How one woman broke the silence around child sexual abuse in India

By Anuradha Sharma
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She was 14 when her private tutor allegedly sexually assaulted her. He told her that it was her shame, that she was a bad girl, and that no one would believe her. She kept quiet.

Growing up in a middle-class family, she believed its honour rested on her shoulders, and that she should not do anything to bring shame to the family.

The silence endured for 22 years before she realised the shame was not hers. She spoke out, and when she did, her abuser was arrested.

Debolina Saha (she asked that we use her real name), who was until recently a corporate lawyer based in Hong Kong, is now hoping for justice in a child molestation case, in which the accused was arrested 23 years after the alleged crime and is now out on bail. “Justice is all I want,” she said, speaking to Article 14 from Maryland, where she had gone to be with her husband, an American citizen.

Having lost her job as a senior associate in a U.S. law firm in Hong Kong during the pandemic, she is currently focussed on her non-profit initiative called Internship Bank, which she started in December 2019 to provide internship opportunities to young women from lesser known colleges and financially challenged backgrounds.

Even as a 14-year-old, Saha showed promise as a student at the prestigious Loreto Convent in Darjeeling, eastern India. Jitesh Ojha was hired as a private tutor who came home thrice a week to help her with science subjects when she was a student of Class IX.

The abuse did not start in a day. “At first, it was a casual side hug,” recalled Saha. “It did strike me as odd, but nothing to make an issue of.” In a matter of days, the casual hugging gave way to more aggressive sexual assault acts and before she could realise, he digitally raped her.

In her words, Ojha had mastered the art of “grooming” the victim. “He would give a gap of a few days leading me to believe that his perversion had stopped. Just when I thought my ordeal had come to an end, he would take it to its next level.”

For her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a senior official with the state government, Ojha was a gentleman, a good teacher with a great reputation who commanded respect. They were grateful that he found time to teach their daughter.

Her mother trusted him so much that she would leave them in the sitting room while she remained in her bedroom and watched TV or took a walk outside so as not to disturb the classes.

The abuse lasted for over a month—Ojha stopped coming after that without offering any reasons—but the trauma lived on.

An Enduring Trauma

A total of 1,48,185 cases of crimes against children—405 a day—were registered in 2019, according to data released by India’s National Crime Records Bureau. A majority of these, 46.6%, were cases of kidnapping and abduction.

But 35.3% of these cases, or 143 a day, were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, including child rape. The crime rate registered per 100,000 children for 2019 was 33.2, significantly higher than 31.8 for 2018.

Every second child in India has experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. And, in 90% of all child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim, say experts.

“Child sexual abuse cases mostly go unreported because it happens inside homes, and schools,” said Nirnay John Chettri, the founder of MARG, a Darjeeling-based NGO that works in combating child sexual abuse and human trafficking. “Children are helpless; they do not have their agency to speak up for themselves.”

Once a woman—a clinical psychologist by profession—emailed him after an awareness programme, speaking up for the first time about being molested by a religious leader 16 years ago. “As a child she had first gone to her aunt, who had asked her to shut up. She suffered in silence for years,” Chettri said, explaining how child sexual abuse goes on largely unchecked aided by a culture of silence.

“I felt impure,” recalled Saha, who never mustered the courage to breathe a word of it with anyone back then. As a 14-year-old girl what impacted her most was the thought of being rendered “impure”.

Saha locked away “her shame” from everyone, including her parents and her sister. Even as she led a normal life as an outspoken and confident corporate lawyer, she remained traumatised inside. “I got nightmares; I could not sleep well… Sometimes, I had flashbacks while working in office, or just watching TV, suddenly Jitesh’s threatful face would flash in front of my eyes and the horror of those moments would come alive, as if I was experiencing the pain and horror all over again.”

Over time, she learnt to live with the trauma, to avoid the triggers as much as she could—she even skipped chapters on child sexual abuse while studying for her law degree—and maintain a calm exterior.

Life went on “normally” and she never thought of speaking about her trauma, not even when the #MeToo movement took the world by storm in 2017.

In January 2019, Saha got married. It was then she realised that she was more broken than she had ever thought. Physical intimacy daunted her. One day she broke down, and shared her painful past with her husband. It was he who told her that instead of bottling it up, she must speak out about her assault and confront her trauma. Then began her process of healing.

She spoke of the abuse to her sister, teachers, and some close friends—her “pillars of support”. She still couldn’t speak of it to her mother, whom she told only after Ojha’s arrest. Her father passed away earlier, two weeks before her marriage in January 2019, without any inkling of the incident.

