Activists in New Delhi hold a vigil on May 31, 2014, to protest the gang-rape of two teenage girls. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

In a country still struggling to deal with widespread violence against women, an Indian judge has touched off a firestorm by suggesting that a rape victim and her attacker try to heal their rift in the hope of a happy ending.

When Madras High Court Judge P. Devadass recently let a rapist out of prison on bail so he could “mediate” with his victim, it caused an uproar among legal scholars and women’s rights activists.

The move was deemed “retrograde,” “misogynistic” and simply bad jurisprudence. Lawyers who work in the courthouse’s mediation center wrote a letter to the chief justice, demanding that Devadass’s order be rescinded. India’s Supreme Court, weighing in on a different case, said last week that any compromise between a rape victim and a perpetrator would be a “spectacular error.”

Devadass, a former family court judge, declined through staff members to discuss his order. But critics say it provides a glimpse of the patriarchal attitudes still prevalent in the male-dominated Indian judiciary.

More than two years after the fatal gang-rape of a student brought protesters to the streets and a clarion call for change, judges in India continue to create controversy with their comments in rape cases. One judge asserted that child prostitution is not rape, and another suggested that women who have premarital sex are prone to make accusations of rape or kidnapping later.

The lawyers in the Madras High Court mediation center, an alternative to the overburdened court system, arbitrate mostly civil cases and have called Devadass’s order “highly inappropriate.” They said it reinforces centuries-old Indian cultural stereotypes — that a woman who is the victim of sexual violence should marry her assailant to protect her honor, especially if a baby is born as a result of the assault.

“The thinking is if there has been a rape, there has been sexual contact and, therefore, the best solution for her would be to marry the man,” said Geeta Ramaseshan, a Madras High Court lawyer and mediator. “It’s a very patriarchal mind-set.”

Rape and conviction

The victim, now 22, vividly remembers what happened to her in 2008. The aunt who raised her was at a funeral in a nearby town, she said, leaving her to baby-sit children at a neighbor’s house.

The neighbor’s son, V. Mohan, a college student, had been nasty to her in the past but was friendly this time, offering her a cold beverage. She soon became dizzy and passed out. When she came to, she was lying on the floor. Mohan beckoned her over to show her his cellphone. He had photographed the assault and threatened to use the images to blackmail her, she said.

“To this day, I do not know the reason why he raped me,” the woman said recently.

A week after the rape, she broke down and told a friend. Word spread in the village, a cluster of just three lanes in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Her father, an alcoholic who was an itinerant presence in her life, beat her. “Why did you not tell us?” relatives demanded.

Her family went to the police to file a report. The situation worsened when it became clear that she was pregnant. A DNA test later confirmed Mohan’s paternity. He and his parents offered to pay a $3,000 settlement if she had an abortion. Even the village elders weighed in, also urging her to terminate the pregnancy.

Mohan was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to seven years in prison. Last year, he filed an appeal.

In his recent order, Devadass ruminated that women are often the “soft targets of male lust” and lamented that there were two victims in this case: the woman as well as the child born as a result of the rape.

“Now, [the victim] has become mother of a child,” the judge wrote. “But as on date, she is nobody’s wife. So, she is an unwed mother. Now there is a big question mark looming large before [the victim] as well as her child, who is completely innocent.”

The judge deemed that mediation was the best option in this case, noting that he had recommended it on another occasion earlier this year, with the rapist agreeing to marry the victim, a case now heading toward a “happy conclusion.”

Sriram Panchu, a senior lawyer, said the judge’s order is being protested partly because mediation is normally used to resolve marital or commercial disputes, not violent crimes.

The victim said that the judge’s directive caught her by surprise and that she has been living in fear that her attacker would find and harm her.

“If I meet the judge, I would ask him, ‘Do you know the pain I suffered as a child and was raped, and raising this child?’ ” she said. “You are sitting in an air-conditioned hall writing your judgment. Have you ever thought of me? How I have suffered? The scar still remains.”

Mohan said in a brief telephone interview that he wants to pursue mediation, and his attorney, C. Arunkumar, said they would participate. Neither discussed the case in detail, although Mohan had earlier said that the sex was consensual.

‘I will not go’

Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer, said there had been a slow attitudinal shift within the judiciary as gender-sensitivity training increases and awareness grows. But advocates say more must be done, including gender equity on the bench. Only a small percentage of judges in India’s high courts are women, and there is only one female judge on the Supreme Court.

“The habits of patriarchy die hard — in any country,” Nundy said.

Since the mediation order, the victim and her daughter, now 7, have taken refuge at a women’s shelter. Over the weekend, they watched cartoons together as evening drew in.

The woman, soft-spoken and dressed in a traditional shalwar kameez outfit, said she was shunned after the birth of her daughter and struggled to find employment, working briefly in a knitting mill and doing other odd jobs. Both the victim, who left school in 10th grade, and her daughter are now in school.

A mediation hearing in her case has been set for Monday, and women’s groups are planning to protest. Ramaseshan said the victim should simply not show up, because mediation requires both parties to participate willingly. And she is not.

“I do not want to see him at any cost, for any reason,” the woman said. “Even if it is mandatory, I will not go.”

Pramila Krishnan contributed to this report.

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