Two years on, ‘has the horrific fatal gang rape of a physiotherapy student in a city bus changed anything for Delhi’s women’ remains an oft-debated question. But even the most cynical would agree that this one tragedy shook us up.
Last week, while sentencing four men to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment for abducting and gang-raping a Rwandan refugee, a trial court in Delhi observed that “nobody has the right to rape a woman just because she is a sex worker”.
For those who missed this piece of news, here is a brief recall. On December 1, 2012, just two weeks before the December 16 gang rape sparked angry street protests and an international outrage over safety of women in Delhi, a Rwandan woman was abducted, beaten up and raped in a car by four men near the Yamuna riverfront in north Delhi.
During the trial, the men pleaded innocence claiming that the woman was a prostitute and had pressed false charges to extend her stay in India. But the court found stronger evidence in the DNA samples, and the testimonies of the woman and the witnesses.
Sex workers are the lowest on the social ladder when it comes to accessing the criminal justice system. Victims of sexual assaults anyway face scepticism and harassment. Refrains such as ‘she asked for it’ or ‘deal gone wrong’ are common if she is a sex worker.
So it was heartening to have police register the case, investigate it and file a strong chargesheet that stood the scrutiny of the court. The judge convicted the men while observing that her profession was irrelevant to the case.
Till November 9 this year, the police had registered 1,833 cases of rape.
The corresponding figure last year was 1,430. Before 2012, the number of rapes in police records barely touched 600 in a year.
Going by statistics, it may appear that Delhi is going through a rape epidemic. On the contrary, a historically under-recorded crime is now being reported to the police more often. Burking — originally meant smothering a victim (taken from the modus operandi of serial killers Burke and Hare in 19th century Scotland) but has since passed into use as a word for any suppression or cover-up — has been common to keep crime figures low in police records.
But following the December 16 gang rape, our government tried to reform the system by introducing stricter penalties, better-defined laws and fixing police’s responsibility. Refusal to lodge a case now invites a two-year jail sentence for a cop. One can’t tell if it is fear or a sudden positive change in the mindset, but reporting of rape cases has seen a huge jump.
But mere registration of cases can’t get justice to those who have suffered sexual violence. Few cases are being followed up by swift and deft investigation.
But the police are not the only ones to be blamed. A severe manpower crunch means a single cop has to handle as many as 18-20 cases at a time. Getting women investigators, as mandated in the law, is the biggest problem considering there are only 1500-1700 of them in the investigation wing.
Lack of forensic testing facilities that is crucial for evidence collection and analysis is the next big hurdle. The police have just one lab in Delhi and badly need at least four such facilities to handle almost 500 forensic samples from various crime scenes including rapes that are reported every month.
The fast-track courts carry their own baggage. With huge backlogs, these are not exclusive courts and often hear multiple cases simultaneously.
There were no fresh appointments and judges for these courts are picked up from the existing pool.
In the December 16 case, the system pulled out all stops to ensure justice was delivered in nine months. But our system is simply not equipped to consistently meet that benchmark. To ensure accountability, we have to empower it.