“It suddenly occurred to me that with my education and privilege, if I do not raise a voice, who will? Predators like Ojha are emboldened by a culture of silence. Not only for my sake, I need to speak out for the sake of other kids too,” she said.

The Arrest And Its Aftermath

On 5 October 2020, a police team from the Darjeeling town station arrested Ojha, 48, from his accommodation in Siliguri, in the plains of Darjeeling district, on charges of sexually assaulting a woman and outraging her modesty (section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860) and attempt to rape (sections 376/511 of IPC).

The arrest followed an investigation carried out for over a year, with sub-inspector Bandana Pradhan as the investigation officer. The police say they have found incriminating evidence on the basis of which Ojha was arrested. “From what we know, it has been a meticulous investigation and we are thrilled by the work the police have done,” said Gunjan Sherpa, Saha’s Darjeeling-based lawyer.

He refused to divulge any details given that the investigations are still on. “Once the police submit the chargesheet to the court, we will be in a position to comment on the case.”

His lawyers—Rohit Agarwal, who moved the bail plea, and Agarwal’s senior, Joyjit Choudhury, head of the legal team defending him—maintain their client is innocent. They refused further comment, citing the fact that investigations were still on.

During their investigation, police found that he had changed a number of schools in the past 20 years. But despite the whispers about him being a possible child abuser, there is no report of misdemeanour from any school. “None of the schools reported any unusual behaviour,” said Rahul Pandey, former town deputy superintendent of police who led the investigations.

Father Cherian John Maliekal SJ, the headmaster at St. Peter’s School Gayaganga, where Ojha was employed as a teacher at the time of arrest, did not respond to phone calls (after the first call, in which he asked to be called back later), WhatsApp messages or an email.

“This (the refusal of schools to speak up) exposes the hypocrisy of educational institutions. Forget what they teach their students, when it comes to reporting or even speaking of child sexual abuse, they prioritise their image in the education market,” said a police officer associated with the investigations who asked not to be named.

The Good Cop

It was a rainy, but uneventful June in Darjeeling that day in 2019. Rahul Pandey, then the town deputy superintendent of police, was in his office checking emails sent to Darjeeling police. In the midst of “mostly routine” communication, was an email from Debolina Saha seeking to register a complaint against “a sexual abuser”.

Pandey approached the allegation with caution. Based on his experience, Pandey felt that rape and sexual harassment cases were sometimes misused. “I have seen in the past litigants sometimes slapping false rape cases even in property disputes,” said Pandey, who is now posted in Purulia in south Bengal.

Only when he was convinced that Saha’s complaint was genuine and not a case of “false litigation”, he met his senior, Amarnath K, the then district police superintendent, to explain to him the importance of this case and get permission to pursue it.

Pandey had trained as an engineer and first served in the merchant navy before joining West Bengal Police Services in 2014. At the time of the Delhi gang-rape case of December 2012, he was preparing for his interview, the last leg of the state civil services exam.

“The incident shook me, it left a deep impact in my mind,” he said. “Why do such heinous crimes happen against women? For the first time I felt I should have an answer to that question. I understood it has nothing to do with her dress, her age or her lifestyle.” It was then, he said, that he began reading up on gender issues and crimes against women.

When Saha first began speaking about her abuse, she did not immediately think of going to the police. “I approached the police last; I was terrified at the thought of going to the police,” she said. “I was afraid that they would not trust me; that no one would trust me and I would become a joke.” She was intimidated by stories of shoddy police investigations and non-registration of sexual assault complaints.

But Pandey surprised her. He accepted her email as an FIR and immediately launched an investigation, which even the pandemic could not derail. He got court permission to record her statement via video conferencing, given the travel restrictions.

“Every Right To Seek Justice”

Once Saha decided to end the silence, a chain reaction set in, and support came in from many quarters. “I heard about it the first time through another person she had confided in,” said Nima Yonzone, who retired as the vice-principal of Loreto Convent last year after 34 years of teaching. “I was shocked to hear of the abuse, but not for a single moment did I doubt her. I totally believe her.”

Saha’s teacher Yonzone remembers her for being bold and confident, apart from being a good student. “You may be bold and outspoken but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to speak out, especially if you are just a 14-year-old,” Yonzone said. “Besides, it is always very difficult to speak out about something that happens to you. It is easier to stand up for others.”

Yonzone was among Saha’s well-wishers to push her to register a police complaint. This, in spite of the fact that Ojha was known to her family and had even taught her children. “There was no question of asking her to keep quiet just because he is known to my family or because it is an old case. She has every right to seek justice.”

