As a wave of anger spreads through the nation, there has been a predictable flurry of activities on the part of the government. A 3-member Committee headed by former Chief Justice, J S Verma, has been set up to suggest amendments to criminal laws to deal with sexual assault cases. Both the UP and Delhi governments have announced compensation for the family of the victim. A 3-digit helpline to help women in distress has been installed by the Delhi government and fast-track courts are being set up. There is also renewed pressure on the central government to get the Women’s Reservation Bill passed in Parliament.
There can be no two opinions about making laws against sexual violence more stringent. All cases of sexual assault and rape should be taken to fast-track courts with tight deadlines to punish the guilty within a certain time limit from the day a charge-sheet is filed. There should be zero tolerance for crimes against women. Maximum punishment should be meted out to those in authority who by commission or omission perpetrate crimes against women. The Nithari case, involving serial rape and murder of young girls, is still dragging in a special court. The fact that there has been only one conviction out of 635 rape cases in Delhi this year is an eloquent demonstration of the apathy that has taken grip of the rape capital of India.
But stringent laws, fast-track courts and reservation for women cannot make much headway if the ruling establishment refuses to make a clean break with the feudal remnants of our colonial past and with the neo-liberal culture of the present.
The Indian ruling establishment is steeped in a patriarchal mindset that tolerates, to put it mildly, the rape, molestation, honour killing, and massacring of women in communal genocides, “anti-terror” operations and military occupation on a daily basis without qualms. In areas where the state is in conflict with local populations, rape has been institutionalised as a necessary ingredient of security operations. In the Kashmir, north-east and in the tribal belt of India, rape of their women is used to teach a lesson to villages, communities and households which allegedly harbour “terrorists” and “extremists”. Custodial rape and murder of women is a commonplace occurrence in India, particularly in what are called “disturbed areas”.
The ruling and main opposition party, the Congress and BJP, are exemplary practitioners of this mindset. During the genocide of Sikhs in 1984, hundreds of women were raped by mobs led by Congress party ministers to ironically avenge the murder of a woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, justified the killings and rape with his cynical observation that “when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little”.
Maya Kodnani, a former Minister in the Gujarat BJP government, was given life imprisonment for being involved in the massacre of people during the Naroda Gam and Naroda Patia riots that followed the Godhra train burning in February of 2002. Witnesses reportedly testified that she handed out swords to rioters, exhorted them to attack Muslims and at one point fired a pistol! Many women were raped as a part of this “teach them a lesson” killing spree. What can be a crueller irony when, after the 2007 elections, Chief Minister Modi rewarded her the post of Minister for Women and Child Development, for her feat?
32 year old Thangjam Manorama was brutally tortured, raped and killed by men belonging to the Assam Rifles in 2004, allegedly because she was a terrorist. Later, hundreds of women stormed the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal. Many women paraded naked holding placards that read: “Indian Army rape us” and “Indian Army take our flesh.” The situation is no different in Kashmir and the entire adivasi belt of India where the people are protesting against the loot of their natural resources. The plight of Dalit women is no less pathetic. The ruling establishment and institutions turn a blind eye to the demand of the higher caste men to have sexual access to tribal women when they please.
The most crucial time when we could have made a clean break with the feudal and colonial remnants of the past was during the constituent assembly debates to determine a new constitution for independent India. Giving universal suffrage for men and women was a bold decision taken by the members of the constituent assembly. But this right was not backed by Constitutional guarantees for a political process which would empower women to have a say in running the affairs of the country and in initiating legislation to have equal rights to property, equal rights in the workplace and to ensure their safety and security. Nothing was done to dismantle the caste system which provided the institutional framework for the patriarchal mindset of powerful interests. Even the debate on the reservation for women in the constituent assembly and later turned out to be a caricature of the principle of equal rights for men and women at home, in the workplace and in society.
The “neo-liberal” mindset of the ruling elite is the twin of the patriarchal mindset. One is no less mortifying than the other. In this era of liberalisation and globalisation, women are being viewed as just vote banks, work slaves, objects of entertainment and tools for increasing the sales of products and services. Stringent laws are required not only to punish the perpetrators of sexual crimes but also those who assault, disrobe, rape and demean women virtually. But it appears, sadly, that the discrimination and exploitation of women at home and outside is bound to continue, because the state and its machinery, political parties of the establishment and the most powerful business interests stand to gain by putting women down, by marginalising them and by allowing the perpetuation these crimes.
This is the reason why Delhi, which has had a woman Chief Minister for the past 14 years, still remains a rape capital and the country which had a woman President until a few months back remains on top of the rape charts in the world. So, where do we go from here? There is no dearth of laws to deal with rape and sexual assault. But the police, judicial system, and the criminalised political system make them ineffective. The demand for street trials are sending shivers up the ruling establishment. If anarchy in the streets is to be avoided, then a legislative environment has to be created where ordinary citizens can step into this leaderless vacuum in order to affirm the rights of women. Citizens should dare to fill the void created by the present institutions of power.
One possible way by which they can do justice to the values that the departed girl represented – courage, conviction and resoluteness – is to find ways to rely on our forces, to protect ourselves by building neighbourhood committees cutting across party affiliations, caste, religion and gender. This proposal will be immediately met with the platitude that “citizens should not take law into their own hands”. True, leaderless citizens pouring out onto the streets baying for the blood of criminals can lead to anarchy. But so has the lawlessness unleashed by the total apathy and cynicism towards crimes against women, right down from the central Cabinet to the police inspector who refuses to record an FIR. The present institutions of power can claim to be accountable only when they are vulnerable to the people who created them in the first place. If those in powerful positions do not feel the need to be accountable to citizens committees then all their talk about governance and transparency, all the tears they shed, is mere chicanery.
* The article is been contributed by Raghavan Srinivasan to KanglaOnline