India will not shine as long as its women are not respected…

and protected – by its men

By TP Saran

The tragic death of a 23-year old female medical student following abdominal injuries she received after she and her male friend were brutally attacked, and she was gangraped late at night in a moving bus by six men on 16 December in New Delhi, and both of them thrown out of the bus, naked, has sparked a fierce debate in the Indian media. Several stakeholders and social activists have been giving their views in the heat of the moment, and to date there are a number of issues that they have articulated.

Although some of them are specific to the Indian context, most of them will find resonance elsewhere too, since rape is a global phenomenon – but it seems to be especially gruesome in India. For this Indians have to find some genuinely Indian solution which, however, seems to be a long way off if one is to go by the entrenched positions taken during the loud arguing on show in the course of the televised debates.

A first major point that underscores this problem is that for various reasons a number of rape cases go unreported and therefore there are no reliable statistics. Surely, however, one case is too many? And for that matter, not only in India, but anywhere in the world? Sexual violence against women has been and continues to be used as a weapon of war especially when there are ethnic conflicts, as happens in our own region (Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Congo….). But the frequency and regularity of rape crimes in India, at one case taking place every 22 minutes according to figures that were aired during the discussions taking place, amount to sexual violence on a scale that may well lead one to conclude that India, or many Indians, are in a permanent war mode against their womenfolk.

This starts at birth: sex selection and aborting the female fetus, or killing the newborn baby girl, highly prevalent in Haryana and Punjab, have resulted in what has been termed the ‘missing girl child’ in India, estimated to be about 43 million. This shows up as a heavily skewed sex ratio, with males predominating. Does North Indian society feel any shame about this dire, if not tragic reality? There is no evidence to this effect, alas!

If the objective of terrorists is to make India grind to a halt economically and culturally, then they need not take the trouble: going by the chaotic situation in many states across the country, it would seem that plenty Indians have decided to finish the job of finishing themselves and their country. This is in contrast to China rising next door.

Issues raised

  1. A member of the Rajya Sabha (Anu Agha) said that as many as 100 parliamentarians are known to have a criminal record, including rape. Some politicians in a nexus with policemen own brothels. Corruption is rife among politicians. The rot begins at the very top.
  2. Rape is rampant in both rural and urban India. Often the victims are known or related to the rapist, and include minors. Suketu Mehta in his TIME column referred to a ‘rape culture’ in India, giving figures about parliamentarians with criminal records.
  3. But India is unchanged: even as this case was flung on to the national conscience by the protests starting in New Delhi and soon spreading to the whole country, cases of rape were being reported from Mumbai, Ahmedabad and an equally barbarous one in Kolkata with the victim being killed.
  4. Rape is not a women’s issue – it is also a men’s issue, that is, an issue for the whole of society.
  5. Rape and obscene dance scenes in films project Indian women as objects of lust. Entertainment can have a subliminal influence in encouraging bad behaviour, giving as it does an image of the woman as being ‘easy,’ although it is also true that there have been films which have powerful messages in favour of women. Many commercials also exploit the female form and have a similar impact. Why do women accept to play in such lewd scenes/roles?
  6. ‘Eve-teasing’ should be considered as a form of sexual assault.
  7. There is no helpline for rape cases, despite a petition to this effect made quite some time before by a lawyer in Lucknow. There is also differential treatment of rape cases when politicians or their relatives are involved.
  8. Rape victims are scared of male cops – why not women cops to handle them in a conducive setting? For that matter, women cops are harassed by their male colleagues.
  9. Lack of transport, proper lighting in public places and police security at night for women.
  10. The political class, especially the ruling government, did not engage with the protesters and waited for matters to take a violent turn before they stepped in. The words of the mask-faced Sonia Gandhi sounded hollow when she finally intervened.
  11. Law is not enough, and not strict enough, with a very low rate of conviction. There is also inordinate delay in bringing cases to court – even cases of terrorism took so long to be brought to justice, e.g. the terrorist Ajmal Kasab; besides, his upkeep in prison until he was hanged years after his crime cost the Indian taxpayer hundreds of millions of rupees. So this emboldens rapists, knowing that the legal process is protracted, as well as the fact that the quantum and incidence of punishment are so low. Well known activist and former Police Commissioner Kiran Bedi said that more important than the quantum of justice – going up to capital punishment if necessary – it was the certainty of justice promptly delivered that mattered most and would send a powerful signal to potential rapists.
  12. Both mothers and fathers should teach their sons to respect women. This was a traditional value in India, but was observed more in the breach than in its application. There was controversy about traditional values – but Indians should do their homework and source themselves from their respected spiritual leaders instead of blindly copying what happens elsewhere.

What should be done?

That’s for Indians to decide, but must include greater sensitization among the public and specific target groups, swift justice and strong enough to act as deterrent, better support to rape victims and more humane enquiry proceedings with involvement of women cops all through, better parenting and better pedagogy with preventive sex education. These are some of the proposals made, and a panel of legal experts has been put up to revisit the necessary legislation.

India will not shine as long as its women are not respected and protected – by its men. Will it, ever? Depends a lot more on the men than the women.

* Published in print edition on 12 January 2013

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