Justice & Prevention of Sexual Violence
The Perception Element
"She was Drunk," "Her dress was too short," "She asked for it," "Why was she out alone?" Do these statements sound familiar? Unfortunately, I am sure, they do. These are among the most common, absurd, and lame arguments that are offered following a crime as heinous as rape. These types of sentiments aren't solely expressed in developing countries like India; even people from the most civilized western societies have probably heard similar excuses for sexual assault towards women. For those of us that follow western media, India may seem like a place that's full of misogyny and a place where rape and sexual assaults are a common phenomena. While statistically, that assumption can be refuted, does that really make a difference? It may not be the true picture, but it certainly is a reflection to some extent. Undoubtedly there exists a genuine problem when it comes to curtailing sexual violence against women. The question is, do we care enough? Of course, we can pretend to look the other way, but that hardly changes the reality.
Sexual violence in India is turning into a serious problem. Not a day goes by when we do not hear about these crimes being reported in the media. What's worse is the casual response towards these crimes. At a maximum we may notice some social media outrage or participate in a candlelight vigil and then business as usual resumes. According to the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCBR), a staggering 34,651 cases of rape were reported in 2015 and that statistic wasn't a substantial improvement from the 37,413 cases that were reported in the previous year. A total of 130,000 cases of sexual violence against women were reported in 2015 which include rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault. The national capital, which has been infamously dubbed as the "rape-capital," has maintained its abysmal record of crime against women. On an average, at least six cases of rape are reported in the capital daily and this has been the story for at least the past three years.
Judiciary and Justice Debate
Whenever the law and order situation deteriorates and leads to lawlessness, our democratic setup ends up relying on the third pillar of our democracy, the judiciary pillar, to put the things in order. It wouldn't be wrong to say that the onus lies on our judiciary system to set precedents to discourage people from committing sexual violence against women. But what does one do when the representatives of the judiciary system are swamped with divided opinions and sometimes appear to have double standards? Two recent examples of the judiciary response to this problem can shed light on this issue. Two long-awaited verdicts in two of the most publicized rape cases in India were reached in May 2017. These verdicts were not just eagerly awaited in India, but also amongst the global audience because of the attention they had garnered in the interim period. These were verdicts for heinous crimes and unfortunately, both were gang-rape cases. One dates back to 2002, during the post-Godhra riot period from the state of Gujarat where 19-year-old Bilkis Bano (name changed) was gang-raped by a mob and fourteen of her family members, including her 3-year-old daughter, were simultaneously murdered in cold blood. At the time of the assault, the victim was five months pregnant. The other case is from 2012. The incident took place at the national capital, New Delhi, and it involved a 23-year-old paramedical student called Nirbhaya (name changed). She too was gang-raped and brutally tortured in a moving bus and later succumbed to her injuries in the hospital.
In both cases the perpetrators were found guilty. Both the verdicts were hailed as iconic and entire media went gaga over the news. It was projected as if we had really achieved something substantial here. Sadly, there were other rape cases being reported at the same time from within the national capital. But that doesn't seem to matter, the gullible public had something to rejoice about momentarily and they simply weren't concerned about what else was happening around them. The full timeline of both of these cases can be found below.
Fast forward to a week after the verdict announcements and the surrounding hullabaloo had been overtaken by collective selective amnesia. Just days after the these verdicts were announced, a gruesome murder of a 23-year-old female was reported just 45 Km north of the national capital in Sonipat, Haryana . The victim was gang-raped and killed. Her skull had been smashed with bricks when she threatened to report the incident to the police. Ironically this happens to be the same state where just 3 years prior the Prime Minister had kicked off his "Beti Bachao Beti Padahao" (Save the Girl and Educate the Girl) Campaign to offset the high instances of female foeticide in the region and in other parts of the country.
Coming back to the Nirbhaya case from 2012, one can conclude that the verdict was a clear example of Judiciary officials responding to societal pressure to hold rapists accountable for their crimes. Despite the verdict and the judiciary response, it is a shame that it still took officials four and a half years to come up with a verdict in an open and shut case. A special "Fast track" court was set up in the wake of the furor that was created by the prevalence of sexual violence and mass movements were organized throughout India to demand justice. Even if we were to discount the time taken to reach the judgment, there's still another aspect that remains unexamined. This aspect is in regard to the age of one of the defendants. The so-called juvenile's (because they were just months away from officially being an adult) police-demanded bone ossification test was rejected by the court during the trial. Despite there being a strong possibility of his age being incorrectly determined in the records. As a matter of fact, he was the most brutal out of the six convicted and it was he who tortured the victim with an iron rod. There were also reports in both the Indian and foreign press that while in police custody, he was radicalized to support the jihad in Kashmir by the Kashmiri Muslim inmate that he shared a cell with. The juvenile inmate was accused of the Delhi High Court bombing. Even when this juvenile, a.k.a Mohammad Afroz, was released 3 years later, he was relocated, had his identity concealed, and the NGO involved even secured a job for him. The juvenile's actual identity remains undisclosed. His release wasn't the only fuss; what followed was shameful, disgusting, and the most blatant display of what is often regarded as a minority appeasement tactic in the country. The Delhi Government (national capital) offered him a sewing machine and INR 10,000. Even if one were to say they had a genuine intention, it quite clearly appeared as a felicitation. But then again, who cares? That's just how society handles these situations. Time and again, actions like these from our politicians have helped embolden criminal mindsets. A few years ago, another senior politician from the state of Uttar Pradesh commented on a rape case stating "Boys will be boys, they make mistakes". Another lawmaker was caught watching porn on the assembly floor in the state of Karnataka and there are a number of other similar examples of our leaders' and lawmakers' shoddy behavior. But as usual, who cares? There aren't ever consequences for these people, nor is there pressure to set a better example.
