It is certainly not flattering to talk about what is described as India’s “rape culture” — it hurts, understandably, the sentiments of many Indians who may feel that it is an unjust and unfair depiction and ignores the many good things that happen in India. However, this is how the epidemic-like proliferation of rapes, often accompanied by fatal assault on the victims, is being described in editorials and readers’ comments.
The brutal gang-rape and killing of a 23-year-old medical student have resulted in nationwide protests of public dismay and rage over the perpetrators of the ghastly act, but also over the apathy and indifference of the police and politicians to create a safe environment for women who are not only home-makers but are, increasingly, engaged in professions that were once a male domain.
Rape, as one angry Delhi-based female activist told me, had been treated by politicians and police as a “delinquent act”, ignoring the profound physiological, psychological and emotional impact on the victim. This cavalier approach of politicians and the police to rape has incensed the public which sees this attitude as contributing to the “rape culture”.
Apart from the registered incidents of rape, scores of cases go unreported for fear of the stigma and shame that such incidents can create for the victim and her family. Indeed, some victims have killed themselves. A 16-year-old Dalit —– a so-called “untouchable” — girl committed self-immolation after being gang-raped in Haryana last October.
Incidents of rape have increased by 25 per cent between 2006 and 2011.
The present Indian government, already facing an angry public seething over the series of corruption scandals involving many of its cabinet members, is in jitters over the scale of the current nationwide protests.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a respected economist who started his first term with considerable sympathy capital, will probably have the dubious distinction of presiding over one of the most corrupt Indian governments; Singh is surrounded by cabinet ministers and sycophants, some of whom have records that could make ordinary conmen and criminals look like angels.
Meanwhile, legal experts, activists and others are recommending a variety of punishments for those convicted of rape; some want the perpetrators castrated and others would prefer to see them executed. While the debate over the punishment will continue to rage — hopefully, it will not die a natural death under the mountains of papers which India’s politicians and bureaucracy are notoriously famous for producing — India should follow the “fast-track” judicial route to clear rape cases. The notoriously slow Indian courts can take years before a case is even heard. This is a very sorry state of affairs, and needs to be urgently addressed; after all, justice delayed is justice denied.
Though the Indian government has appointed a commission of inquiry into public safety of women and a judicial panel to review India’s legislative framework on violence against women, such bodies are hollow if their recommendations are not implemented without delay.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) had already recommended in February 2007 that India should “widen the definition of rape in its penal code to reflect the realities of sexual abuse experienced by women”.
The government should consult women’s groups and other institutions while reforming laws governing rape and sexual abuse. Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s latest call for “consulting” other parties is too general and lacks specific direction. It should not end as mere lip service. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that India’s “public is demanding a transformation in systems that discriminate against women to a culture that respects the dignity of women in law and practice”.
After last year’s anti-corruption movement that very nearly shook the Indian government’s foundation, India’s ruling Congress party is terrified that the gang-rape incident could swell into another anti-government movement.
The protests on the streets of many cities in India also bear testimony to the country’s vibrant and mature democracy. The protests were noticed from New York to Tokyo; indeed, the media in neighbouring Pakistan — where the numbers of rape and sexual assaults are even higher than in India, with women victims and their families too frightened to even talk about it, let alone report such cases to the police — gave prominent coverage to India’s wave of protests, with some female Pakistani writers wishing that such public reaction also took place in Pakistan.
India has no choice but to put an end to this “rape culture” before it drags the nation into the abyss, not to mention the heavy price paid by the victims. There is an urgency in creating a safe environment for women, not just on the streets of big cities but also in villages where rape goes virtually unreported.
Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.