Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mahmood Farooqui's Appeal and a Problem of Labels

On 25 September 2017, a single judge of the Delhi High Court allowed an appeal filed by Mahmood Farooqui challenging his conviction under Section 376 for rape, where he was sentenced to undergo seven years rigorous imprisonment and pay a fine of Rs. 50,000/-. It comes in the wake of the Punjab and Haryana High Court suspending the sentence of three students convicted of gang-rape in another case that attracted significant media attention. The decision has garnered mostly negative criticism from what I gather (see here, and here), and I am certain more scrutiny of the opinion will come during the week. At the outset, while the fast pace of the proceedings must be applauded (the appeal has been decided around two years after filing of the complaint itself), it only reminds us of the other side of that coin which is, unfortunately, the only one that 'have-nots' unfortunate enough to be stuck in the Indian criminal justice shall ever see. How many regular hearings from past years suffered so that Mr. Farooqui's case could be heard, we shall never know.   

To have my two cents worth as a lawyer, I think the decision is questionable and there is a good case in appeal. I certainly do hope that an appeal will be filed soon by either the the State / Victim before the Supreme Court. The High Court decision does not, with certainty, tell us why the conviction is overturned beyond telling us that the prosecution case was not proved beyond reasonable doubt. What I mean is, that the Court does not fully commit to either saying that it (i) the entire allegation of sexual acts was not proven, or (ii) only the non-consensual nature of the sexual acts was not proven. Given the amount of time spent by the decision in explaining the idea of consent, one may think it is the latter. The Court has said in paragraph 102: "But, it remains in doubt as to whether such an incident, as has been narrated by the prosecutrix [victim], took place and if at all it had taken place, it was without the consent / will of the prosecutrix and if it was without the consent of the prosecutrix, whether the appellant could discern / understand the same.

Because of this (and because I know that a lot will be said about this aspect by more competent commentators) I refrain from discussing in detail the lengthy discussion on consent that the High Court engages in. Suffice to say that everyone thought we had moved past a time when courts would tell us that "instances of woman behaviour are not unknown that a feeble 'no' may mean a 'yes'" [see paragraph 78]. Such inferences are precisely what the 2013 amendments to the Indian Penal Code sought to exclude when it added an explanation to state that 'consent' for the Penal Code required an unequivocal agreement. The court, instead, offers us another idea and suggests the consent definition may be flipped to requiring proof that there was not an unequivocal disagreement, in situations depending on various factors such as whether the parties are persons 'of letters' and 'not conservative'. 

All this should convince readers that the decision is very muddled and will make for good arguments in the Supreme Court. That appeal will not raise any discussion on what are, I think, deeper problems that this case highlights: a problem of labels and criminal conduct. Rape, Murder, Robbery, Extortion - all these are labels that have carried on in language to describe certain kinds of acts. Legislatures have the authority to change their meaning but don't do so easily, because they acknowledge the connotations of these labels. For instance, if a corporation dumps toxins polluting rivers which leads to death, calling it murder may not cut it, so you make a different label for that kind of act. The Indian legislature decided to change the meaning rape and expanded the kinds of acts amounting to rape in 2013 to include non-consensual oral sex. It could have done so differently, i.e., by adopting different labels for different kinds of acts (treat penetrative and non-penetrative acts differently, for instance). It could have also shed the label of rape altogether, as has been done in other countries. But it decided to stick to the old label, and in doing so it hoped that the condemnation the law had reserved for particular kinds of acts by labelling them as rape for a hundred years could be extended to other acts. It also hoped that judges who had been trained to not think of certain acts as rape, would change their minds simply because the law said that they had to now. I think Mr. Farooqui's appeal shows us that this experiment is not working, at least not yet with judges where (on an average) they seem to have distinctly different social mores than the parties. It might not have been the best idea to adopt an aggregator term and not adopt a more granular approach for sexual offences. The judgment conveys to me that faced with the binary choice between holding a person guilty of rape or not, the judge could not do it because of how serious the accusation is. Was that illegal? Perhaps. But do judges simply apply the law? Of course not, and pretending otherwise will not help. Judges have biases, and smarter laws should account for them. If we assume as a base position that most judges in India are male and hold gender biases (implicit or explicit), then why create an architecture that only gives them two options and stiffens how the bias operates? A better architecture would factor in that bias, and probably avoid decisions like this one.

(this post was updated on 27 September, 2017. The reference to Section 114-A Evidence Act earlier was erroneous, and has been corrected.)

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