It was December 16, 2012, when a young women, all of 23-years-old, was brutalised in the vilest manner possible in a moving bus in the heart of India’s capital. The brutality of the assault sent shock waves of revulsion throughout the country. People were outraged and took to the streets to vent their anger. Young boys and girls even attempted to storm Rashtrapati Bhavan. Pictures of people standing on the ramparts of North and South Block, fists raised in anger went viral.
As that braveheart struggled for her life, first in a New Delhi hospital and then in Singapore, demonstrations across the country acquired a life of their own. Candlelight vigils, prayers and protests alternated with each other at almost psychedelic speed.
I had joined the UPA government only two months before as minister for Information & Broadcasting and struggled to make sense of the unfolding situation. My colleagues and I tried to put together a coherent response.
Undoubtedly there had been a massive law and order failure as the bus had sped through six police checkpoints while the perpetrators went about their ghastly business; but correspondingly, subsequent action was swift. The accused were arrested almost immediately and were charged with dispatch.
The government demonstrated sensitivity by not only meeting the protesters and cracking down on the culprits, but even pro-actively beginning consultations on amending the law. However, the crowds refused to melt. They were parked at India Gate.
As someone who came into politics from the ranks of the student /youth movement and organised, participated in and led many agitations, I was dying of curiosity to find out who these nameless and faceless protesters were. Who was organising them and why did their numbers remain constant? Finally, I could take it no more. Curiosity got better of the me.
On the evening of December 22, giving my security detail the slip and with an old friend in tow, a baseball cap pulled low over a monkey cap, I mingled with the crowds on India Gate. What I saw in those 45 minutes convinced me that there was something funny, if not ugly about that crowd.
I certainly would not allow them within a mile of a woman even during the day, what to talk of the night. It did not seem to be a bunch of people who were committed to the cause they were there for. Maybe some of them had been driven by righteous indignation, but there were an equal number whose behaviour left much to be desired. A question that every grassroots politician worries about during mass agitations – whether lumpenisation is taking over the cause.
Since making that escapade public would have achieved nothing, especially since one of my colleagues had almost been lynched when he attempted to open a dialogue with the crowd, I remained silent. However, I did tell my colleagues and other officers dealing with the matter that a three-pronged strategy was required.
First, exercise utmost restraint. Second, pray that Nirbhaya pulls through. And third, be sensitive and empathetic in your public utterances. We may be dealing with a combination of conflicting realities, I added.
All three homilies were ignored. The then Home secretary RK Singh, now a minister in the NDA/BJP government, “praised” the Delhi Police for their “efficient” handling of the situation. It was like pouring fuel over fire. The Delhi Police resorted to heavy-handed lathi-charges, including giving journalists the hiding of their lives. Nirbhaya, tragically, did not pull through.
Despite flip-flops, the fact remains that the UPA government tried and convicted both accused both at the trial court and at the first appellate level before the expiry of its term in May 2014. It overhauled the laws pertaining to rape and sexual offences and never once tried to sweep the depravity of the crime under the table.
Contrast this with what has happened in the case of the girl child murdered in Kathua and the teenager raped in Unnao. Every attempt has been made to protect the accused. The little child’s brutalised body was found on January 17 this year. Over the past three months every attempt has been made to communalise this depravity by turning it into a Hindu Vs Muslim issue. Ministers of the Jammu & Kashmir government have competed with each other to become the best defenders of the culprits. Evidence was sought to be destroyed. Lawyers behaved in the most despicable manner. It is only when the dam of public opinion burst that an administration, ironically headed by a women Chief Minister, was able to even file a chargesheet in the matter.
What happened in Unnao is equally reprehensible. The incident took place a year ago. The accused is a ruling party MLA. Not only was a woman subjected to sexual assault but her father was allegedly beaten to death by the henchmen of the legislator and died in judicial custody. Only after the victim and her family threatened to immolate themselves outside the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s residence did the matter get traction.
However, we are still very far away from justice in both these cases.
The issue, however, is not what one government did or what its successor government did not do. What is moot is, is India safer for its women after the Nirbhaya outrage? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Why are the incidence of sexual offences on the rise rather than abating? Did tightening the law by making rape punishable by death after the Nirbhaya case help? The answer seems to be no.
In Delhi alone, between 2011 and 2016 the incidence of rape cases has gone up. Does any parent feel safe if his daughter is out late in any part of India, especially in metro cities? The answer is no. Isn’t every woman walking or driving alone considered fair game by otherwise seemingly harmless men? The answer is yes.
If even the fear of death does not deter the perpetrators of Kathua and Unnao, then what will? If legislators fully cognizant of the law allegedly indulge in such heinous acts, then what about the multitudes ignorant of the law? Do we need to tighten the law even further? Is patriarchy and lack of education about believing that your girl and boy children are really no different, really the matter?
I do not know the answers. What I do know is that what has happened over the past week makes me sick in the pit of my stomach? It is the same déjà vu that I experienced as I drove past Safdarjung hospital, night after night in the December of 2012, on my way home from work, praying for brave Nirbhaya to pull through.
But I do know one thing, that this state of affairs cannot be allowed to go on. That is our responsibility as a society.
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