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Addressing the Issue of Sexual Offences Against Women on Trains and the Govindaswamy Case

The sexual assault of a 20-year-old student travelling between the CSMT and Masjid railway stations in Mumbai on 15 June, 2023, has sparked yet another shockwave in the country, forcing the population to once again consider the issue of sexual offences against women being such frequent obstacles in our path to development and equality for all, despite several laws against the practice.

The accused in the above-mentioned case, has been arrested and charged with the offence of rape[i] as under Section 376 of the IPC.[ii]

In this article, the author talks about various incidents where women have been subjected to harassment and assault, specifically on trains. The author then discusses the Govindaswamy (Soumya murder) case, and argues that the judgement of the Supreme Court is flawed in its reasoning, since it completely ignored the provisions of Section 300 of the IPC. There has also been a mention of another point of criticism related to the judgement- a contempt of court notice against a former Supreme Court judge. Towards the end, the author proposes that today's India needs not only better laws to prevent such crimes from happening, but also a systematic and stabilized control system to implement such legislations.

Safety of Women on Trains

Incidents of harassment and sexual assault involving women passengers have come into limelight in recent years and captured public attention. A woman and her daughter were forced to jump off a moving train to prevent a group of male travelers from assaulting the daughter in November 2017.[iii] In February 2019,[iv] a woman had to physically fight off a drunk man in self defence while the bystanders merely watched and did nothing. There have also been recorded instances in Andhra Pradesh where women have had to jump off moving trains to protect themselves from being harassed. Most recently, another woman was pushed off a moving train in Gwalior in June 2023,[v] for resisting sexual assault.

It is pitiful that women are not completely safe in a space that is specially and only made for them. The fact that such gross incidents happen despite them being criminalized and penalized under The Indian Penal Code, as well as other various statutes proves that we not only require a careful deliberation of the law, but also of the way it is implemented in a diverse and hugely populated country like ours.

The Case
The Govindaswamy Case [vi] puts forward a variety of issues that require careful deliberation- ranging from the gross mentality of offenders, the disheartening unsafety of women, as well as freedom of speech while expressing criticism against the judicial system. Even after seven years since the Supreme Court judgement, the said case is still discussed with regard to its flaws, and interpretation of the law.

The incident had happened on 1 February, 2011, when the accused had entered the female compartment of a train, brutally hit the victim who was travelling all alone, thrown her out onto the train tracks, making her endure multiple injuries, and raped her. There were two men sitting in the adjacent compartment who had heard her.

However, when one of them decided to check, the other one advised him against it. The latter also believed that the victim had jumped out of the train herself and was therefore safe now. The victim had been found by some villagers in an unconscious state near a station and taken to the hospital, where she died a few days later. The accused had been charged with offences of rape, combined with murder under Sections 376[vii] and 302[viii] of the IPC. A fast-track court of Thrissur had imposed the death penalty on the accused in 2011, and this decision had also been upheld by the Kerala High Court.

The accused then decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. Now this was where things began to take a turn.

The apex court decided to reduce the punishment imposed upon the accused from death penalty to life imprisonment. Their reasoning was, in the very least, very open to criticism and sharp reactions from the citizens of the country. The victim had died due to a combination of injuries, as well as due to the internal damage occurring because of the position she was held in for a long time by the accused to commit the sexual offence. The Supreme Court believed that these said reasons for the death of the victim could not be attributed to the accused since it was not clear whether he had pushed her out of the train or if she had jumped out herself, and hence punishing him for the offence of murder under doubtful evidence would only be injustice. Thereafter, they charged him under Section 325 of the IPC,[ix] along with the rape charge.

Why flawed?
A careful analysis of the law, however, puts forward an argument that the Supreme Court had overlooked Section 300 of the IPC[x] in its full-fledged text. The said section, which deals with the meaning of 'murder' and lays down the differences between murder and culpable homicide, very clearly states three situations where a culpable homicide amounts to murder even when death is not caused directly.

Any act which is done with the intention of causing bodily injury which is likely to cause death or which in ordinary circumstances would cause death, will also be labelled as murder. Additionally, if the perpetrator of the crime has knowledge of the fact that his action is dangerous enough to cause death, but does it anyway, such an act is also said to be a murder.

In the Govindaswamy case, despite the evidence of the accused throwing the victim out of the train being doubtful, it was very well established that one of the causes of the victim's death had also been the way she had been immobilized and held in a supine position[xi] for the sexual offence to occur. The accused might not have had a direct intention to kill the victim, but he very well had knowledge of the fact that his acts could cause grievous injuries to her. The accused had caused bodily injury to the victim which had ultimately led to her death. Such a scenario finds place in Section 300(2) and (3) of the Indian Penal Code.

The case also brings forward questions regarding individual liberty and freedom to criticize the judiciary.

When former Supreme Court judge Markanday Katju criticized the court's judgement in a social media post, the court agreed to review the case and called for a debate. When Katju appeared in court, it led to a dramatical turn of events where the court issued an order of contempt of court against him for his criticism.

Despite the contempt proceedings being closed after an apology from the former judge, it has brought forth the harsh reality that contempt laws are not being used exactly as they are intended to be used.[xii] The test to determine contempt has been derived from the common law and reads as 'There must be a substantial risk that the statement made would interfere with the course of justice so it has to reach that level.'

Is mere criticism of a judgement contempt of court? Not unless it hindered with the administration of justice. The Supreme Court reasoned this contempt decision by saying that the former judge's statements were an assault on the judges and not against the judgement. Yet some experts in the field criticize this decision of the judiciary and term it as unconstitutional and against established procedures of law.

Public transportation, including trains, are a means for thousands of our citizens to travel to and fro. Even with the introduction of women's spaces, incidents of sexual abuse against women have been reported which, as informed citizens of our country, is a shame for all of us. It is an issue which requires immediate and sustained action for the society as a whole.

There is a need for stringent legal reforms which not only aim to bring about new legislations to protect our women, but also strengthen existing laws. The impact of sexual offences on women's psyche and safety cannot be stressed enough. It is essential to educate the masses about concepts of consent and respect; and aware people about the consequences and effects of their gross actions. Creation of safe spaces for women in quintessential to ensure them of their respect and equality in the society.

Today's world needs to stay united against this struggle of providing a safe and secure environment for every single person living. There is a need to raise voice against abuse and work collectively to remove this element of fear in the minds of women. Every woman has a right to move around freely without a constant sense of terror in the back of their minds. Our country can achieve development in its rights sense only when our women are fully safe and respected.

  2. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, art. 376.
  6. Govindaswamy v State of Kerala (2016) AIR SC 4299.
  7. IPC (n 2).
  8. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, art. 302.
  9. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, art. 325.
  10. The Indian Penal Code, 1860, art. 300.

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