Every day, millions of Indian women confront the possibility of sexual violence at home and in the wider world. It shapes their gait on streets and their silence in bedrooms, it decides the jobs they can and cannot do, and the limits of liberty they set for themselves. It makes them doubly vulnerable to caste and class impunity; it makes them fall in line. Those brave enough to seek justice often end up doubly violated by the police and judicial processes. What would these women hear if they turned to Parliament? A wail of bloodthirst that periodically — and cynically — passes itself off as an answer to endemic violence.
In the Rajya Sabha, Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan, while expressing her anguish about the gang rape and murder of a vet in Hyderabad, proposed that the accused “should be brought out in public and lynched”. Justice, if it can still be so called, was reimagined in no less gory terms by P Wilson, a legislator from the DMK, who suggested surgical and chemical castration for rape convicts. Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu wondered aloud if the country should consider changes to the legal system that walled off any possibility for “mercy or appeal” to those punished for rape. In the Lok Sabha, Trinamool MP Saugata Roy asked for laws that make rape punishable “only by death sentence”. Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh expressed the government’s openness to making stringent laws more stringent. In the Delhi assembly, too, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal spoke in favour of hanging rape culprits “within six months”. A charitable view of this disturbing desire in legislators for “instant, on the spot” mob-like justice could be that it is an expression of their helplessness in dealing with sexual crime. But more realistically, it is law-making that is abdicating its responsibilities for making considered, sober interventions in public life. Instead, it is channelling the worst of society’s instincts.
Sexual violence and assault on women do not take place in a comic-book world of “lynch-worthy” bad guys and the Hangman as saviour. It is seeded in homes and societies, in grossly unequal power relationships, in the imagination of sex and desire that shuttles between the extremes of repression and rape videos. It gets its vicious velocity from existing caste and religious inequalities. It makes it easy to bay for blood when poor men are accused of the crime and easier to fall silent when the victim is a Dalit or the accused a religious head. The Justice Verma Committee, which submitted its report in the aftermath of the December 2012 anti-rape protests, argued that the state’s role was not to fashion more stringent punishment — and definitely not the death penalty — but to work towards creating cities and public places that make space for women, and justice systems that assure effective punishment, whatever the quantum. Since 2012, the political class as well as many institutions, from the judiciary to the media, have only faltered in addressing the patriarchal inequality inscribed in daily life. The women, who set out every day, on lonely toll plazas, and to hostile workplaces, against all odds, deserve better answers.