Seven years have gone by since India passed a new anti-rape law in response to the national furore over what came to be known as the Nirbhaya gang rape. Her rapists were hanged barely six months ago. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Otherwise the additional director general of police in Uttar Pradesh would not have told reporters that the forensic report of the young woman who died in Hathras had found “no semen or semen extraction” in her viscera sample. That’s neither here nor there since the no-longer-so-new anti-rape law had already made it clear that rape does not need semen. Oral sex can be assault. It can include a foreign object like an iron rod. Even if there are no signs of physical struggle, it can still be rape.
At that time the commission that was set up to look at ways to strengthen the country’s anti-rape laws included the late Justice Leila Seth. “I had written a report on sexual assault in 2000,” she said. “And nothing was done.” She had joined the commission because she hoped the wind was finally in favour of action, though the road would not be easy. “Generally people don’t treat women equally. Secondly, in the police they are very nasty to the women. The whole attitude is nasty. There are not enough policewomen, and even if there are, they are not able to exert themselves sufficiently.”
I wonder what Justice Seth would have made of the additional director general’s comment. At the very least, it proves that even if courts become fast- track, mindset change moves on the slow track.
It’s easy to roll our eyes at the police officer or accuse him of trying to discount the dying declaration of the young Dalit woman and defuse the political storm it has unleashed by saying people were twisting the matter to “stir caste-based tension”. But there is a dreadful sense of déjà vu all around when it comes to talking about rape. Elected officials are still peddling the line that good girls don’t get raped. After an infamous 2012 rape case on Kolkata’s famous Park Street rattled the newly-elected Mamata Banerjee government, one of her ministers wondered why a single mother of two had gone out to a disco. Another politician insinuated that she was a prostitute and the rape was a deal that had gone sour. “You endanger the life of an actual prostitute,” the rape survivor had retorted. “You are trying to say her word does not matter and anyone can do anything to her.” She then came out in public because she didn’t want to be the Park Street rape victim all her life, the figure who could only be shown in silhouette. By saying her name out loud, Suzette Jordan wanted justice “not just for me but for every other woman like me”.
Tragically, Jordan died in 2015. So she was not around to hear the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Ballia say, in response to the Hathras tragedy, that girls should be taught decency to prevent rapes. Nor was she around to see the post by a self-proclaimed film-maker after a veterinary doctor was raped and murdered in Hyderabad in 2019. He said women must be “educated” about rape and carry condoms and not “deny the sexual desires of men”. He deleted that post after social media outrage but now we have a former Supreme Court judge, Markandey Katju, trying to sound reasonable as he explains the “rape problem” even as he condemns it. He writes: “In a conservative society like India, one can ordinarily have sex only through marriage. But when there is massive and rising unemployment, a large number of young men cannot marry (as no girl will ordinarily marry an unemployed man ). Consequently a large number of young men remain deprived of sex, even though they have reached an age when it is a normal requirement.” And during an economic downturn, there will be more frustrated unemployed men on the loose, “therefore will there not be increase in rapes?”
It is true that a law alone, even one that carries the threat of capital punishment, cannot be a silver bullet. As women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes wrote on the fifth anniversary of the Delhi gang rape, “One death penalty awarded in a high-profile rape case is not an indication that today, the entire population of women feels safe on the streets.” They certainly do not feel safer at home, where far more rapes occur than on desolate streets late at night. But Katju’s argument veers dangerously close to “boys will be boys” territory.
In the end, after all this time, the new law, the commission with its 60,000 suggestions, the onus is still squarely on women, the way they dress, the time they go out, the drink they have. And her word, even a dying declaration, can still be dismissed blithely by a man in uniform or a political party spokesperson who bandies her name around in public.
Come to think of it, none of this sounds radically different from what Mukesh, one of the rapists in the Nirbhaya case, said in the documentary India’s Daughter. “A girl is far more responsible for her rape than a boy.”
In some ways, it feels like we have gone backwards. In 2012, the government in Delhi was caught flat-footed in its response. An MP had sneered at the protesters, describing them as painted and dented ladies. Then chief minister Sheila Dikshit had come across as less than empathetic. Pushed to the wall, she said the bus’ licence had been cancelled and offered up a committee to consider opinions and decide on a future course of action.
A woman coming home from a film had her intestines pulverized with an iron rod in a bus and all the outrage another woman could summon up was the bland promise of a committee. The BJP, then in opposition, demanded her resignation. The government eventually tried to make amends. The woman was flown to Singapore for treatment.
The government did not try to form a police barricade to block opposition politicians and media from reaching the victim’s family. Opposition leaders were not manhandled, journalists were not threatened for asking questions, the district magistrate was not caught on camera bullying the bereaved family, the body was not cremated hurriedly out of sight of most of her family, there were no truculent rallies in support of the accused. And no one hired a PR firm to spin the story for foreign media.
Some of my more woke friends are shaking their heads at the selective political opportunism of leaders like Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi finding photo-op moments with the distraught family or Mamata Banerjee leading a protest march while they have been MIA in countless other cases. Others see a nefarious conspiracy to set up a mischievous caste narrative for political gain. All this feels like familiar ground or, rather, familiar quicksand in which we can get bogged down collectively.
Once, an American friend had asked me why all the rape stories she read about in India were about gang rape. It stopped me short. I had never thought about the peculiarity of it because that gang-rape headline was just so commonplace it felt unexceptional. One rape story gives way to another in a cavalcade of horror, the details blurring, a little girl discovered mutilated in a garbage dump, a tribal girl found in a temple, a girl thrown in a well, another strung from a tree, a veterinary doctor, a call centre worker, a student. The bar to trigger national outrage becomes ever higher (or lower)—an iron rod inside a 23-year- old versus a bottle thrust inside a five-year-old versus this 19-year-old found in the field with her tongue almost severed.
But the greatest travesty is that politicians still struggle to summon up that most basic of human emotions for the brutality visited on another human being. When will we set whataboutery and political spin aside and simply be shaken by the naked horror of it all?
If there’s any hope to be found in the protests spurred by this latest case in these bleak times, it’s that we still find it within us to summon up outrage. That has not yet been numbed out. It still flickers.
That is our candle in the wind.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.