The brutal gangrape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad last Thursday has left the nation in a state of shock. As we are made to revisit the trauma of 2012 Delhi gangrape case, this could be an opportune moment to reassess where we are going wrong in tackling sexual violence and why the menace has gotten worse since the gruesome assault on the 23-year-old paramedic despite stringent laws and fast-track courts. An answer could be swifter justice. While this is a necessary ingredient for deterrence, in itself punishment isn't enough. We must equally rethink our popular culture that relentlessly objectifies women and sensitise men because rule of law doesn't work in a vacuum.
But first, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the scale of the problem. Amid all the outrage, anguish and protests against laxity in security and administrative lacunae that contributed to the heinous crime, the focus has shifted to the brutality and frequency of violence against women in Indian society and why, despite tougher laws against sexual violence, a woman is raped every 15 minutes in India. And that statistic, we would do well to remember, is based only on crimes that are reported. In India, most rape crimes go unreported.
Part of the reason is that stigma and trauma around rape still runs deep. The fact that around 93 percent rapes in India are committed by persons known to the victim (according to 2017 National Crime Records Bureau [NCRB] data) along with the post-traumatic stress caused by our criminal justice system where survivors "fear they will be shamed, disbelieved, coerced, re-traumatised, or dismissed" have meant that the offence of sexual violence has extremely low reporting rate in India.
Worth noting that the veterinarian, just moments before the perpetrators assaulted her, managed to make one phone call where she told her sister that she was "feeling scared". While Telangana's home minister Mahmood Ali has ended up blaming the victim for not reaching out to the police, perhaps he should reflect on why the woman, in her moment of extreme distress, reached out to her family member instead of the police.
Social activists and supporters protest in Delhi against the rape and murder of the 27-year-old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad. Getty Images
As researchers point out in their 2018 paper Incompetency and Challenges of Police in Rape Cases, one of the biggest reason behind underreported crime is "disbelief in police and investigation system. As patriarchal legacies among the whole system of Police and their attitude towards women especially in rape cases making it difficult for survivors to approach Police."
Faced with this systemic failure, our politicians have resorted to sensationalism and perpetration of mob justice that is unacceptable in modern society. Rajya Sabha member Jaya Bachchan has called for "public shaming and lynching of perpetrators while Trinamool Congress MP Mimi Chakraborty said that she supports public lynching because there is no need to take rapists to court". A DMK MP called for chemical castration of convicted rapists before they are released from jail.
The brutality of the incident on Thursday night and the repeated failures of our criminal justice system has understandably caused a lot of frustration and passions to run high. It is, however, one thing for members of the public to clamour for mob justice and quite another for lawmakers themselves to encourage breaking of law and express distrust against our security-legal-judicial architecture.
#WATCH "People now want Govt to give a definite answer. These type of people (the accused in rape case) need to be brought out in public and lynched," Rajya Sabha MP Jaya Bachchan on rape & murder of woman veterinary doctor in Telangana pic.twitter.com/HFNjUHtSHB
" ANI (@ANI) December 2, 2019
Will incidents of rape cases in India start falling less if perpetrators are allowed to be lynched instantly by mobs? Such incendiary comments may help release the collective frustration of an outraged society and satiate the anger, but it unwittingly also encourages us to disrespect law. One of the biggest reasons why politicians and lawmakers take recourse to sensationalism instead of finding constructive and pragmatic solutions to reduce sexual violence is that the issue is systemic and would require deep-seated reforms. Callous remarks deflect from the real issue. Once the immediacy of the incident is behind us and passions die down, nothing is done to effect systemic changes because a release has already happened.
To break free of this vicious cycle, we need to ask why our criminal justice system fails to act as a deterrent. Hidden behind the clamour for mob justice is the hope that such a gruesome spectacle may achieve what our judicial system cannot. Here we enter into the nub of the debate. Perpetrators of rape have almost no fear of law because our criminal justice system is endemically paralysed.
Seven years after India brought one of its toughest laws to protect children from sexual violence, the POCSO Act, according to reports remains hamstrung due to an effective data management system. In July, the Supreme Court was informed that "150,332 child rape cases are pending and the disposal rate is mere 9 percent in the country as on 30 June."
Data till November 2019 tells us that backlog of cases in our courts have reached such a point of crisis that 59,867 cases are pending in the Supreme Court, 44.75 lakh cases are stuck in high courts while at the district and subordinate court levels, the number of pending cases stand at 3.14 crore, according to Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, as reported by The Wire.
Amid this, data from NCRB reveals there were at least 16 cases of crimes against women committed every hour and 986 crimes every day in 2017. That year, there were 3.6 lakh cases of crimes registered. While rape formed over 10 percent of total crimes against women, up to 33,658 women were raped in 2017 that translates to one woman getting raped every 15 minutes.
Data from 2017 NCRB further reveals that in Delhi alone, 92.9 percent cases of crime against women were pending in various district courts with a conviction rate of just 33.2 percent.
If this isn't alarming enough, consider the fact that the trend shows a deeper malaise afflicting our criminal justice system even as we continue to outrage over sexual violence. Despite the launch of fast track courts (only 664 are operation while government plans to set up 1023 FTCs and yet all states are not on board), cases of reported rapes have climbed 60 percent to around 40,000 in 2016 since the 2012 Delhi gangrape case, while conviction rate of people arrested for rape remains stuck around 25 percent. According to a Reuters report quoting NCRB data, backlog of rape cases pending trial stood at more than 133,000 by the end of 2016, up from about 100,000 in 2012.
Do remember that the existing system puts an inordinate amount of stress on the survivor and the lengthy process creates a situation where the survivor needs to show steely resolve to get justice while shoddy investigative procedure results in the unfortunate situation where most accused are set free.
But fixing this broken system and making sure that legal process is shortened and conviction rate is improved won't make Indian women safer from sexual violence. There needs to be an equal stress in sensitizing men and addressing our societal structure. Our popular culture and mass mediums encourage men to identify women as sex objects. Our mainstream movies construct a paradigm where women provide sexual and visual gratification. This trend, however, is changing. But the larger issue remains of women being dehumanised in pop culture that sends a subliminal message that her consent is not required for sex. This message is relentlessly spread through different mediums, in different forms so that men internalize sexual violence and superiority over women.
As scholars Gurvinder Kalra and Dinesh Bhugra write in their paper Indian Journal of Psychiatry, "socioculturally transmitted attitudes toward women, rape, and rapists can predict sexual violence. Such stereotypes are often internalised from the male dominated sociocultural milieu. Sexual violence can result from a misogynist attitude prevalent in a culture."
To effectively tackle sexual violence, we need a systematic, sober multifaceted approach, not knee-jerk mob-pleasing reactions.