Farooqui acquitted in rape case: Delhi High Court's 'shoddy' reasoning of consent is confused and dangerously absurd

This Monday, the Delhi High Court acquitted Mahmood Farooqui of raping a Columbia University researcher in 2015, reversing the lower court's decision. The judgment, which has already attracted widespread criticism, acquitted Farooqui by concluding that three things 'remain in doubt:'

  • whether the incident as the prosecutrix narrated it took place;
  • if it did take place, whether it was without her consent; and
  • if it was without her consent, whether Farooqui could discern or understand this.

The last conclusion flows from a deeply problematic understanding of consent, and the Court's reasoning behind its first two conclusions is also inadequate in several respects.

Flawed understanding of consent

The crux of the judgment lies in its last conclusion: that the prosecutrix's lack of consent was not communicated to Farooqui, or at least, "it is not known whether he has been communicated that there was no consent of the prosecutrix." (86)

Now, the court itself admits that after Farooqui expressed his sexual desires to the prosecutrix, she said 'No' and pushed him away. How then does it conclude that she did not communicate her lack of consent? By reiterating a deeply regressive yet sadly ingrained logic that is continuously used to de-legitimise rape — the court holds that, sometimes, 'no' means yes.

The court outlines various scenarios in which 'No' takes on different meanings. If the parties are strangers or in a prohibited relationship, or if one of the parties is "conservative … and is not exposed to the various ways… of the world," then a simple 'No' or mere reluctance is enough. But in acts "of passion, actuated by libido," things get more complicated. Crucially for the Farooqui case, "when the parties are known to each other, are persons of letters ... intellectually/academically proficient" and have had physical contact in the past, then the court holds that "it would be really difficult to decipher whether little or no resistance and a feeble 'no' was actually a denial of consent."

The judgment's reasoning for such a polysemic 'No' is shoddy, confused, and dangerously absurd. The court does not explain why being "of letters" or "intellectually/academically proficient" affects what 'no' means. Why past sexual contact matters to the court is particularly dubious, given the high court itself states elsewhere that "past conduct will definitely not amount to consent," and that consent is a must for every sexual act, every time (74).

The Delhi High Court seems to advance one additional justification based on gender stereotypes, only to simultaneously reject it. The court states that sometimes, in "woman behaviour," no may mean yes. It outlines how men and women are socialised to reciprocate sexual consent differently, since men are normally seen as initiators of sex. But the court then immediately discredits this line of thought, stating that this "may not be the situation" in today's world, where equality is a "buzzword" (and fundamental constitutional value, as the Court should have added).

 Farooqui acquitted in rape case: Delhi High Courts shoddy reasoning of consent is confused and dangerously absurd

The judgment in the Farooqui case suffers from several flaws in reasoning, the most worrying of which is its assertion that 'no' sometimes means 'yes.' Getty Images

The court's argument that 'no' can have a double meaning is also odds with the Indian Penal Code (IPC) provision on rape. Explanation (2) to S. 375 states that consent is an unequivocal voluntary agreement when a woman, by verbal or non-verbal communication, communicates willingness to participate in a specific sexual act (emphasis added). As the judgment itself states at various places, consent must be an affirmative, "clear, and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions" (86). It is hard to see how saying 'no' can be clearly, unambiguously and unequivocally construed as actually saying its opposite.

The court, however, seems to suffer no hardship in doing so. Asserting that 'no' can have multiple meanings allows the court to separate what the prosecutrix actually said in plain English, from what "has been communicated" to Farooqui. In describing the facts of the case, the court stresses that even though the prosecutrix initially says 'No' and pushes Farooqui away, she "ultimately goes along" and feigns an orgasm (82). From this description, the court concludes that even though the prosecutrix may have faked the orgasm to end her ordeal more quickly, "what the appellant has been communicated is… that the prosecutrix is okay with it and has participated in the act" (82).

It may be worth repeating the obvious. If the court accepts, as fact that the prosecutrix said 'No' to Farooqui and pushed him away, then her 'ultimately' going along was her being subjected to sex without her consent.

The IPC even expressly provides that a woman who does not physically resist penetration shall not be regarded as consenting by her lack of physical resistance alone. Further, the orgasm that the prosecutrix faked was towards the end of her forced subjection. It therefore does not matter what the fake orgasm communicated to Farooqui, since by that point, he had already committed a sexual act without her consent.

The potential fallout from the Court's argument is evident. When will courts think that a woman's 'no' is feeble and when will it be enough? The judgment opens up avenues for individuals to get away with rape even when women say they do not consent, subverting the intention of the law. The 'affirmative model' of 'yes means yes' and 'no means no' that the judgment rejected is, in fact, precisely what must be adopted.

Inadequate reasoning

As mentioned earlier, the judgment concluded that three things 'remain in doubt:'

  • whether the incident as the prosecutrix narrated it took place;
  • if it did take place, whether it was without her consent; and
  • if it did take place and was without her consent, whether Farooqui could discern or understand this.

As discussed above, the crux of the judgment lies in the last conclusion. The reasoning for the first two conclusions is left less explicit, and inadequate on several counts.

For the first claim, Farooqui's counsel tried to show that the incident could not have taken place in the alleged time period, given the statements of various witnesses and call detail records. The judgment dismisses these attempts as 'guesstimates' (92), asserting that human memory is not sacrosanct and liberally quoting Supreme Court precedent stating the same. The court even calls the prosecutrix a 'sterling witness' since her sequence of events broadly matches the evidence of two main witnesses (96). Though these arguments seem to rebut the defence's claims to a large extent, the Court still ultimately accepts the defence's argument that the incident as the prosecutrix narrated it may not have taken place. The court seems to think that issues related to the first conclusion "pale into insignificance" compared with whether the prosecutrix's lack of consent had been communicated to Farooqui (92).

For the second claim, Farooqui's counsel tries to show the prosecutrix did consent mainly by citing her conduct before and after her rape. The court categorically rejects this, stating that past conduct does not amount to consent (74) and that post-rape conduct should not delegitimise rape allegations, since people cope with trauma differently (89). Despite these categorical rebuttals to the defence's claims, however, the court still concludes that it is not known what occurred without the prosecutrix's consent and when.

Similar dissonances in the court's reasoning are evident in other places as well. For instance, the court talks about Farooqui's bipolar disorder at some length, suggesting that it may consider his mental condition to determine how he understands what is said to him, while ostensibly stating that it will not do so, since no evidence was led on this aspect.

The judgment, thus, suffers from several flaws in reasoning, the most worrying of which is its assertion that 'no' sometimes means 'yes.' Through its arguments, the judgment chips away at feminist legal advances around consent and raises dangerous implications for how rape cases may be adjudicated in the future.

The author is a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Delhi.

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Updated Date: Sep 27, 2017 15:56:13 IST