NEW DELHI — Outrage in India is growing over comments made by the nation’s chief justice in two rape cases, with thousands of women signing a letter this week demanding that he resign.
Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, the head of India’s Supreme Court, asked a 23-year-old man accused of raping a minor whether he would marry his victim, who is now an adult.
The victim, who under Indian law can’t be identified, has accused the man, a distant relative and a civil servant with the Maharashtra State government, of repeatedly stalking and raping her starting when she was 16.
The judge’s comments provoked new demands that people in power, and particularly men, do more to improve how women and girls are treated in India.
Justice for victims is rare. Of the tens of thousands of rape cases reported annually in India, only a handful result in prosecutions, figures from the National Crime Records Bureau show. Activists say the true scope of the problem is far worse, as many cases are never reported because of the stigma.
On Monday, Justice Bobde was hearing a petition filed by the accused man in the statutory rape case for relief from a lower court’s jail order.
“Will you marry her?” Justice Bobde asked, according to Indian media reports.
“You should have thought before seducing and raping the young girl,” he added. “We are not forcing you to marry. Let us know if you will.”
Activists said they were “appalled and outraged.”
“Your proposal of marriage as an amicable solution to settle the case of rape of a minor girl is worse than atrocious and insensitive for it deeply erodes the right of victims to seek justice,” the open letter published Tuesday said.
Justice Bobde has not responded.
Sex with minors is a crime in India under the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offenses Act of 2012. Mandatory sentences range from 10 years in jail up to life imprisonment, and bail is rarely granted.
According to court documents, the families reached an agreement that the man would marry the girl when she turned 18. The man later reneged on his promise and married someone else. In 2019, when the family filed a case against the man, a district court granted him anticipatory bail.
However, the Bombay High Court quashed that order, writing a scathing critique of the lower court.
“Such an approach is a clear indication that the learned judge utterly lacks competence,” the court wrote.
The accused man then approached the Supreme Court. Justice Bobde and the other two members of the bench granted him a four-week protection from arrest.
More than 4,000 women signed the letter demanding the chief justice’s resignation, including Anuradha Banerji, an activist with the women’s rights group Saheli.
“When the chief justice of India makes these archaic and patriarchal comments it signals the deeper rot in both the judicial system as well as in the society,” Ms. Banerji said. “Millions of young girls are going to know that their values are in marriageability and not in their personhood.”
The victim’s lawyer declined to comment Friday.
In a separate case, according to the letter and media reports, Justice Bobde appeared to condone rape in the context of a consensual relationship.
“When two people are living as husband and wife, however brutal the husband is, can the act of sexual intercourse between them be called rape?” Justice Bobde asked while hearing a petition filed by a man accused of rape by a woman who had been his live-in partner.
The furor around the judge’s comments comes a month after another judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice Pushpa Ganedivala, had her promotion blocked after several of her judgments in sexual assault cases came under criticism.
Her ruling in a child abuse case that groping a minor without skin-to-skin contact could not be termed sexual assault under the child protection law sparked outrage. She acquitted the man, whom a lower court had convicted of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. After India’s attorney general said that it set a dangerous precedent, the Supreme Court stayed the judgment.
In two separate cases, Justice Ganedivala acquitted two other men accused of raping minors, saying that the victims’ testimonies were unreliable.
After her rulings, a Supreme Court panel headed by Justice Bobde reversed its decision to make her a permanent judge of the Bombay High Court.