When the Mahad police, first landed at her home with their request, Poornima Khade hesitated. The headmistress of a school for special children in the area, had no delusions that the job - helping a 9-year-old girl with Down's Syndrome tell the court that she had been raped - would be easy.
Over seven years later, as the Bombay High Court upheld a local court's order convicting the accused, Khade, now 36, is glad that she agreed. “I feel that whatever I have learnt has been of some use and has got this child justice.”
In December 2005, the victim had conveyed to her family that her neighbour Niranjan Jadhav, in their Managaon home (Raigad district), had raped her. The victim suffers from speech and hearing disability and, while Jadhav (then 53 year old) was arrested immediately, medical reports did not confirm rape.
|Poornima Khade, 36, helped decipher the victim’s speech and gestures in court
That's where Khade came in. The police wanted her to work with them and use her expertise with mentally challenged children to decipher what the victim said for the court.
“Our Suyog Special School for Mentally Deficient Children was the only such school at Mangaon,” said Khade, who holds a Diploma of Special Education in Mental Retardation.
‘I had to seek my mom's help to deal with the case’ Experience had taught Khade that such children would not easily accept a stranger into their zone of comfort. “I was afraid that this would go against her in court.”
The police were helpful, she added. “But, they were finding it difficult to understand what she was saying and the accused said the girl was lying. The PSI handling the case told me that we had to ensure that the girl got justice.”
Trial began at the Alibaug Sessions Court on June 6, 2006. Khade, who was in Mumbai for training, took the first available train home. The FIR, she adds, had graphic details of the assault. “I was shocked. The accused was old enough to be her grandfather and he had committed such a heinous act.”
“I was anxious and nervous about how to broach the conversation with the child.” She says that not having experienced sexual intimacy herself she wasn't sure about how to ask the girl to detail the sexual assault she had suffered. “I turned to my mother."
‘Judge promised victim ice-cream if she answered questions’
The first time she saw the victim, Khade remembers, the girl was clinging to her mother. Khade said that the court granted her request for time to get familiar with the child. “Over a few hours I asked her general questions: about her school, home, parents, play, toys, ice-cream. The judge who was supportive said he would treat her to an ice-cream if she answered the questions."
Eventually Khade started with the uncomfortable questions. “I broke them into small parts, asking her about her day, what was she wearing, where she sat in the accused’s home?“Slowly, I managed to get her to describe the assault. As she did this she became violent and aggressive and even screamed at one point,” Khade says, adding that the child was enraged and scared when she saw the accused in court.
The defence, Khade says, attempted to make it seem that the case had been forged, but she told the court “such children cannot lie. They do not understand what is a lie. They cannot connect things and then live up to a lie”.
Seven years later…
In January 2007, the sessions court convicted Jadhav and sentenced him to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment. Jadhav later challenged the order, and it came to the Bombay High Court the same year.
Relying on the victim's testimony and that of the family, Justice R Y Ganoo of the HC ruled that there was no reason to disbelieve the witnesses. The judgment was proclaimed in April.
Khade who now works with the forest department, to earn extra in order to sustain her school, says of the case, “I feel that whatever I have learnt has been of some use and has got this child justice. I am glad that the high court had faith in our deposition. The girl deserved justice.”