Ral­ly­ing for Re­form

Protests against a re­cent case of gang rape in In­dia have raised ques­tions about the safety of women, the com­mit­ment of the government and the power of the In­dian peo­ple.

Southasia - - Contents - By Semu Bhatt

Will In­dia’s “Rape Cap­i­tal” fi­nally es­cape a tar­nished rep­u­ta­tion?

On the night of De­cem­ber 16, 2012, a 23-year old phys­io­ther­a­pist in­tern was gang raped in a mov­ing bus by six men, in­clud­ing a mi­nor, in the In­dian cap­i­tal. She and her male friend were also bru­tally as­saulted, and later stripped and thrown out of the bus, where they re­mained naked and bleed­ing in the chilly weather for two hours be­fore the po­lice ar­rived. The rape vic­tim suc­cumbed to her in­juries on De­cem­ber 29.

Sex­ual as­saults on women are not new to Delhi, which wit­nessed over 700 rapes in 2012 and holds the shame­ful tag: ‘The rape cap­i­tal of In­dia’. How­ever, this par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent stirred the soul of the city and the na­tion, and brought thou­sands of peo­ple, mainly col­lege stu­dents, out on the streets protest­ing against the lack of se­cu­rity for women. The protests spread with each pass­ing day and gained wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age. Pro­test­ers in Delhi also found sup­port from across In­dia and be­yond.

The po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment was dumb-founded by the un­prece­dented large-scale, sus­tained and mostly peace­ful protests at the In­dia Gate and the Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. While the hun­dreds of pro­tes­tors grew re­sent­ful that the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship did not climb down from its ivory tow­ers to lis­ten to them, the government se­cured all roads and shut down all metro sta­tions lead­ing to the Raisina Hill that houses the of­fices of key government func­tionar­ies. When some seething young­sters tried break­ing the bar­ri­cades, the po­lice used ba­tons, tear­gas and water can­nons to dis­cour­age them. A day af­ter the pro­test­ers clashed with the po­lice, Sec­tion 144 of the In­dian Pe­nal Code that bans the as­sem­bly of five or more peo­ple was im­posed in the city to pre­vent pro­test­ers from gath­er­ing. Some po­lit­i­cal and spir­i­tual lead­ers joined the protests, while oth­ers made in­sen­si­tive com­ments, fur­ther en­rag­ing the peo­ple. Some even tried to play iden­tity pol­i­tics over the vic­tim.

Sens­ing mass anger, the gov­ern- ment even­tu­ally took steps – most of them aimed to pre­vent fur­ther dam­age to its se­verely dented im­age. The Home Min­is­ter met with the pro­test­ers on De­cem­ber 22 and re­as­sured them of swift government ac­tion. Ac­cord­ingly, five po­lice­men were sus­pended for dere­lic­tion of duty while the vic­tim was be­ing as­saulted. How­ever, the po­lice com­mis­sioner re­fused to step down.

The Delhi government took the de­ci­sion to fast track the rape cases. A three-mem­ber com­mit­tee headed by former Chief Jus­tice JS Verma was con­sti­tuted to take sug­ges­tions from the civil so­ci­ety and le­gal ex­perts and give rec­om­men­da­tions on ex­pe­dit­ing jus­tice and en­hanc­ing pun­ish­ment in sex­ual as­sault cases. The six ac­cused con­cern­ing the rape as­sault were ar­rested; the fast track trial of five of them com­menced from Jan­uary 21. The sixth ac­cused – a mi­nor – will face the Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice Board. Although he was the most bru­tal of them all and in­serted an iron rod into the vic­tim’s body, he will most likely walk free in a few months, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the ju­ve­nile law.

When the vic­tim’s male friend, in an in­ter­view to a TV chan­nel, nar­rated the grue­some in­ci­dent, the po­lice not only filed a case against the chan­nel but also de­nied half of his story. Given that he is the only sur­viv­ing wit­ness of the gang rape, such open de­nial by the po­lice means higher chances of ac­quit­tal of the ac­cused.

