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COVER STORY

A nation outraged

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

The Delhi gang rape ignites public anger in an unprecedented manner, but can it force the state to summon the will to crack down on such crimes and counter social attitudes that seek to resist women’s growing presence in the public sphere?

SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

A candlelight protest in New Delhi demanding justice for the gang-rape victim on December 31.

If ever there was one incident in recent times that numbed the whole nation, it was the horrific gang rape and violence perpetrated on the 23-year-old paramedical student in a moving bus in Delhi on the night of December 16. The young woman died nearly a fortnight later, after battling for life, first at the Safdarjung Hospital in the capital city and later in a hospital in Singapore where she was airlifted for treatment following severe infection requiring an intestinal transplant. Her death left India shell-shocked. Protests that began after the incident became public knowledge grew in mammoth proportions.

The incident was the trigger, and what followed was a response to the every-day reality faced by women, especially those who use public transport. This was perhaps the first time young people, schoolchildren and college students poured out into the streets on the issue of violence against women, and the media threw its entire weight behind the protests.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s handling of the situation added to the general feeling of shock and outrage. The government took time to react, preferring to confine itself to pleas for peaceful protests and restricting the movement of the protesters by barricading all roads leading to India Gate in New Delhi (policing in the capital city is the responsibility of the Union Home Ministry). Oblivious to the belligerent mood of the people, the government continued issuing banal statements one after the other. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first statement with regard to the incident, which came on December 23, was more like an appeal meant to assuage the protests. “We will make all possible efforts to ensure security and safety to all women in this country,” he said. At best the government looked at the incident in isolation as a “heinous crime”, grossly underestimating the anger and resentment that it had aroused. With each passing day, crowds swelled at various points in Delhi. Whether they were organised or not or lumpen or civilised, there was genuine anger.

This perhaps led to the six perpetrators getting apprehended in record time, which indicated that the police could swing into action if they wanted to. The government immediately set up two commissions, both headed by retired judges, one to inquire into the incident and the other to look into a long-standing demand by women’s organisations, to widen the definition of sexual assault. It was in September 2012 that these organisations had submitted a memorandum to the Union Law Minister reminding him of the changes required on the lines suggested by them.

Sensing the public mood as the victim’s condition worsened, there was a turnabout in the government’s thinking. The Union Cabinet met on December 26, a full 10 days after the incident, and decided to set up a commission of inquiry with Justice Usha Mehra, a retired judge of the Delhi High Court, as its chairperson. The main role of the commission is to fix responsibility for lapses or negligence on the part of the police or any other authority or person and to suggest measures to improve the safety and security of women in Delhi and the rest of the National Capital Region. The commission has been given a time frame of three months. On December 27, the Prime Minister, while addressing the National Development Council (NDC) meeting, made a more definite statement: “Let me state categorically that the issue of safety and security of women is of the highest concern to our government.” He also announced the setting up of another commission, under the chairmanship of Justice J.S. Verma, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to review various laws, including punishment for aggravated forms of sexual assault. Perhaps, for the first time in its history, the NDC took cognisance of an issue of violence against women. It is unfortunate that it took a brutal rape and murder in the capital to force the country’s leadership to react. Whether it was meant to quell the protests and calm down the opposition parties or was a sincere attempt to deal with the issue was not clear. The Prime Minister merely stated the obvious: “Gender inequality is another important aspect, which deserves special attention. Women and girls represent half the population and our society has not been fair to this half. Their socio-economic status is improving, but gaps persist. The emergence of women in public spaces, which is an absolutely essential part of social emancipation, is accompanied by growing threats to their safety and security.”

Meanwhile, the Delhi government, led by Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, called for a ban on tinted glass windows for motor vehicles and for enhanced policing. It also deliberated on recommending the death penalty for certain kinds of violence against women. Amid all this began a battle of attrition between the Chief Minister and Delhi’s Commissioner of Police.

SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Security personnel lathi-charge protesting students at India Gate in New Delhi on December 23.

