The expression on her face,” recalls Roy Strang of one of his rape victims, in Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares, was “frozen, her eyes dead”. “I remember seeing a documentary about some animal being eaten from behind while its face seemed to register disbelief, fear, and self-hate at its own impotence,” Strang continued. “That was what she reminded me of.”
Last week, the Centre moved to stop Indians from hearing December 16 rape-murder convict Mukesh Singh describe how he slaughtered a 23-year-old physiotherapy student. The ban on Leslee Udwin’s documentary, available free to view on the internet, is pointless. But the effort to silence it tells a powerful story.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh says he moved to ban the film because India is “ashamed” Singh’s words were filmed. His cabinet colleague, M. Venkaiah Naidu has muttered darkly about how the documentary is “a conspiracy to defame India”.
The real shame, though, is this: every decade since 1973, more and more women have summoned the courage to move the police and courts for justice, but ever fewer are getting it. In 2013, the last year for which all-India data is available from the National Crime Records Bureau, trials were concluded in 18,833 rape cases — of which just 5,101, or 27 per cent, ended in a conviction. In 1973, 44.28 per cent of perpetrators were going to jail. In 1983, the year new laws were enacted to aid prosecutions, it fell to 36.83 per cent. In 1993, it was 30.30 per cent. In 2003, it was just 26.12 per cent.
These are the facts we ought be ashamed of — not a documentary.
From history, we know this: India is good at passing outrage-fuelled laws — but not so good at securing justice. In March 1973, a teenage Adivasi girl was raped by three police officers at the Desai Ganj police station in Chandrapur. The alleged rapists were acquitted, in essence because the judges agreed that she hadn’t fought the perpetrators in a manner that met their standards. The outrage generated by the case led to Indian laws being amended, making it mandatory for judges to presume victims were telling the truth when they said they hadn’t granted consent. But laws and justice, quite clearly, are two different things.
Part of the problem is that the investigative system is grossly under-resourced. In 2009, Delhi began issuing SAFE kits — short for sexual assault forensic evidence — to all major hospitals, in the hope of improving evidence collection. The kits, though, haven’t boosted conviction rates, because neither police nor hospital staff are regularly trained in how to use them. Delhi’s forensic laboratories, moreover, are overworked, leading to delays and errors.
Even these rudimentary forensic facilities aren’t available in Bharat — which, parenthetically, is much more dangerous for women than India. In 2013, just 3,035 of the 24,923 cases reported to police came from major cities. In most cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim, giving the lie to the thesis that India’s rape crisis is the work of hormone-crazed youth corrupted by Western pornography.
It’s worth noting that India’s rape numbers are, almost certainly, only the tip of the iceberg. In 2007, the ministry of women and child development surveyed 12,477 children to learn of their experience of abuse. Fifty-three per cent said they had encountered “one or more forms of sexual abuse”. More than a fifth, over half of them boys, reported severe sexual abuse.
The new sexual violence laws passed after the December 16 rape-murder seek to compensate for failures in investigative capacity by giving greater credence to the testimony of victims. It will be years before we know if the laws mean more convictions, but the record doesn’t provide much reason for hope — reasonable doubt, in the absence of forensics and proper investigation, is five of a rapist’s friends willing to lie that he was at the other end of town that night.
It’s true, this happens everywhere, even in the best-resourced criminal justice systems. For every 100 rapes estimated by surveys to take place in the US, only 46 are reported. The 46, on average, lead to just 12 arrests — one for every fourth victim. Nine of the 12 arrested perpetrators go on to be prosecuted, but only a third of these are eventually convicted of rape. Put simply, just three of every 100 rapists ever see the inside of a prison cell.
There’s no doubt, either, that savagery isn’t uniquely Indian. In 2009, a gaggle of teenagers stood around outside a high-school gym in Richmond, California, watching their 15-year-old classmate being beaten, stripped naked and then raped. “Police say witnesses took photos,” CNN’s Stephanie Chen reported, “others laughed.”
It happens everywhere. The Canadian teenager who committed suicide after a photograph of her gangrape spread through her school; the girl raped on a Glasgow bus, in full view of other passengers; the London schoolgirl raped by nine boys, some as young as 13. There was South African Anene Boysen, left by the roadside, her intestines ripped out, just weeks before the rape-murder in Delhi.
Yet, in many countries, the criminal justice system has acted with purpose and resolve to address the problem. The US has seen a steady decline in rape, surveys show, since the late-1970s — a consequence of a feminist-informed social consensus about consent, better policing of public spaces and improved prosecution. It’s been a slow, nuts-and-bolts process, built on the understanding that there’s no magic bullet that can fix the problem of sexual violence.
Large parts of that effort have been built on getting to know rapists. In 1980, Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla began an extraordinary series of conversations with evil. The scholars interviewed 114 rapists serving time in a Virginia penitentiary for hideous crimes — among them, one who had forced a vacuum cleaner hose into his victim’s vagina, before severing her nipples with his teeth; another, a college student who, as part of a gang of four, forced his victim to lie naked on snow to add to her pain.
Like Strang — and Singh — the men they interviewed saw rape as a kind of bloodsport. “I always felt like I had just conquered something,” one prisoner said, comparing his serial rape experiences to a visit to a famous amusement park ride in Dallas, “like I had just ridden the bull at Gilley’s.”
Hideous as these stories are, the research helped build effective strategies to make women safer. In India, though, we have no data on how many gangrapes there are, or whether streets or homes are the most dangerous places for women. There isn’t a single robust criminological profile of perpetrators, or demographic and spatial mapping. There’s no real idea of what circumstances rape is reported in, and what circumstances lead women to remain silent.
For all the talk of sensitising the police after the December 16 case, there still isn’t even a national resource centre devoted to setting nationwide standards for rape forensics and investigations. India has no national sexual violence sample surveys. And although there’s been a lot of talk about setting up rape crisis centres to help women, we don’t have enough training facilities to produce the number of crisis-intervention experts we need.
In the absence of research, everything from slumdog rage against empowered women, the breakdown of traditional values, cultural tradition, migrants, Westernisation — and, yes, chowmein — can be blamed for rape. Except, that is, for one thing — the Indian men who rape.
The awful truth is this — our culture is pro-rape. Mukesh Singh thinks girls’ clothes invite rape. So does the Hindu Mahasabha and Rajkot’s mayor — and millions of Indian men. Mukesh Singh thinks women out late invite rape. So does the NCP’s Asha Mirje. Yo Yo Honey Singh’s “C***t”, advocating rape as a means to knock the ego out of an uppity girlfriend, still plays at weddings and gyms across the country. Mukesh Singh has been banned, it isn’t hard to see, because in his image many Indian men see the rapist in the mirror.