Yonzone connected Saha to MARG’s Nirnay John Chettri. She also helped Saha find a lawyer in Darjeeling. Chhetri then helped Saha with contact details of the police department.

“What she had endured had caused her immense hurt,” said Chettri. For the child rights activist, Saha’s delay in speaking up was never an issue. He was rather happy she was taking this bold move.

One day in late 2019, Pandey and Chettri met at an anti-human trafficking awareness programme in Darjeeling and the police officer took Chettri aside, saying his help was needed for an “extraordinary case”. He knew at once that this was related to Saha.

“Nothing To Hide”

Chettri, the activist, now had to don the hat of a sleuth, as he organised an awareness programme at St. Peter’s School in Gayaganga, in the plains of Darjeeling district, over 75 km from Darjeeling town. Ojha was teaching at this school at the time of his arrest.

No one else, not even the school authorities, knew the awareness camp was a pretext. “Our mission was to find out if there were any current pupils who too could have been his victims,” recalled Chettri. A group of volunteers from MARG and the police watched every child at the event while Chettri and others spoke to them about good and bad touch. “The idea was to study the body language of children. If anyone betrayed any signs of discomfort, we could have approached the child.”

The event turned out to be a red herring as no one came forward. But Chettri was able to hear from other victims, also former pupils, of Ojha after he posted on Facebook. “At least three former students of Ojha wrote to me saying they had been subject to similar abuse when they were his students many years ago. But they did not want to speak to the police about it. One of them is abroad and others are worried speaking up would disrupt their personal lives,” said Chettri.

Saha too has heard from other women who were abused by Ojha. “All the while I had naively thought it had ended with me, that I was his last victim,” said Saha, adding that she was horrified to hear of the existence of other survivors. But none of them want to pursue a police case. “I totally understand their refusal to speak up. It is not easy; it is like reliving the trauma all over again. But there is no other way to get justice. I wish I could somehow make them understand this,” she said.

Her lawyer, Sherpa feels this reluctance stems from the image most people have of the police and courts. No one wants to do anything with the criminal justice system, more so if you are a victim of sexual crime. “However, nowadays the police and courts are much sensitised. They take care to protect the identities of the victims. In-camera trials (private proceedings in legalese) help you testify privately. There is no need to be so afraid.”

There is also the question of patriarchal notions of “shame” imposed on survivors of sexual assault. As Yonzone lamented, it is the victim who gets shamed, not the perpetrator. “I have done nothing shameful and I have nothing to hide,” said Saha, explaining why she decided to come out openly and be named, and not seek protection of her identity anymore. In doing so, Saha hopes, she may encourage other survivors to also come forward. “I want all of us as a society to start talking about these incidents; generate awareness and make it normal for sexual victims to talk about the crime in a similar way as victims of other crimes, theft, robbery, etc.”

The Hope

According to the Protection of Child from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act, 2012 digital penetration is rape. The pathbreaking law enacted to protect children from sexual offences also puts the onus on the accused to prove his innocence. However, the law cannot be applied retrospectively and is only applicable to cases that happened after its enactment. So, Saha’s case is dealt with under provisions of the Indian Penal Code, but she is hoping for courts to deal with her ordeal in the “same emphatic way” as done under Pocso.

Gangotri Chakraborty, retired professor at the law department of University of North Bengal, thinks that given the delay it will be a “difficult task” to establish guilt and get the culprit punished. “Delay has to be justified,” said Pandey. “It is very subjective and depends upon the judge. [But] the court can always go the extra mile in exceptional cases.”

Both Sherpa and Saha are determined to stay the course. “We will go to the Supreme Court if needed,” said Sherpa.

A police source said the delay is due to forthcoming elections in Bengal which has changed the priorities for the police.

Pandey watches the developments from 600 km away. “I would like to see the case reach its logical conclusion,” he said. “If the accused is convicted, nothing like it. Whatever the outcome, let’s hope there will be more conversation around child sexual abuse.”

For Saha, it is the beginning of the healing process. She still has nightmares at times and suffers from occasional bouts of despondency, but feels more in control of herself. “I am not afraid anymore,” she said, explaining how speaking out has helped her. “I have no fear. Speaking the truth gives you some kind of power. It makes you fearless,” she added, pointing out that she will finally be at peace after she has got justice.


*Debolina Saha asked to be identified and has given a written consent to being named.
(Anuradha Sharma is an independent journalist based in Siliguri. This story was reported under NFI Fellowships for independent journalists. It first appeared in Article 14)

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