NEW DELHI – Outrage in India is mounting over the remarks made by the nation's chief justice in two rape cases, with thousands of women signing a letter this week demanding that he resign.
Judge Sharad Arvind Bobde, the head of the Indian Supreme Court, asked a 23-year-old man accused of raping a minor if he would marry his adult victim.
The victim, who cannot be identified under Indian law, has accused the man, a distant relative and an official in the Maharashtra state government, of repeatedly stalking and raping her from the age of 16.
The judge's remarks led to new demands that rulers, especially men, do more to improve the way women and girls are treated in India.
Justice for victims is rare. Of the tens of thousands of rape cases reported annually in India, only a handful have been prosecuted, figures from the National Crime Records Bureau show. Activists say the true magnitude of the problem is much worse, as many cases are never reported due to the stigma.
On Monday, Judge Bobde heard a petition filed by the accused man in the legal rape case for exemption from imprisonment from a lower court.
"Do you want to marry her?" Judge Bobde asked, according to reports in the Indian media.
“You should have thought before seducing and raping the young girl,” he added. & # 39; We're not forcing you to get married. Let us know if you want. "
Activists said they were "appalled and outraged".
"Your marriage proposal as an amicable solution to resolve the rape of a minor girl is worse than heinous and insensitive because it deeply affects victims' right to seek justice," open letter published Tuesday said.
Justice Bobde has not responded.
Sex with minors is a crime in India under the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offenses Act of 2012. Mandatory sentences range from 10 years imprisonment to life imprisonment, and bail is rarely granted.
According to court documents, the families reached an agreement that the man would marry the girl when she turned 18. The man later kept his promise and married someone else. In 2019, when the family filed a lawsuit against the man, a district court granted him early bail.
However, the Bombay Supreme Court overturned that order and wrote a scathing criticism of the lower court.
"Such an approach is a clear indication that the learned judge is perfectly competent," the court wrote.
The accused man then approached 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 demanding the resignation of the chief justice, including Anuradha Banerji, an activist in the women's rights group Saheli.
"When the Chief Justice of India makes these archaic and patriarchal remarks, it indicates the deeper rot in both the judicial system and in society," said Ms Banerji. "Millions of young girls will know that their values lie in marriage and not their personality."
The victim's lawyer declined to comment on Friday.
According to the letter and media reports, Judge Bobde appeared to approve rape in the context of a consensual relationship in one individual case.
"If two people live as husband and wife, however cruel the husband may be, can sexual intercourse between them be called rape?" Judge Bobde asked on hearing a petition filed by a man accused of rape by a woman who had been his live-in partner.
The furor surrounding the judge's remarks comes a month after another Bombay Supreme Court judge, Judge Pushpa Ganedivala, had her promotion blocked after several of her assault statements came under criticism.
Her ruling in a child abuse case that groping a minor without skin-to-skin contact could not be classified as sexual violence under the Child Protection Act led to outrage. She acquitted the man who had been convicted by a lower court of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. After India's Attorney General said it set a dangerous precedent, the Supreme Court has suspended the sentence.
In two separate cases, Justice Ganedivala acquitted two other men accused of raping minors, saying the victims' testimonies were unreliable.
Following her rulings, a Supreme Court panel led by Judge Bobde reversed his decision to make her a permanent judge of the Bombay Supreme Court