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.
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.