One Month Later
It’s been more than a month since the horrific assault and rape of the woman referred to variously as Jagruti, Amanat, Nirbhaya, or Damini. (I think Jagruti is the most representative name among these.) What have we learned after a month of introspection?
What Causes This?
Several causes have been put forward. Here are some that I agree with:
- It’s cultural. The patriarchy views rape and sexual assault as a loss of honour not for the perpetrator but for the victim. The patriarchy believes it has the right to control individuals’ sexual behaviour, preferences, and choice of marriage partner. Such behaviour creates an unempowered group of women who lack the means of resistance or retribution. In addition, the patriarchy has also occasionally used rape and other forms of sexual assault (eg., stripping) to assert control over women often for exercising their choice over sexual relations.
- Bollywood. Bollywood promotes eve-teasing or other obsessive fixations on women and submissive or powerless roles for women. Disrespectful behaviour towards women is promoted as manly, humorous, victorious, and heroic.
- The police. The police weren’t doing their job. But more importantly, they create a culture of fear. Victims are terrified of approaching the police, because the results are unpredictable. The police are more likely to blame the victim than believe her, and will often take advantage of the victim in various degrading ways. More indirectly, victim intake processes are also degrading.
- The Law. Laws in India relating to rape are antiquated and do not provide sufficient nuance to adequately prosecute rape cases. Procedures required by law are degrading to the victim. The execution of rape-related cases and language used in those cases is insensitive and is part of the reason victims are reluctant to participate in the legal process. The laws also explicitly minimize certain forms of rape, such as marital rape.
- The political system/the political class. Politicians at various levels are part of the problem. Tribal panchayats still subscribe to outmoded notions and view rape in terms of honour and virtue. In various ways, many elected male politicians subscribe to the same misogynistic prejudices against women that various tribal patriarchies do. They hold a deep belief that when a woman is raped, the woman must have poor character (which is the cause of the rape). Other suggestions likely to originate in the political class are the woman’s choice of apparel, choice of location, or the fact that the woman has a boyfriend. Those politicians who have slightly clearer thinking on the topic nevertheless have unintelligent or insensitive reactions.
People had various reactions. Here are some of the more insidious ones.
- Sheila Dixit. Claimed it wasn’t her responsibility, since the Delhi police weren’t under her jurisdiction.
- Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi. No reaction at all.
- Manmohan Singh. “Theek hai?”
- Sushma Swaraj. “Even if she survives, she’ll never be truly alive again.” (Said while Jagruti was still alive)
- Abhijit Mukherjee. (Referring to protesters, apparently of the opinion that he can decide how female protesters ought to dress) “Those who are coming in the name of students in the rallies, sundori, sundori mahila (beautiful women), highly dented and painted”
- Sushil Kumar Shinde. (Attempting to explain why there should not be protests) “…tomorrow Maoists will come here to demonstrate with weapons.” Also (giving a reason why the protests should have stopped, and attempting to ingratiate himself with Sonia Gandhi): “Person like Sonia Gandhi met the delegation of students at midnight.”
- Asaram Bapu. “She should have taken God’s name and held their hands and feet…then the misconduct wouldn’t have happened. … Galti ek taraf se nahi hoti hai (mistakes are not committed only by one of the parties)”.
- Banwari Lal Singhal. (On banning skirts in schools) “It should be prohibited keeping in view the rise of social crimes against women. The school should have pant-shirts or salwar suits as uniforms for girl students,”
With a large number of people, the immediate reaction was to demand various forms of crowd justice. The death penalty was sought by a large proportion of protesters, irrespective of procedure and law, a trend that Chief Justice Altamas Kabir critiqued. Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan stated that the culprits should simply be handed over to the crowd. The demand for extreme punishment appears to stem from the general assumption that new laws enacted can be applied retrospectively to the perpetrators, in particular to definitions of juveniles (there is doubt about the age of most brutal of the rapists, and he will likely be tried as a juvenile, with a greatly reduced maximum sentence). The supreme court has clarified that this is not possible. The Justice Verma committee, constituted to make recommendations to the government on reforms to laws on sexual assault and rape, has produced a report that seems to include opinions from various stakeholders and experts. Foreign women have spoken up about their experience as tourists, and have described nightmarish experiences of groping hands whenever they visit public places.
Reactions from the legal community have been confused and have shown a disturbing disregard for due process. The Saket court bar association refused to represent the rape accused, and attempted to stop lawyers who agreed to represent them by engaging in a public physical tussle with those lawyers, on court premises.
The Verma report appears to be a progressive document, and the government has taken its recommendations into account, to some extent, in an ordinance that was promulgated recently. It looks like a step forward. Apart from defining multiple categories of sexual assault and increasing penalties for rape, it also includes jail terms for government servants who obstruct justice in such cases. (I’m not sure whether this extends to the police.) But there are parts that are puzzling. For example, “A man who rapes his estranged wife during separation can be jailed for seven years”, indicating that marital rape deserves a lesser penalty. It’s also not clear what the effects outside Delhi will be. Delhi is pretty bad, but the problem is not restricted to Delhi. Various accounts estimate that the rural incidence of rape is higher than the urban incidence.
In broader terms, attitudes towards rape are influenced by a general disregard for individuals’ privileges and sovereignty over their own bodies. Symptoms include police torture, army excesses and rape, ragging in colleges, corporal punishment for children in their schools and homes, assaults on unmarried couples out and about, various central and state government attacks on free speech, subversion of various investigation agencies to carry out political revenge missions, as well as sexual assault and rape.
I hope we are able to find real solutions.