The second anniversary of the December 16 gang rape in Delhi is a time for sober reflection. Though the silence and denial that envelop sexual violence against women were shattered in 2012, the graph of sexual assault continues to rise. The public protests compelled an indifferent Parliament to codify as crimes all forms of sexual violence against women. However, the cry “We Want Justice”, which echoed on Raisina Hill, remains unmet. Frenzied, high-decibel voices advocating stringent punishment, which externalise the violence and demonise individual perpetrators, have dominated and misled the public debate.
On October 2 this year, 700 schoolgirls of a government school in Bhim, Rajasthan, held a rally, demanding the appointment of teachers. They wanted the state to take its responsibility seriously, and they would script their futures.
The 2013 National Crime Records Bureau data show a marked increase in the number of registered FIRs of rapes at 33,707, with chargesheets filed in 95.4% cases, but conviction secured only in 27.1% of those. Of course, there are cases of consensual sexual relations between young persons aged 16-18 years; and complaints following a breach of promise to marry. Both the group should, in my view, be excluded from the offence of rape. Systemic factors responsible for the acquittals remain not addressed. The entrenched institutional bias that haunts women from the police station to the court room; partisan and shoddy investigation that is unable to marshal evidence that withstands judicial scrutiny; an unfamiliar and hostile criminal legal system providing no support mechanisms; and no victim-witness protection programme; all of which cumulatively deter the rape victim and make justice inaccessible.
The hollowness of the much-touted fast-track court stands exposed. The gang rape survivor in the Kandhamal riots testified in court six years later in August 2014; in five cases of gang rape of Muslim women in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013, chargesheets were filed in April 2014, but trials are yet to commence; and more than a year later the trial of journalist Tarun Tejpal has not begun. The law mandates that a rape trial shall conclude within two months of the filing of the chargesheet. An annual evaluation of the implementation of the law is imperative to remedy systemic issues.
In early 2014, the Union health ministry issued guidelines for medical examination, which prohibit the two-finger test for purposes of inferring the sexual history of the woman victim because it is irrelevant and inadmissible under law. For, what the law bars is sought to influence the trial through ‘medical findings’ on vaginal elasticity and the hymen. Health is a state subject, and barring Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya and Odisha, states are yet to adopt this protocol.
Drones, death penalty, surveillance cameras, juveniles punished as accused adults, we are told these will end violence against women. Surely, data must guide decision making, and it shows that only 5% rapes are committed by strangers. These invasive and intrusive solutions demand that women and citizens barter their liberty for an uncertain safety; which will certainly augment the authority of the very state machinery that is routinely unresponsive and manifests a deep prejudice against women and others.
Let us examine two scenarios. If on December 16, 2012, the police had acted promptly on the complaint of theft on the same bus, if the police had fined that bus for plying outside the prescribed route, if adequate public transport was available, could the crime not be prevented? If the government had undertaken a rigorous safety audit of Uber taxis, if the bar dancer had received support to testify in the rape trial against the same taxi driver, if the taxi driver’s recurring delinquency had prompted psycho-social interventions during incarceration, if the Uber management had acted decisively on the earlier complaint of sexually aggressive conduct, was not the crime preventable? A system that stands corroded by apathy and other dysfunctionalities cannot transform itself into a knight in shining armour. Answers and solutions exist, it is societal commitment and political will that is found wanting.
In the cacophony of election campaigns can be heard promises for women’s safety. However, laws and policies currently being adopted threaten to deepen the vulnerability of women to violence. For instance, labour law amendments that dilute security of tenure, or the intensification of land and resource acquisition, with consequent unemployment and displacement, directly impinge on women’s ability to resist exploitation and violence. While determining the future of the MGNREGA, apart from arguments of economic efficacy, should not the fact that rural, poor women are its largest beneficiaries merit consideration? Corporate-sponsored marathons and billboards cannot counter the pervasive detrimental impact of these policies.
Like a game of Chinese whispers, the message of December 2012 is getting distorted. In the winter of 2012, women asserted their freedom to dress, live and love. Religious and political leaders, dictating dress and lifestyle codes to women, are manipulating anxieties to reinforce patriarchal controls over sexual autonomy and agency.
Perhaps, impunity for violence against women is endemic because our outrage is selective and transient. Soni Sori’s sexual torture in police custody, under cover of anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh, did not evoke a probe from the judiciary, National Human Rights Commission or National Commission for Women. A judicial enquiry report has confirmed that Thangjam Manorama was tortured and killed in custody by Assam Rifles. Accusations of mass rape of the women of Kunan and Poshpara in Kashmir in 1991 by the Army remain un-investigated. The Dalit rape survivors of Bhagana, Haryana, represent hundreds of others whose cries to punish the guilty ricochet from the ramparts of institutions of accountability. The spectacle of the bodies of two young girls hanging from a tree in Badaun, amid reports of rape and murder, stirred our national conscience. When the CBI produced a theory of suicide, why did the deaths cease to be our concern?
Our concern for women must span the distance from Badaun to Bhim.
Vrinda Grover is a Supreme Court lawyer and human rights activist
The views expressed by the author are personal