This brings me to the Bano case, it took fifteen long years for courts to reach a conclusion and in the end, an option for the convicts to further appeal their sentences is still available. Despite the trauma the victim suffered, the ostracism (due to her identity being exposed), and the losses she suffered, she is still expected to keep on fighting. I am not sure why or how on earth that can be regarded as justice. A question may also be posed as to why no death penalty sentences were made in this case. Why was there such a long delay in reaching a verdict? Were massive protests needed here to ensure that judiciary officials were on their toes to reach a conclusion in a timely manner? Did we not wish to satisfy the collective conscience of the citizens in this case by giving harsher punishment? Actually, the real question to be asked is what standard do we actually follow while convicting criminals in sexual violence cases? Answering this question would start an unending debate.
The only positive thing to come out of all this was that important changes in the criminal justice system were made as a result of the verdicts and responses to these cases. As a result of these cases there was a law passed to amend the juvenile age to 16 in the case of sexual violence.
The law states that: "under Section 376 A, whoever commits a rape which leads to the death of the victim or causes her to be in a 'persistent vegetative state,' shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a minimum term of 20 years which may extend to life or include a penalty of death."
My Take on This
As an Indian and a person in general, I can admit that it is a terrible experience to be labeled or perceived as a "rapist" or someone that cannot exercise self-control. In my opinion, social media has created and perpetuated that sort of impression of India and Indians. Because of this, we tend to collectively conclude that we are being demonized. To some extent that is a fair point, but isn't that an incorrect approach? Aren't we missing the crucial point here? Whether or not there is a generalization about Indians, there is indeed a lot of introspection that needs to be undertaken on our part. Shaming the act of sexually objectifying women is the first step that needs to be taken. After that, we should all try to take a self-assessment and question how far we have come in terms of addressing issues caused patriarchal and misogynistic societal norms. Why are news reports about rape extremely common in the media? How seriously do our leaders or elected representatives respond to this issue? Should we also blame our law enforcement agencies for being complicit?
I used to find this generalization about India annoying and demeaning, but now I feel that it serves us right. I feel this way because as a civilized society, we haven't managed to come far enough on sensitive issues like rape or sexual assault. This kind of problem is only going to get worse if the status quo doesn't change. While I could probably blame the prevalence of and responses to this issue on our conservative society, it's pointless to cast blame in that manner because I am also a part of our society and therefore, I contribute to it in some part.
With regard to society, we must also consider that for far too long the victims of sexual violence and their families have lived under the fear of stigma and ostracism. Suppressing these crimes forces victims into a continued state of trauma and shame. Suppressing these issues only emboldens the perpetrators of these crimes with impunity. The law and order in our society has also contributed to this rape-culture issue. The police have often been found to be complicit in suppressing dispersal of information related to this type of crime and the risk of harassment and identity-disclosure can be overwhelming for victims and survivors. Meanwhile, judiciary representatives seem to get caught up on legal loopholes that end up providing easy escape routes and lenient sentences to the accused. With that said, it's not that there has been total immunity from the consequences of these heinous acts, it just seems that there isn't a set precedent that conveys how unacceptable sexual assault crimes are. For far too long, this issue has been addressed way too casually. "The law will take its own course," has been the most over-used statement when it comes to responding to this crime. One would think that this response only serves to make a mockery of our justice system, but I believe it ends up being a true reflection of the system.
Education and awareness are aspects of this issue that are worth exploring further. Even little kids are not safe when it comes to this problem and when it comes to sexual education, there's a deafening silence in our lands. The education system does little to raise awareness about the topic because matters related to sex are often considered taboo. We continue to make great strides in science, medicine, technology, etc., but in matters like sex education and awareness and prevention of sexual assault, we continue to have a backward mentality.
Living in denial doesn't resolve anything and often leads to hypocrisy. I still remember back in 2015 when Leslee Udwin presented the BBC documentary "India's Daughter" and the government of India banned it while citing its "unpalatable presentation" as the reason for the censorship. This is not to say that BBC was trying to help bring awareness to the problem; they just wanted to milk the cow too. The hypocrisy of India's response to the issue became clear when most of the folks (and specifically the men) that had been part of candlelight vigils and demonstrations demanding justice for Nirbhaya became keyboard warriors and took to social media to defend the government's decision to ban the documentary. The justification for support of the censorship was that the documentary offered a platform to the rapist. Call it hypocrisy or a blatant display of buffoonery, either way, the bigger picture was simply ignored. And despite the presence of dissenting voices, they just weren't strong enough to make an impact.
Should a juvenile involved in a rape crime be pardoned?
Demanding the death penalty for rapists cannot be the only solution to this grave problem because there are many dimensions to it. A progressive society demands that we all must be the change or take the shame. There's nothing truly perfect in this world. We certainly cannot cleanse society of crime or eliminate all the crooked and sadistic people out there. We can, however, work towards changing how we prevent and respond to these issues.
There's also a dire need for change in our collective thought process. Men need to understand that when a woman says no, she means it. It shouldn't hurt their manhood or become an ego issue. As for ladies, their own safety should always be their first priority.
© 2017 Ashutosh Joshi