NEW DELHI – Indian outrage is growing over comments from the nation’s chief judge on two rape cases. Thousands of women signed a letter this week demanding his resignation.
Judge Sharad Arvind Bobde, the head of India’s Supreme Court, asked a 23-year-old man accused of raping a minor whether he would marry his victim, who is now an adult.
The victim, who cannot be identified under Indian law, accused the man, a distant relative and official of the Maharashtra state government, of repeatedly persecuting and raping her from the age of 16.
The judge’s comments sparked new demands that those in power, and especially men, do more to improve the treatment of women and girls in India.
A spate of shocking attacks in recent years has led women’s groups and other activists to change long-standing attitudes towards sexual violence.
Justice for victims is rare. Of the tens of thousands of rape cases reported annually in India, only a handful result in law enforcement, according to figures from the National Crime Records Bureau. Activists say the real scope of the problem is far worse, as many cases are never reported because of the stigma.
On Monday, Justice Bobde heard a petition from the defendant in the rape case for relief from a lower court prison order.
“Do you want to marry her?” Justice Bobde asked about Indian media reports.
“You should have thought before seducing and raping the young girl,” he added. “We’re not forcing you to marry. Let us know if you want. “
Activists said they were “appalled and outraged”.
“Your proposal to view marriage as a friendly solution to the case of the rape of an underage girl is worse than cruel and insensitive, as it profoundly undermines the victims’ right to seek justice,” the company said on Tuesday open letter.
Justice Bobde did not respond.
Sex with minors is a crime in India under the Child Protection from Sexual Offenses Act 2012. Mandatory sentences range from 10 years in prison to life imprisonment, and bail is rarely given.
According to court records, the families agreed that the man would marry the girl when she turned 18. The man later failed to keep his promise and married someone else. When the family filed a lawsuit against the man in 2019, a district court granted him early bail.
However, the Bombay Supreme Court overturned this ruling and wrote a scathing criticism of the lower court.
“Such an approach is a clear indication that the learned judge is completely lacking in competence,” the court wrote.
The defendant then turned to the Supreme Court. Justice Bobde and the other two members of the bank granted him four weeks of protection from arrest.
More than 4,000 women signed the letter calling for the Chief Justice to resign, including Anuradha Banerji, an activist with the Saheli women’s rights group.
“When the Chief Justice of India makes these archaic and patriarchal comments, it signals the deeper rot in both the judicial system and society,” Ms. Banerji said. “Millions of young girls will know that their values are marriageability, not personality.”
The victim’s lawyer declined to comment on Friday.
In another case, Justice Bobde appeared to condone consensual rape, according to the letter and media reports.
“If two people live as husbands and wives, however brutal the husband may be, can sexual intercourse between them be called rape?” Justice Bobde asked upon hearing a petition filed by a man accused of rape by a woman who had been his life partner.
The excitement over the judge’s comments comes a month after another Bombay Supreme Court judge, Judge Pushpa Ganedivala, blocked her promotion after criticizing several of her sexual assault rulings.
Her decision in a child abuse case that groping for a minor without skin contact could not be described as sexual assault under the Child Protection Act sparked outrage. She acquitted the man who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old by a lower court. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling after the Indian Attorney General said he had set a dangerous precedent.
In two separate cases, Justice Ganedivala acquitted two other men accused of raping minors and said the victims’ statements were unreliable.
Following her rulings, a Supreme Court panel led by Justice Bobde overturned her decision to make her permanent judge on the Bombay Supreme Court.