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Dear Mumbai HC, Do You Think Abuse Is Less Traumatic If It Isn’t ‘Skin-On-Skin’?

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Trigger warning: Sexual assault

I was 13, and it was the vet. We all have those stories, don’t we? It’s always someone like that. The security guard or the bus conductor. The school janitor or the PE teacher. A neighbour or an Uncle.

For me, it was the vet. My dog was sick with tick fever and we were afraid that he wasn’t going to make it. We were living in a small town in the north-western part of India where animal hospitals were rare and vets were hard to come by. Somehow, we had found this one; a tall, quiet, reassuring sort of man. He would visit frequently to give shots to the dog and I would often stand by, fretting, pacing, wringing my hands, grinding my teeth and praying.

A minor girl was waylaid by a man and taken to his house under the pretext of giving her fruit, whereupon the man proceeded to strip her partially and press her breasts. Representational image

This was my first dog, a German Shepherd pup I fell in love with from the moment I saw him. We’d planned on getting a Dachshund but got a call about this two-month-old pure-bred male pup in a local kennel. It took me precisely two seconds to snatch him up and claim him as mine.

Then a few months later, he was sick. And we needed a vet. For years afterwards, I’d think to myself. Why did it have to be the goddamn vet?

When it happened, I was going through the worst phase of puberty. Bushy eyebrows, sweaty armpits, bra straps cutting into my shoulders, stretch marks on my stomach, giggling at a diagram of the male anatomy in my biology textbook, discovering adult jokes, carrying a spare sanitary napkin in my school bag and wearing two pairs of underwear to hide period stains.

The last thing you want as an awkward, shy, uncoordinated teenager is to get attention from an older man. It’s a very peculiar age. You’re both interested in boys and terrified of them. You’re wondering when you’re going to have your first kiss and who it will be. Grown-ups start treating you differently; women will gossip with you about marriage, make-up and cooking whereas men will make small talk with you, asking you if you want to become a doctor or an engineer, staring at you for no good reason and commenting on how much you look like your mother.

Then some pervert comes along. A man you would never doubt because he’s a medical professional. Someone you look up to, even smile at, serving him a cup of tea and a plate of samosas, listening to him intently while he talks about how common tick fever is, not to worry, the dog will be alright.

After it happened, I shivered uncontrollably all night. I felt filthy so I took a bath again and again and again, standing under the hot water until it ran cold, scrubbing myself until I was raw. I sat on the backbenches in class, staying preoccupied all week and drifting off in mid-conversation to look outside. After a few years, I got on with my life, believing I’d never have to think about it again.

But a recent Bombay High Court Judgment brought it all back. In the ruling, the Court said that merely groping a child without skin-to-skin contact is not sexual assault. A minor girl was waylaid by a man and taken to his house under the pretext of giving her fruit, whereupon the man proceeded to strip her partially and press her breasts.

When the girl told her mother about it, they reported it to the police and an FIR was filed against the accused under Section 7 of the POCSO (Protection of Children From Sexual Offences) Act. Section 7 defines sexual assault as an act of touching the private parts of the child or making the child touch the private parts of the accused, or any other person, or any act with sexual intent, that involves physical contact without penetration.

The Judge didn’t think so. In fact, in Satish v State of Maharashtra, she (yes, a woman) was of the opinion that without knowing for sure that the perpetrator had actually ‘touched’ the child, it would be more prudent to convict him under Section 354 of the IPC, which is the use of criminal force with the intent to outrage the modesty of a woman.

The punishment for Section 354 IPC is imprisonment up to one year whereas the punishment under Section 7 of POCSO is imprisonment from three to five years. Sentencing is absolutely crucial because it has the power to underscore the conviction or wipe it out completely. Every judgment sets a precedent and in a POCSO case, this judgment has set a dangerous one.

“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’.”

Cold, clinical and dispassionate, devoid of any emotion, like a weatherman on the news observing his chart, debating on whether a gale might or might not destroy your home. I’d like to ask the honourable Court a few questions.

1. Have you ever been violated? Yes, you, this prestigious institution, this vanguard of women’s rights, this beacon of hope for justice, has anyone ever violated you?

2. Is it relevant if the girl’s top was on, off, done, undone, pulled up, down, to one side or another? Are we talking about a victim or a runway model?

3. Does the age of the minor matter to you at all or is it just ‘minor’ not somebody’s ‘child’?

4. Do you feel empathy for the girl who will struggle throughout adolescence, incapable of trusting any man again, freezing whenever a stranger talks to her, unable to tolerate physical contact or outrun her fear, shame and guilt?

5. Why are you so afraid to call it what it is? Why the posturing over semantics; it’s good enough to outrage the modesty of a woman but not good enough to be sexual assault?

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: I’m a survivor of gender-based violence and my stalker is out on bail right now because stalking is a bailable offence. His girlfriend tweeted about why it’s completely fair for the Bombay High Court to pronounce a judgment that mitigates punishment based on some technicality in a sexual offence case. Let’s see, is this because she’s suddenly woken up and realised she’s a champion of gender equality, or perhaps, is it because the Court has made her confident that if it isn’t sexual assault, there is no need to worry?

The Court is a bastion of truth. Well here’s the truth: When I was 13, I was assaulted by my dog’s vet. I was fully-clothed. I wore a yellow Garfield the cat t-shirt and a pair of faded pink capris. He was washing his hands in the kitchen sink while I waited politely with a towel for him. He reached out and took the towel, squeezed my breasts, hard, his fingers digging into the soft flesh. He kissed me, wetly, making a sound like a sea slug slipping off a beach rock. It was sick. It was gross. It was wrong.

It was sexual assault.

My modesty wasn’t outraged, I didn’t need to be modest to be a woman. I didn’t need to kick and scream, scratch his eyes out, bite his hand or faint and fall to the floor. I didn’t need him to strip me, take off my t-shirt, pull down my bra and touch my breast. It was neither more, nor less, scarring, traumatic and shocking just because it wasn’t ‘skin-on-skin’.

It was human-on-human. That’s it. Forget that I was a 13-year-old girl and he was a 40-year-old man. Forget that I was a child and he was an adult. I was human, I still am, and I was touched, where I shouldn’t have been, without my consent. He knew that. I knew that. Everyone knew that.

But who is going to tell the Court that?

Update: The Supreme Court has stayed the order of the Bombay High Court.

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