|Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 ||
Gang Rape in Delhi
KAVITA CHARANJI gives a firsthand update of the aftermath.
It is just over a month since a bright young 23-year-old physiotherapy student died after being brutally gang raped and assaulted with iron rods in a moving bus as it plied its way in the heart of New Delhi. Yet the collective conscience of the nation has been so rudely awakened that the heat of public anger against the police and political establishment refuses to die down.
In the aftermath of the barbaric incident in the “rape capital”, many uncomfortable questions surfaced: Why did the police and the Transport Department of the Delhi government allow the bus to move around freely when it had seriously violated many traffic rules in the past? Could the young woman have survived if Police Control Room (PCR) Vans had reached the spot earlier where she and her friend who was with her on the bus were found naked and grievously injured? And what does it speak about notoriously apathetic Delhiites who merely stopped to gaze at the victims instead of covering them up and immediately taking them to hospital?
Students, activists and concerned citizens, outraged at the incident demanded speedy justice and the right to freedom from fear for women. Candlelight vigils and rallies were taken out in Delhi and other cities. Students were at the epicentre of the protests. Says Sunny Kumar, state secretary of the All India Students Association (AISA) which has played an active role in the protests in Delhi, “For the first time the issue of rape and sexual molestation burst in the open in the university campus even without a sustained campaign.”
Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research who has been a women's activist for the last 35 years, says, “There is definite reason for hope because men and boys joined the protests in large numbers.”
The protestors in Delhi were initially put down with water cannons, lathi charge and oppressive measures such as the closure of public transport systems to prevent them from assembling in large numbers in key areas of the city. However, to assuage middle class sentiment outraged by the lack of governance , an edgy central government faced with elections in 2014 has sent the trial of the five accused men to a fast track sessions court, more funds for recruiting extra judges for fast track courts and a larger subordinate judiciary, gender sensitisation programmes for the police and intensive training of women police officers in posts that involve a greater interface with the public.
Widely welcomed by activists was the setting of the three-member Justice J.S.Verma Committee to make recommendations to the Home Ministry on how rape laws can be given more teeth. In the face of public demands for the death penalty and chemical castration for rapists and a lowering of the juvenile age from 18 years to 16 years given that a young boy was the most sadistic in the gruesome gang rape-murder case, the committee stood its ground and recently came up with a historic 630-page report on wide judicial and police reforms that -- if implemented -- could have a lasting impact on rape laws in India.
While ruling out the death penalty, chemical castration and the lowering of the juvenile age from 18 to 16 years, the Justice Verma committee has suggested a full life term in extreme cases. The existing law provides for punishment for rapists of imprisonment ranging from seven years to life. There is a caveat: government can exercise discretionary powers to release the convict after 14 years. The committee now recommends enhanced punishment of upto 20 years to “the rest of that person's life”. Gang rape carries a sentence of 20 years to the rest of the convict's life. However, when it causes death or leaves the victim in a vegetative state it recommends that convicts should be jailed for the rest of their lives.
New offences have been recognised such as disrobing a woman, voyeurism, trafficking and stalking.
The definition of rape has become broad-based to include specific unnatural acts as in the recent gang rape case. This has been a long-standing demand of women's organisations and lawyers. Marital rape will be regarded an offence for women of all ages, a proposal welcomed by activists.
Human rights activists have long expressed concerns about sexual violence against women in conflict zones such as the North East and Jammu and Kashmir. The committee has recommended the amendment and review of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the need to bring sexual offences by uniformed men under the purview of criminal law.
Now the ball lies in the court of the government and legislature as to whether it will act on these recommendations. Current signs are not encouraging. As Justice Verma scathingly pointed out, the ministries submitted their recommendations to the committee at the nth hour of the report's release. The committee meanwhile did its job well by meeting a tough 30-day deadline after going through 80,000 suggestions from lay persons as well personalities like the Chief Justice of the Supeme Court of Canada and academics from Harvard and Oxford so that it could submit its report in time for Parliament's budget session in February. Question marks, however, hang over the future of the report, which refers to the failure of governance, slams the police and even the public for its apathy. Fears have been expressed too that the report could go the way of others that have gathered dust in the past.
For now, according to media reports, the home ministry is in the process of studying the Justice Verma Committee report and will finalise its comments before sending the recommendations to the Parliamentary Standing committee on Home Affairs.
