted for employer liability. We got the Vishaka guidelines, while Bhanwari Devi learnt that caste offers impunity to rapists. This abject disconnect between a survivor's life and legal history has everything to do with the vexed question of how public discourse engages with a survivor's testimony.

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