When Aruna Shanbaug died after lying in a vegetative state in a Mumbai hospital for over four decades, many naturally wondered whatever happened to the man who sexually assaulted her and put her in that state. Many of us were surprised to find out that no one, not even the police knew where he was anymore. Even more shocking was the realization that though newspaper reports routinely talked about Aruna Shanbaug having been raped, her assailant was never charged with rape.
I wrote at that time that the system had failed Aruna Shanbaug in many ways and those failures happened long before the euthanasia debate that erupted around her hospital bed. The system had failed her because Sohanlal Bhartha Valmiki, the ward-boy who assaulted her and choked her was never charged with sexual assault. He was charged with attempted murder and robbery because the prosecution and the hospital was squeamish about talking about sodomy in a courtroom. Her well-wishers who hoped she would recover felt that the stigma of rape might tarnish her reputation and wanted to spare her and her family that trauma.
None of this however was Valmiki’s doing. He served his seven year sentence and walked out a free man. Valmiki did not escape from prison or dodge the sentence he was served. He didn’t have the privileges the elite have to manipulate the system to stay out of jail on parole even after they are convicted. He paid the dues allotted to him. That is why no matter how much the system failed Shanbaug, the gram panchayat has no business deliberating whether Valmiki should be kicked out his village now.
Two wrongs do not make a right.
It was not the police but Dnyanesh Chavan, a reporter for the Sakaal Times was the one who tracked down Valmiki after first visiting his native village in Bulandshahr, UP. When he finally found Valmiki living in a village in Ghaziabad, Valmiki was “scared, almost speechless” that his past had finally found its way back to him. “I told him while I didn’t know the consequences of my story it needed to be told,” Chavan says. Valmiki, he says, insisted he never raped Shanbaug though he had assaulted. “I don’t remember what happened” was his standard response to most of Chavan’s questions. That is very much Valmiki’s right – to not incriminate himself and certainly not to satisfy the curiosity of the public at large.
Now while the police debate whether they can add murder to the four-decade old case because of Shanbaug’s death and charge Valmiki afresh, his panchayat in the village he lived in for 35 years, has gone a step further.
A media report says village headman Joginder Singh says villagers are horrified they had Aruna Shanbaug’s assailant living in their midst especially because he had seemed “very normal and well-behaved”. Now villagers want Valmiki out because they feel he has brought notoriety to their village of 6,000. “As a headman I consider myself a public servant. I will go by the majority. If most people are against him staying on, I will not back him,” Singh tells the media. TOI reports that a panchayat will be held this week to decide Valmiki’s fate.
The village’s shock is understandable but this is just another example of a panchayat exceeding its brief. In the name of being the local custodian of social mores and values, a panchayat becomes once again an extra-judicial authority that is a law unto itself.
We often shake our heads and cluck in disbelief at panchayats, especially the khap panchayats, who issue arbitrary diktats against anything and everything they deem corrupting and objectionable. The list is a long one – inter-gotra marriages, women carrying mobile phones, women wearing jeans. In the name of protecting the honour of the village, a panchayat can put itself above the law of the land.
This case is no exception. We may be aghast at Valmiki’s past and we may support a woman’s right the wear jeans and use a cell-phone but we should realize that both are examples of overreach again in the name of protecting the honour of a village. This time it’s a man accused of terrible crimes not an innocent woman in jeans but that does not justify the panchayat’s zealous self-ordained extra-judicial authority.
Again let’s make no mistake. This is not a case of a Nazi war criminal discovered to have been hiding out in town in South America unbeknownst to anyone. That would be a case of a criminal who did not pay for his ghastly crimes and evaded the law. This is a man who has paid in full measure what was meted out to him. That the system did not charge him with sexual assault feels shocking to us now in 2015 but that is not Valmiki’s fault.
The police are deciding whether a fresh murder charge can be added to the case given that Shanbaug’s death was finally a result of pneumonia. The panchayat would do well to sit this one out and let the law take its course. Most of us find it grossly unfair that Shanbaug spent 42 years confined to a hospital bed in a vegetative state while her assailant walked free after seven. That does not feel like justice but as a friend wisely observed law and justice are not always the same thing, especially in this country. And a panchayat has no business exacting a price from Valmiki beyond what the law demanded even if it feels it is acting in the name of justice.