On 1 December, at 11 minutes past 11 p.m., 22-year-old Rahul Tilak's life changed. He was taken into custody off Gulistan Hotel at Grant Road, Mumbai, and is still in jail. Arraigned under Section 509 of the (19th century but still extant) Indian Penal Code, the youthful office worker is likely to spend the next couple of years in prison, from whence he will hopefully emerge a reformed man. His crime? That he, according to a young lady passing by about 20 feet from him, "blew a flying kiss" in her general direction. Whether it was actually a flying kiss or Tilak trying to brush away a fly that had settled on his upper lip is irrelevant.
Since the legal duo of P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal got their joint chance to nudge the IPC even further into medievalism than it has been for a century and a quarter, the definition of what constitutes a jailable offence has been made so vague and broad in scope that any individual can be sent for a spell in prison on the most subjective of reasons, such as interpreting a gesture to be that of a most indefensible of deeds, blowing a flying kiss at a lady from 20 feet away. Steeped as he is in Sibal-Chidambaram logic, it took but an instant before a police constable in Grant Road (which, it may be mentioned, gets somewhat lively in the evenings) hauled the young man off to prison.
One of Manmohan Singh's "reforms" has been to make prison the default option for a variety of transgressions that in a democracy would either be ignored or be punished by just a warning or a fine.
This columnist comes from a matriarchal family and is proud of the fact that he bears his mother's surname rather than his father's. Women are far and away the better sex, and only those societies which acknowledge this truth achieve their full potential in creativity and progress. It is only the healing presence of the fair sex that makes life tolerable in a country with a Kafkaesque system of law and administration. However, thanks to the post-2004 introduction of laws that are diffuse and therefore impossible to escape from, subjective accusation has trumped any need for substantive proof before penal action gets initiated. It may soon become necessary to introduce in India the same segregation of the sexes at the workplace and in educational and outside locations as was prevalent in Mullah Omar's Afghanistan, and which is largely the rule in that citadel of modernity, Saudi Arabia. While in Mumbai, this columnist looks forward to his daily walk along the Marine Drive. Let it be admitted that the collateral advantage of the sight of many charming members of the opposite sex having the same idea (of taking a walk) has been as big a bonus as gazing at the seas washing in waves across the shoreline. However, these days, one needs to focus less on calories than on weaving right, left and in a circle while walking, so as to avoid the merest chance that there may be accidental physical contact with a lady who may subsequently feel motivated to summon the nearest policeman to report a case of "rape" . Of course, this as per the Sibal-Chidambaram definition, of a man being guilty by declamation, and to blazes with the (lack of) evidence. As Rahul Tilak found out exactly a week ago.
A woman has the right to her own body, and those who take liberties with it without willing (i.e. non-coerced) consent deserve severe punishment. In the Damini case, the so-called juvenile deserves the same punishment as the other perpetrators of the heinous crime they jointly committed. A technicality which ought not to allow this predator to get released back into society, once again to place young women in danger. However, to embrace medieval codes of morality by sending to prison a man on the (unsupported by other witnesses) word of a woman in the absence of any verifiable evidence, and before an impartial examination takes place of the incident, is to make nonsense of the concept of innocence until proven guilty.
The same day as Tilak lost his liberty, a postman dismissed for the alleged theft of a Rs 57 money order won exoneration from a court, a mere three decades after loss of livelihood and liberty. Will those who filed false charges against the man ever get prosecuted? Never, just as those policemen who destroyed India's cryogenic engine program by arresting key scientists on false charges still walk free and get promoted. The 21st century was thought to be the era of the sexual revolution, the freeing of women from patriarchy. Instead, it is becoming the age of the sexual inquisition, the swelling virulence of which is making contact between the sexes a danger to individual liberty.