There are of course other serious issues involved. For one, unseating deeply entrenched prejudices is a Herculean proposition in a country where women have long been forced into a subordinate position. The discrimination begins at home. Preference for the male child results in rampant female foeticide in the northern states. Girl children are regulary deprived of education, nourishment and nurturing. Dowry killings continue and at the community level the khap panchayats of Haryana are notorious for “honour killings” (murder, say activists) if girls step out of line or marry men of their choice, particularly when they are of a lower caste. In rural areas of India, Dalit, tribal, Adivasi women are routinely humiliated and raped if they dare challenge the status quo.
The gang rape in 1992 of Bhanwari Devi, a grassroots social worker from Bhateri in Rajasthan symbolises how rape is used as a tool of intimidation against women who assert themselves. Bhanwari had tried to stop the practice of child marriage in her village. Enraged at her boldness, a group of higher class, influential men raped her. When after much humiliation at the hands of village authorities, doctors and the police she finally lodged her case, the accused were acquitted in a trial court on the grounds that middle-aged, upper caste men could not have raped a Dalit woman.
Bhanwari Devi's case attracted worldwide media attention. Several women's groups and NGOs filed a petition in the Supreme Court under the platform of Vishakha. In a case that came to be known as Vishakha and others v. State of Rajasthan, 1997 they demanded justice for Bhanwari Devi and action against sexual harassment at the workplace. This led to the Vishakha judgement that for the first time set out guidelines for the prevention and redressal of sexual harrasment at the workplace.
“Masculinity is in a crisis. The kind of rape that we see now is a reaction to the new assertiveness of women, ” says Poonam Kathuria, executive secretary of the Ahmedabad based Society for Women's Action and Training Initiatives (SWATI). What alarms her is that rape has become a “tool of control , the establishment of a man's hegemonic power over a woman.”
Misogyny, sexism and patriarchal attitudes do not end in the rural belts. In the gang rape case in Delhi, questions were raised as to why the young student was out with a boy at 9.30 pm. Public figures and religious leaders too were quick to make outrageous comments in the wake of the incident that shook the country. The president Pranab Mukherjee's son, Member of Parliament Abhijit Mukherjee went so far as to label a bulk of the protestors as “dented and painted women”, while RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that rapes were rampant in urban not rural India and that Indian women should be housewives. Prominent religious leader Asaram Bapu also made a statement that created a furore. Saying that the young woman could have prevented the rape by taking guru diksha and chanting the Saraswati Mantra, he added that she should have called her rapists “brothers, fallen at their feet and pleaded for mercy.”
Ranjana Kumari points out that, “The onus of responsibility for rape and sexual molestation is placed squarely on women by blaming them for what they wear, where or with who they are, what time of the day or night it is. Such attitudes have to change.”
According to Shailaja Chandra, who has served in senior government posts and currently is a freelance government policy analyst, the rot in the system is deep and manifests itself in a culture where legal offenders can get away with impunity if they have the right connections. “There has to be a finality that if you do something wrong you get punished. The question is that do we live in a country that has the rule of law or is it the law of the jungle?”
Colin Gonsalves, a senior Supreme Court advocate and founder of Human Rights Law Network, minces no words when he talks of the necessity of a complete “purge of the police force” . His ire stems from the harassment of rape victims by the police, particularly when they are tribal or poor women. They are asked for graphic accounts of the rape, their sexual history and counter cases are established by saying that the victim is a 'prostitute'. “Imagine the trauma of the victim -- first she is raped, then she has to make interminable rounds of the police station. If there are powerful interests involved, the police will try to bring about a settlement between the culprits and the victim. Ultimately the FIR is not registered or the victim faces harassment. And the case will die.”
For Gonsalves it is not the “severity of punishment but the certainty of punishment” that holds the key to offences like rape. “We need more judges so that legal cases can be disposed of quickly rather than stretching on for years. And this can only happen when the government increases expenditure so that more judges can be recruited.”
Rupinder Kaur, a member of the Delhi Commission of Women is more optimistic. The Commission, she says, has begun gender sensitisation talks in the capital's schools and colleges. “Changing deep rooted prejudices is not easy. But a small start has been made.”
Has the rot gone too deep or can women in the country finally be able to live without fear? Is autonomy not their birthright? If patriarchy and regressive attitudes prevail, protestors may take to the streets again. And their voice will carry weight as they have in the past.
Kavita Charanji is a Delhi-based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Daily Star.
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