The nation has not forgotten the gruesome gang rape and murder of a young paramedic in a moving bus in Delhi five years ago. The case is etched in the nation’s collective memory. Her death was not in vain. No one, though, came to her aid as she lay by the road, bleeding profusely. Delhi’s elite whizzed past her in fancy cars. However, the entire nation rose in unison to mourn her death and to demand justice. And justice meant just one thing — the death penalty.
As the youth erupted into spontaneous protests across all major cities in India demanding death penalty for the rapists, a rattled government set up a high-level committee under a retired Chief Justice of India, Justice J.S. Verma, to suggest recommendations which would lay the foundations of a new rape law and act as a deterrent against such incidents. The committee released its report within the mandated brief span of one month after soliciting responses from concerned citizens from several walks of life. The effort was not in vain: Within two months, the government enacted the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, which brought in significant changes in the then existing rape laws. A broadened definition of rape and stringent punishment were the key features of the new law. It did not recommend the death penalty but stipulated imprisonment for the remainder of the convict’s life. In cases of repeat offenders, the law stipulated the death penalty.
Within a few months, the judiciary got an opportunity to test the scope of this new provision in a case popularly referred to as the Shakti Mills rape case. Three young men who had raped two young girls in two separate incidents, about a month apart from each other, were awarded the death penalty after the Maharashtra government invoked the “repeat offender”provision.
A law that will work well and prove to be a deterrent — this was the hope and prayer on every woman’s lips. Five years have lapsed since then and it has become almost ritualistic to ponder over the fact whether today women in Delhi feel safer than they did five years ago. Will strangers jump in to rescue women when they are assaulted on the streets of Delhi?
Interviews with young women published to mark the fifth anniversary belie this hope. We have no evidence that concrete changes in the attitudes of men on the street are taking place either in Delhi or elsewhere. One swallow does not a summer make. One death penalty awarded in a high-profile rape case is not an indication that today, the entire population of women feels safe on the streets. Worse, they do not feel safe in their homes and in their workplaces.
The crime statistics recently released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) stare us in the face. If they are anything to go by, stringent rape laws have not proved to be a deterrent nor have they created a safe space for women. There was an increase of 12.4 per cent in the reported cases of rape from 34,651 cases in 2015 to 38,947 in 2016. The capital city continued to have a major share of reported cases of rape — 13,803, followed by 5,128 cases reported from Mumbai. Delhi has not been able to shed its image as the rape capital of India.
We need to move beyond the theory of stringent punishment as a deterrent. The nation’s collective protest in one isolated case is not going to bring in necessary changes. We need to address the issue at the mundane level to counter the culture of violence against women in society.
What is disturbing is that our discussion on the issue of rape remains bounded by the old framework: Keeping the December 16 incident as the context, it is argued that strangers rape women on lonely and deserted streets during the night hours. Lower class boys raping middle-class women is our most frequently used trope. Hence, we are comfortable while demanding the death penalty for rapists. We demand better street lighting in the hope that it will bring down the incidents of rape in cities and smaller towns. We promote mobile apps and pepper sprays and encourage young girls to learn martial arts to fight the rapists.
We conveniently overlook the fact that rape happens in broad daylight and that the home is the most frequently used location.
The police tell us that around 95 per cent of rapes are by known persons — family members, neighbours, lovers, people in authority. A study by the NGO, Majlis, which provides socio-legal support to the survivors of rape, has brought out the disturbing fact that incidents of rape by fathers and stepfathers outnumber incidents of rape by strangers. Yet, we do not have mechanisms, either preventive or curative, to cope with this reality. In such cases, convictions are extremely rare and there is a great pressure on the survivor to retract. Most cases of this type are swept under the carpet. It is only a rare case that is brought to light and that is only the tip of the iceberg.
The December 16 incident brings to mind that rapes by strangers take place across the class divide — middle-class girls are raped by lower-class men/boys. But the reverse hardly captures our imagination. We do not like to talk about the violation of Dalit girls by upper-caste men. We also do not talk about the violence inflicted upon Dalit boys when they date upper-class girls.
Recently, we were hit by yet another reality. The #MeToo campaign was a harsh reality check, about the type of violations that take place in our educational institutions, at workplaces, by people in authority, by respected elders. We see such incidents all around and yet, remain mute spectators. And we continue to presume that the death penalty will solve all our problems and end the culture of violence against women.