Rape case exposes India's dismal record of delivering justice for women

Priya Virmani says a shocking rape case has united Indians in anger and grief but has done little to alter the nation's patriarchal mindset

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 1:45am

A 23-year-old paramedical student went to a cinema with a male friend this month in the Indian capital, Delhi. On the way back, the young woman and her friend were lured onto a private bus masquerading as a public bus. She was then gang-raped by six men, who bashed the couple with an iron rod and left them on a roadside.

This happened within a stone's throw of a posh residential estate. And while the assault was carried out, the bus passed several police checkpoints.

Even before this gruesome incident, Delhi had earned itself the tragic moniker of India's rape capital. But the unprecedented cruelty of this case sparked an unprecedented backlash. The whole nation has come together in condemnation, with some protesters demanding capital punishment for the culprits.

In the Indian Parliament, the Bollywood actress and politician Jaya Bachchan poignantly voiced the shame she felt as a lawmaker. But however well intentioned Bachchan's stance may be, parliamentary perorations are inadequate. The imbalance of security personnel guarding India's VIPs versus the multitudes needs urgent attention. The figures are appalling: three cops protect each VIP, while there is just one officer for 761 citizens.

Perhaps parliamentarians and their families using public transport would send a far more potent message than their speeches.

Bachchan was overcome as she demanded justice for the victim in a nation where female deities are worshipped. She, however, misses the point that Hindu goddesses are haloed in mythology for their roles as the apotheosis of submissive, loyal wives to their husbands. They are not glorified for being lodestars of standalone identities. In hegemonic Indian culture, interpretations of history, mythology, religion and tradition have all colluded to root the identity of the Indian woman as subaltern to men, most importantly, her husband.

India's blatantly patriarchal rape laws are an extension of this mindset. In rape cases, section 155 of the 1872 Indian Evidence Act permits the victim's sexual history to be regurgitated to establish the morality or otherwise of her character. This does not apply to the culprit.

Moreover, though reported rape cases in India are on the increase, the conviction rate is abysmal. Hundreds of cases languish in Delhi's courts and thousands more in Indian courts overall. According to national figures released for 2011 by the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 228,650 registered crimes against women but the conviction rate was a dismal 27 per cent.

In today's India, more women are coming out to work. With their financial independence, they are reclaiming their identities for themselves. This is intensifying power negotiations between the sexes. Rape happens when the "endangered man" addresses the power equation by reinstating his prowess by way of assuming the role of a predator and making the woman his prey.

The tumescence of India's patriarchal mindset must be stemmed. This change has to take effect across the spectrum - from homes to institutions. This is no other way forward.

Priya Virmani is a political and economic analyst. She is the founder and director of Paint Our World, a humanitarian project that works with underprivileged children