That the government of In­dia was pro­tect­ing its in­ter­ests over that of the vic­tim was ev­i­dent when it de­cided to air­lift her to a Sin­ga­pore or­gan trans­plant spe­cialty hospi­tal. The de­ci­sion raised many eye­brows as doc­tors opined that it made zero sense to shift a crit­i­cally ill pa­tient at such a junc­ture. It was clearly a po­lit­i­cal move to show that the government was do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to save the vic­tim. How­ever, the government was so scared that when the vic­tim even­tu­ally lost the bat­tle of sur­vival, her body was brought back and cre­mated in a hushed up af­fair, amid tight se­cu­rity.

In the mean­while, the rape shame con­tin­ued in the city with 45 rapes and 75 cases of mo­lesta­tion in the last fort­night of 2012.

In 2011, In­dia wit­nessed 228,000 crimes against women, of which 24,206 were rapes. Alarm­ingly, the age range spans from a two-year tod­dler to an 85-year-old grand­mother. More than 50 per cent of sex­ual as­sault cases are not re­ported due to the so­cial

stigma at­tached to it. Apart from this, the laws deal­ing with crimes against women are am­bigu­ous and weak. For ex­am­ple, the law equates an at­tempt to rape to mere “out­rag­ing the mod­esty of a woman” for lack of pen­e­tra­tion.

New strin­gent laws and fast track courts are thus wel­come but they are not enough. In­dia re­quires a mul­ti­pronged ap­proach to tackle this men­ace. The en­tire po­lice, med­i­cal and ju­di­cial ma­chin­ery deal­ing with rape vic­tims needs to be sen­si­tized. The ab­sence of a psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selor dur­ing the trial makes it worse for the vic­tim to deal with hos­tile agen­cies. Un­der the ex­ist­ing law, the max­i­mum pun­ish­ment for rape is a life term; how­ever, the la­cuna in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion process leads to al­most 70 per cent of ac­quit­tals in rape cases. An open reg­istry of sex­ual of­fend­ers should be main­tained and their move­ments should be tracked by the po­lice. In­creased po­lice pa­trolling and of­fi­cers in pub­lic trans­port ser­vices at night is de­sir­able. Nam­ing and sham­ing of misog­y­nist po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and re­li­gious lead­ers is nec­es­sary as their at­ti­tude to­wards women in­flu­ences oth­ers.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties should also be forced to ex­pel politi­cians who are booked for crimes against women. A mass coun­sel­ing ex­er­cise to ed­u­cate stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als on gen­der equal­ity could be a good step to­wards a long-term so­lu­tion to the prob­lem. The so­cial stigma at­tached to sex­ual as­sault needs to be ad­dressed to en­cour­age vic­tims to seek jus­tice. Last but not the least, there needs to be a trans­for­ma­tion in par­ent­ing. Par­ents are more prone to ad­vice girls on the clothes they are wear­ing rather than rep­ri­mand boys on bad be­hav­ior with girls.

Del­hi­ites marked a one-month an­niver­sary of the gang rape vic­tim in mid-Jan­uary, show­ing that they have not for­got­ten the in­ci­dent. A lawyer has filed a pub­lic in­ter­est lit­i­ga­tion, chal­leng­ing the im­po­si­tion of Sec­tion 144 dur­ing the protests; an­other pe­ti­tion has urged to strike down the le­gal pro­vi­sion un­der which the ju­ve­nile ac­cused would be re­leased with­out pun­ish­ment. How­ever, the government and the po­lice are more fo­cused on the post-rape han­dling and quick jus­tice of the cases rather than fo­cus­ing on cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment that is safe for women.

The last two weeks of 2012 high­lighted that the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing of the In­dian mid­dle class is go­ing to play an im­por­tant role in the coming years. In 2011, the same class of peo­ple was on the streets op­pos­ing cor­rup­tion in the government. They have shown that they are will­ing to stick their necks out for the is­sues that mat­ter and are ca­pa­ble of sus­tained protests that could bring the government on its knees. This is a first step in the di­rec­tion of mak­ing the In­dian po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship ac­count­able to the peo­ple that vote for it. It also is a roar against the re­gres­sive forces that place the onus on women for their safety through codes of dress­ing, gen­der in­ter­ac­tion and so­cial life. It is up to th­ese peo­ple, with help from the me­dia, to con­tinue the cam­paign so that the In­dian government is forced to ef­fec­tively ad­dress the is­sue of women safety.

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