The horror, the horror!

Studying Sexual Violence in India 

The gang rape of a student in Delhi in 2012 precipitated, on an unprecedented scale, a very public discourse on sexual violence in India. Violence against women, even in its most brutal forms, is not an uncommon event in India and, sadly, stories of the most horrendous violations have seemingly inured the state and citizens to inaction. The Delhi case is unusual in that respect. The case appears to have generated, for no distinct reason, both publicness and personalisation of rape in a way that has not happened before. 

Thus, there have been earnest efforts to unearth a cause—or perhaps, a chain of them—that might have helped explain not just what happened that night on the bus, but in the many, many instances before and since that day. Politicians, academics, social commentators, rape survivors, activists, bloggers and television talk-show hosts alike have attempted to identify a cause that in some way would rationalise an otherwise diabolic act and help construct an appropriate frame for justice that seeks redress not only in this specific case, but also recognises the fundamental right to safety for all Indian women. 

In news—

A scrutiny of the news reports, analyses, blog sites and commentaries, very quickly clarifies that there was a plethora of explanations around the act of rape in India that was circulated widely, some of which were and continue to be embedded in institutional discourse and responses in the name of justice. 

Informed by contemporary scholarship on justice that extends beyond jurisprudence and develops frameworks based on socio-economic equity, institutional parities and social voice (see Fraser, 1997, 2009; Sen, 2009; Young, 1990, 2002), this commentary surveys some of the discourses of rape currently being deployed in the public space in India, and the impact that it is having on remedial action and justice discourses. 

What went wrong?

The ‘failure of governance’ is a foremost discourse that has emerged since the rape incident. 

In the days following the rape, a shocked populace sought answers from their politicians: How is it that this crime was allowed to happen in a public space in the capital city? 

The bus in which the rape occurred was driven through the streets of central Delhi passing several police checkpoints. As shock turned to outrage, attention turned to the failure of the law and order system, and to those who execute the law. 

Amongst the shortcomings highlighted are—

» Narrow focus of the legal definition of rape (Baxi, 2012; Narrain, 2013),

» The insufficiency of the penalties,

» Low rates of convictions and the tardiness, often deliberate, of their implementation.

Corruption abounds, protecting perpetrators among the country’s powerful such as politicians and the police, and further, the excesses of the military in ‘secure zones’ are not subject to an open civil trial, if tried at all. 

These shortcomings, in particular, have been noted in the report of the three-member committee led by Justice J.S. Verma along with other eminent judges, which was constituted days after the incident to advice the government on the actions that needed to be taken to safeguard against other similar incidents. 

The Verma report—

The committee deliberated for 29 days taking into account the views of a wide cross-section of society, including women’s groups, intellectuals and jurists. The Verma report recommended severe penalties for rape and sexual crimes (but they were strongly opposed to capital punishment), improvements in the criminal justice system, reforms within the armed forces and the police, broader definitions of sexual crimes (including stalking and trafficking as sex crimes), clear protocols for dealing with victims of rape and the ban on the system of dowry paid by women to their husbands at the time of marriage. 

Some of the recommendations of the report have fed into the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance passed on 3 February 2013. 

The Ordinance has substituted the word ‘sexual assault’ instead of ‘rape’, rejected the recommendation of the Verma report and has instituted the death penalty in certain cases of aggravated rape but not implemented the recommendations relating to political, police and military reforms. There has been criticism from feminists that the Ordinance is a watered-down response to the Verma report (Menon, 2013a, 2013b); nonetheless, this discourse of systemic failings currently dominates the institutional and policy responses to sexual violence. 

—Taken from Sexual Violence in India: The Discourses of Rape and the Discourses of Justice in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies.