Will Anger Over Rape Spur Action?

January 3, 2013

Indian students of various organisations hold placards as they shout slogans during a demonstration in Hyderabad on January 3, 2013.
Indian students of various organisations hold placards as they shout slogans during a demonstration in Hyderabad on January 3, 2013. (Photo credit: NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Every 21 minutes, a woman is raped in India. Most rapes go unreported and even those rapes that are reported often goes unpunished. However, one horrific rape in particular has galvanized activists and has the potential to change India’s attitude towards rape.

By now, many have heard of the horrific rape and murder of a young college student in the heart of India’s capital– New Delhi. She was attacked in a speeding private minibus with iron rods which punctured her intestines. She and her friend were then tossed from the minibus. And despite being dumped on a crowded street, it took 40 minutes for a passerby to contact the police. The lack of intervention by passers-by was likely due to the poor police treatment of Good Samaritans. The victim later died after being airlifted to Singapore for further treatment. The alleged attackers have been charged with murder.

Weeks of protests have followed the rape. The government, in a rather common combination of incompetence and heavy-handedness imposed emergency regulations in the area around the protest and began to crack down on protesters. This only further enraged Indians across the political spectrum. Those calling for equal rights and gender justice chant:

Raat Main Bhee Aazadi ”(“Freedom at Night”)
Din Main Bhee Aazadi” (“Freedom in Day”)
Chunne Ki Bhee Azadi” (“Freedom to Choose”)
Pehanne Ki Bhee Aazadi” (“Freedom to Wear”)

Equally astonishing is the lack of concern for the victim of rape in Delhi and elsewhere around India. In response to the rape, Delhi Police Chief Neeraj Kumar said simply: “Women should not go out late at night.” Political leaders issued tepid responses. But even those tepid responses were at least better than those of Member of Parliament Abhijit Mukherjee who declared the protesters demanding justice as “highly dented and painted women.”

However, the sheer brutality of the crime meant that the usual regressive attitudes of India’s leadership was roundly condemned and the protests demanding action have grown even louder. The government has started to panic, promising various symbolic measures that presumably will dampen down the protests. For example, a junior minister in the government said that the new law against rape should carry the name of the rape victim. Never mind that there are already plenty of unenforced laws against rape on the books in India. It’s not to say that there shouldn’t be fundamental reform of rape laws. For example, there must be an end to the shockingly archaic ways in which rape investigations are conducted in India.

In the end, the problem is fundamentally lack of justice and impunity not the lack of laws. Over and over again, the fix for an injustice is another law. It is no different now. What’s needed is a commitment by the government to ensure that the police are properly trained in treating rape survivors with the respect they deserve. It means that the police and courts must prosecute rapists. Most of all, it means changing the culture of India from one that blames women to treating rape as a crime and punishing rapists.

Indians are fighting back against the culture of rape in Delhi and the rest of India. But don’t take it from me. Listen to the words of Kavita Krishnan, from the All India Progressive Women’s Association. Or, read a transcript of the video in English.