While the sheer brutality of the incident and its location in the capital city may have contributed to the upsurge of anger, which was witnessed not only in Delhi but across the country, what came to the fore was the reaction to the everyday experience of women in cities such as Delhi, the rising graph of violent crimes against women, the insecurities these generate, and the failure of the law enforcement machinery to prevent them. The disproportionately aggressive response of the police and the administration to the protests only aggravated the situation. It also brought home the point that the focus of policing in the country is increasingly getting reduced to suppressing dissent even when it is democratic, dealing with macro problems such as terrorism, and providing security to major political figures. Routine policing that helps in the daily life of citizens is ignored. Indeed, the police are often seen as a threat rather than as a source of comfort. It was the collective aggression of the protesters that led to the demand for the death penalty in certain kinds of aggravated assault cases, which women’s organisations and several others as a collective have warned against.

Growing trend

Far from being a one-off incident, the latest gang rape is symptomatic of a growing trend whereby across the country women of all ages and of all social groups are increasingly targeted for violent assaults. Even as the nation was protesting against the Delhi gang rape, more cases of sexual assault began to find column space in newspapers. A 17-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped near Villianur in Puducherry, a 25-year old woman was molested in outer Delhi, a 24-year-old teacher who spurned a marriage proposal suffered an acid attack in Srinagar, a 20-year-old girl was raped in Virudhachalam town in Tamil Nadu and a law graduate was gang-raped in Bangalore, proving convincingly that the core systems were not working for the vulnerable sections of society. The utter failure of the law enforcement machinery to curb such crimes is reflected in the very low conviction rates. If anything, the record has gone from bad to worse in the past decade.

Barring Manipur, where the rate of conviction for rape is 100 per cent and the rest of the north-eastern States, where it ranges from 80 to 100 per cent, the national average is only 26.4 per cent. The percentage of those convicted for rape is 4.6 per cent; 83.6 per cent of the rape cases are pending trial. The percentage of cases of molestation, sexual harassment, cruelty by husband and relatives, kidnapping and abduction and dowry deaths pending in courts are in the range of 70 to 80 per cent. Cruelty by husband and relatives (43.4 per cent) was on the top the list of crimes committed against women in 2011, followed by molestation (18.8 per cent), kidnapping and abduction (15.6 per cent), rape (10.6 per cent), dowry deaths (3.8 per cent) and sexual harassment (3.7 per cent). Only 10.4 per cent of the cases of cruelty by husband and relatives went to trial in 2011 and only 8.3 per cent of the cases resulted in conviction. The highest conviction rate of 16.5 per cent was for the crime of “importation of girls” and the lowest, 4 per cent, for “indecent representation of women”.

The incidence of crime against women in 2011 was the highest in Delhi, not only among the Union Territories but among all States. As a percentage contribution to all crimes against women, Delhi, at 13.3 per cent, led the pack leaving all metros, including Mumbai, whose contribution at 5 per cent was less than half of the total, far behind. Among the State capitals, Thiruvananthapuram at 1.6 per cent ranked the lowest. As for incidents of rape, while Madhya Pradesh led the country, Delhi ranked the highest among the Union Territories, reporting 572 incidents in 2011. Again, Delhi accounted for 43.2 per cent of the crimes committed against children, far ahead of any other city.

A close look at the statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that between 1995 and 2011, the beginning of the years of neoliberalism and the subsequent build-up in that direction, there was a more than 50 per cent increase in the incidence of rape; a more than 100 per cent escalation in kidnapping and abduction, a threefold increase in the incidence of cruelty by husbands and relatives, a more than 50 per cent increase in dowry deaths, and a doubling of the incidence of molestation and sexual harassment. Going back a little further, between 1971 and 2011, the period during which the NCRB started collecting data for rape, there was an 873.3 per cent increase in such cases (from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011), and a 749 per cent increase in kidnapping and abduction between 1953 and 2011. Had the bureau recorded the change from 1953 onwards, the percentage change for rape would have been much higher. The percentage change for murder in the 59-year period was a quarter of that recorded for rape, 250 per cent. Dacoity and burglary showed negative trends while the number of cases of riots went up.

