Jasleen Kaur, a 20 year old student of Delhi’s premier college, recently posted on Facebook that Sarvjeet Singh, a young motorbike riding boy, made lewd and sexually obscene comments to her. She also alleged that when she retaliated he challenged her to take whatever actions she pleases. By both accounts the two had an unpleasant verbal exchange but the girl’s allegations of molestation are vastly different from the stand of the boy – that she was peeved when he refused to move his motorbike to allow her to pass on a zebra crossing. What followed was remarkable at some level and disturbing at another.
Jasleen took pictures of Sarvjeet and his registration number and her social media post went viral. Acting with great alacrity the Delhi Police traced the boy’s house, registered an FIR and arrested Sarvjeet. His family cried hoarse but before their story was heard the Deputy Commissioner of Police awarded Jasleen a Rs. 5000 award for her bravery. All this while, there was no independent eyewitness, despite the incident having taken place at a major traffic intersection and it appears that the police acted only on Jasleen’s allegations. Shortly thereafter the newspapers carried photos of Jasleen with the Delhi Chief Minister suggesting that there may be some political twist to the incident. Through this process, Sarvjeet was in custody and released on bail only the subsequent morning. He has been charged under sections 354A(1)(iv) (making sexually coloured remarks) and 509 (words or gestures intended to insult the modesty of women) for which he can be imprisoned for up to 1 year.
An eyewitness has now emerged who’s narration of events supports the claims of Sarvjeet over the allegations made by Jasleen. In fact, his sequence of events almost dovetails what Sarvjeet has said in the media and has definitely added a new twist to the case. It has also thrown up serious questions that need to be answered.
We are often at odds with the delay or police inaction that one lauds the swiftness with which they acted. But what preliminary investigation had the police conducted before arresting Sarvjeet? What efforts did the police take to find eye witnesses before making the arrest? Was it proper for a senior police officer to announce an award when the matter is still at the preliminary stage of investigation? Will such award not colour the investigation process to be conducted by subordinates of the senior officer? Is this a case of jaanta-hain-main-kaun-hu (do you know who I am) or another case of trial-by-media? Or is the account of the eyewitness also just a cheap publicity stunt only to be controverted by yet another eyewitness coming forward tomorrow claiming to support Jasleen’s narration? Do the media have no responsibility to ascertain veracity of events before flashing people’s stories as ‘breaking news’? Does the IPC have safeguards and checks against the misuse of the law and if so are they adequate? Did the amendments by which section 354A was inserted provide any contours to define sexually coloured remarks? One presumes that no girl would like to invite upon her a false charge for the two minutes of fame and so, if Jasleen is correct, then what’s wrong if the police acted solely on her Facebook post. But if Sarvjeet is to be believed, what recourse, asides from suing for defamation/slander does he have against Jasleen and the police for the loss to his reputation and credibility? And in this whole debate the admitted position of Sarvjeet having blatantly broken traffic rules and the regularity with which that happens in our society has gotten overshadowed!
The law strives and must always strike a balance between competing interests. Sometimes it’s possible to do that and the law succeeds. But oftentimes, and especially in criminal law, it’s difficult to achieve a balance. The law makers are always trying to ensure that the law keeps pace with the changing and evolving circumstances. Acting on Facebook posts can be one example of that. But as this case has proved, there’s a thin line between acting expeditiously and over policing. And while it would be unwise to take any sides yet in the Jasleen-Sarvjeet debate, let’s just hope that we’re not moving towards a fear stricken society where uncorroborated social media posts, without independent evidence or investigation land people in jail.
Satvik Varma is a Harvard Law graduate practicing as an advocate in New Delhi.