In 2012 India was rocked by the rape of a 23-year-old paramedic in Delhi. She was set upon by a group of six men, whilst on a private bus. They beat her male companion and brutally raped her over several hours while using metal rods to damage her intestines. Her injuries were so severe she would die of them only days later.
The extreme violence and brutality of the rape and murder shook Indian society. As the World watched, Indians took to the streets in large numbers demanding justice and better protection for women. This seemed like an awakening in Indian society, sentences for rape were increased, a host of measures were introduced to assist women, and the assailants were eventually hung.
However, far from being the much-vaunted turning point that many anticipated, there is a consensus amongst most observers, and human rights groups that the situation has, in fact, deteriorated. Just last month a young Dalit girl was brutally raped and assaulted in the Hathras, allegedly by four upper-caste men, who as well as taking turns to rape her, tortured her and left her to die. She was also to pass from her injuries.
Once again, the case caused a stir in Indian society, especially when it was leaked that her body was cremated at night without the permission of her family. Consequently, film crews, journalists, and even leading opposition politicians were prevented from visiting her village and her family by local state authorities. Only days before there was a shocking rape of an 86-year-old grandma and last December there was similar outrage when a 27-year- old veterinary doctor was raped, her body set on fire and then dumped under a bridge. The situation has become so extreme that even the UN has expressed concern.
Some of the statistics on rape in India are genuinely jaw-dropping. A woman is raped once every 20 minutes. In 2017 alone, more than 32,500 rape cases were reported to the police, an average of 90 per day (experts agree that more rapes are committed than reported). A panel of 548 experts consulted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation concurred that India was the most dangerous place for women, ahead of Afghanistan and Syria. Even children are not spared. According to figures released by the National Crime Bureau as many as 21,605 children were sexually abused in 2018, amounting to an average of 109 children per day (with the vast majority being young girls).
Sadly, for many of the victim’s justice is either prolonged or not delivered at all. National Crime Record Bureau’s (NCRB) records from 2019, show that of 45,000 rape cases which went up for investigation, only circa 4,000 resulted in convictions. The conviction rate for rape in 2019 was just a mere 27%. As of December 2019, there were 133,000 cases pending in the courts. Moreover, many state governments have barely touched the Nirbhaya fund set up by the government in 2012 to assist with women’s safety. As of the end of last year, over 90% of the funds remained unspent; with Delhi having only spent 5% of its allocation.
There is a powerful caste dimension to rape in India. Many of the victims are Dalit (untouchables) women and the preparators often of the higher castes. On average, 10 Dalit women are raped a day in India. Dalit women comprise just over 15 % of India’s female population, and according to Dr Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters face a ‘triple burden’ of gender bias, caste discrimination and deprivation. For Dr Suraj, Dalit women are amongst the most oppressed people on the planet ‘a victim of cultures, structures, and institutions of oppression…this manifests in perpetual violence against Dalit women.’
It is no surprise, therefore, as in the recent Hathras case, state authorities are often complicit in reinforcing such cycles of violence or even proactively involved in perpetrating it. BJP leaders protested in Hathras in favour of the assailants, with one claiming there was ‘no rape’. Further, in December 2019 police entered the Jamia Millia Islamia University campus in New Delhi and sexually assaulted female students who were protesting the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill. In another high-profile case a young teenager who was raped by a law maker from the ruling BJP party resorted to burning herself so that she could highlight her case. She was then caught up in a suspicious accident where members of her family were killed (the case eventually resulted in a conviction).
Given the scale of the problem, there is no obvious ‘fix’. For some the laws are in place, the issue is enforcement and legal bureaucracy (often leading to years before a case is heard). For social activist Deepa Naryan and author of Chup: Breaking the Silence about India’s Women ‘Society here devalues women systematically and makes them subhuman, and rape is the worst symptom of that. It does feel like the levels of depravity and cruelty in these crimes are increasing.
Others ultimately blame the government. Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association believes that Parliamentarians calls for lynching and hangings is likely making the problem worse and may explain why more women are murdered when raped, so that they can’t act as witness. For her under the Modi government, ‘we have gone several steps back. We have a government that is invested in rape culture, in protecting powerful rape-accused persons and communalising every incident of rape’.
For Ranjana Kumari,-Director of India’s centre for social research- the government is also ultimately responsible ‘They are failing in law enforcement, they are failing in the dispensation of justice, they are failing in implementing safe environments for women…there is no political will to address this problem, so how is it ever going to get better?’
All of this is happening in a political context in which India has shifted dramatically to the right, with the government-run by those espousing and promoting a hateful Hindu supremacist ideology and under whose rule the persecution, intimidation and killing of minorities has intensified. We might be witnessing the death of a secular, progressive India governed by the rule of law.