Progress and regression

Indian society is no doubt changing, but if there is progress on certain fronts it is accompanied by regression on others. The aspirations for equality and freedom and for improvement in their status are undoubtedly increasing among Indian women, irrespective of the social and economic groups they may belong to. Their presence in public spaces, particularly in urban India, is becoming more and more visible. However, alongside the structural constraints that are holding women back is the fact they have to confront not only the legacy of conservative values in relation to women that still have deep roots in Indian society but also the current processes that are reinforcing these values and giving them new forms and expressions. The near abject lack of security for women and the absence of institutional mechanisms to democratise the participation of one half of Indian society expose the underbelly of India’s warped development process.

According to the 14th issue of “Women and Men in India” (October 2012), compiled by the Central Statistics Office of the Ministry of Statistics and Implementation, of the total job-seekers registered with employment exchanges, women constituted 32.5 per cent in 2009. While their share in Central government jobs was a low 10 per cent, some 20.4 per cent were employed in the organised sector in 2010, 17.9 per cent in the public sector, and 24.5 per cent in the private sector. Ironically, India ranked 134th among 187 countries in 2011 in terms of the UNDP- Human Development and Gender Inequality Index.

Increasing violence against women is one expression of the social pathology being bred by the lethal combination of growing economic insecurity, sharpening economic divide, commercialisation, and the attendant increasing commodification of women.

Moreover, this is a generalised phenomenon with neither victims nor perpetrators belonging exclusively to this or that socio-economic group. This is giving added meaning to the lack of inclusiveness of Indian growth—it is not merely that it is not lifting the material standards of living of the vast majority; it does not automatically translate into social progress either. The latter is something that is evident from the worsening child sex-ratio, and the fact that its most extreme expression is in the prosperous States highlights this dichotomy in Indian society.

RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Delhi police fire water cannons at protesters near the Rashtrapati Bhavan on December 22.

Delhi has always been a hostile place for women, and as such it has the worst record of violent crimes against women. Inadequate public transport in a city where many women have to travel at odd hours adds to the problem of their safety. Curiously, it took several days before the Delhi government even thought on the lines of safe public transport at all times of the day. Even here the steps that have been taken are far from adequate. Affordable, accessible and safe public transport for women is still not a priority with the Delhi or Central governments, where, incidentally, two women are in leadership positions.

What is particularly distressing is that the majority of the political parties have studiously ignored the sentiments of the people on the issue. Instead of responding to public opinion by stepping forward to be leaders of change, they have shown a strong proclivity to succumb to or pay obeisance to the conservative opinion when it comes to women. For instance, leaders of dominant political parties in Haryana have always fought shy from taking on the undemocratic diktats of khaps and, ironically, the most educated among them have upheld such diktats and caste councils as part of the cultural tradition of the State. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Women’s Reservation Bill has remained in cold storage. This is a far cry from the situation that prevailed in the early years after Independence when Parliament adopted many forward-looking laws, including the Hindu Code Bill.

The processes that are producing incidents such as the one currently in focus are complex and need to be addressed comprehensively. Focus on quick-fix solutions like the death penalty or chemical castration or even community action, a euphemism for public lynching, apart from the fact that it may not be any kind of a solution, distracts attention from this. Addressing it in a comprehensive manner would mean looking at the entire gamut of discriminatory laws, judgments, policies, and portrayals of women in the media and questioning the larger socio-economic determinants that not only impede the complete participation of women in society at large but also create the conditions for the kind of outrage witnessed on December 16.

There are wider social and economic processes and policy decisions that constitute the central cause of the growing crime graph. Ensuring the safety and security of women cannot be confined to platitudes; it requires a proper understanding of the systemic faults that lie behind the escalation of such crimes. Provisioning of infrastructure, tightening of laws, setting up of fast-track courts, speedy trials, and better policing of the roads might be a part of the wider solution, but the processes that shape mindsets and attitudes need to be corrected first. And that cannot happen in a society where everything, including women, are viewed as commodities.