Sexual Assault

Yes, it's time for a re-think – by people trying to deflect charges of sex crimes by their friends

An item in a Mumbai tabloid on Thursday said that journalist Tarun Tejpal, who is facing rape charges, had merely committed a 'grave error'.

Normally, the dozens of ill-informed and vacuous comments that find space in the “diary” sections of some newspapers are best ignored. Yet sometimes a response is needed.

I am referring to an absurd diary item in the Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day on June 9. As I said, it could be ignored as the newspaper is published only in one city, Mumbai, and has a limited circulation. Yet, in these days of Internet and social media, the reach of such publications is amplified.

So Malavika Sanghvi, in her column “Malavika’s Mumbai: The Daily Dish” (last item) that appears on page 8 of Mid-Day has taken up the case of Tarun Tejpal, former editor of Tehelka, who was charged with rape by a colleague, is currently facing trial in a court in Goa and is out on bail.

Under the headline, “Time for a RE-THINK?” Sanghvi refers to the serious rape charge against Tejpal as “a grave error”. And because this so-called error apparently gave “his detractors ammunition to demolish him” through an “excessive” and “relentless media campaign”, she suggests that it is time for “strong liberal voices” to speak out.

As Tejpal was not in a position “to fight the good fight”, says Sanghvi, “liberal voices” had to intervene at a time when “regressive thoughts and actions seem to rule.”

She then goes on to inform us that Tejpal’s rehabilitation is underway and that he might well resurrect the ThinkFest, an event that featured several leading thinkers and writers, which stopped after he was charged with rape during the 2013 edition of the festival.

Sanghvi is also clearly in favour of rehabilitating this “once darling of the intelligentsia” because “everyone makes a comeback in India”.

Why should it matter if some people want to rehabilitate Tejpal? After all, the so-called excessive media campaign that Sanghvi finds so troubling was countered not long ago by some of Tejpal’s friends who found space in mainstream media to project him as the victim, rather than the perpetrator of an alleged crime.

It matters because first, comments like this remind us that this is how those with power, or connections, can get away with crimes.

It is precisely this attitude that allowed someone like RK Pachauri, the former head of The Energy and Resources Institute, charged with sexual harassment by a colleague, to continue in his position for many months. People of his class simply refused to accept the gravity of the crime with which he was charged.

The second reason for concern is the attempt to link liberalism with accepting and tolerating a crime. This is a strange twist to the concept of liberalism.

We do live in a time when “strong liberal voices” need to be heard. But not to defend a person, irrespective of his celebrity credentials, who has been charged with a crime.

These voices are needed to speak up for those who have no voice. People like the family of Mohammed Akhlaq, who was beaten to death in Dadri for allegedly eating beef. Today, his family is being targeted by the mahapanchayat of Dadri that demands that they be prosecuted for consuming beef.

They need to speak up for men like Mohammed Amir Khan, who was picked up in 1998 and charged with being a terrorist, tortured, denied bail, kept in jail for the major part of his growing up years, only to be released after 14 years after he was proved innocent.

There are many more instances where “strong liberal voices” need to be heard because those paying the price for the “regressive thoughts and actions” at work today are not the Tejpals or the Pachauris, but people like Akhlaq and Khan.

Yes, a “RE-THINK” is needed. Not to rehabilitate Tejpal or anyone else like him. But in the class of people to which he belongs, who justify grave crimes as grave errors.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.