It is amazing how one’s memory gets jogged by incidents that appear to be unrelated on the surface but have some connection in the sub-conscious mind. One such incident relates to December 16th, 2012, an incident that shook the conscience of Indians to the core – Nirbhaya’s case.
Many years ago, when I was still a part of the corporate world, the company where I worked was instructed by the global executive office to increase the representation of women in the higher echelons of management. To inspire lady professionals to become ambitious and aim for higher positions, a special dinner party was held to facilitate a delegation of lady partners from the USA office. They shared stories of how they overcame hurdles and barriers and rose to the top. Apart from one of the speakers the rest had hard time stories to share. I noticed a common theme, each time, there was a man who believed in their potential and treated them as an equal rather than as a female. It was not so much a story of their potential but the role that the mindset of their male mentor.
Now I had a disturbing morning that day when our domestic help came to work in a battered state. I wanted to take her to the police to lodge a complaint against her husband. She refused saying that a violent husband was better than no husband as she would become fair game to the goon element in her locality. There was some talk about social stigma and I left for work very disturbed about her husband’s mindset and the woman’s own reluctance to seek assistance.
So when the Q & A time came around, I could not help myself and pointed out that the ladies in the room came from privileged backgrounds and could afford the luxury of talking about potential and achieving The Dream. I agreed that women needed to achieve their potential, but asked why this dream depended upon the male mindset?
I pointed out that in India, for many, women’s rights was still an issue of Fundamental Human Rights, not just the rights of a group of ladies sitting in a 5 star hotel drinking wine and discussing how to break a glass ceiling. That attitudes towards women had to change, even in developed countries and then quoted some statistics (yes, I do read the papers!)
The male mindset needed to change. They needed to accept that it is a woman who carries them for 9 months and goes through labor to bring them into the world and then holds their hand through the early part of their formative years. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. The collective consciousness has to accept that women have every right to go out and work and fulfill their potential both within the home and in the workplace.
Needless to say, there was a deathly silence. I had spoken my truth and much later, one of the partners and a few other colleagues came up to say that they agreed with me but did not dare to acknowledge my truth to preserve their potential, they had not thought of it as a Human Rights issue. I am confident they would now be thinking of what I had said in a different light.
So what does the memory of a lavish party of corporate women have to do with December 16th, 2012?
Well, I realized, to my horror, that a young lady professional on the threshold of a career could be gang-raped and submitted to atrocities in a moving bus which passed through police check posts but was not stopped. Despite complaints of a theft by a previous passenger in that bus just a short while before the incident that rocked the collective conscience of a nation.
Some men wanted to celebrate a birthday and she became fair game because she resisted. She had gone to see an early evening movie show with a male friend. Her dress was NOT provocative by Indian standards. Her male companion had his legs broken, she had her intestines, uterus and other parts pulled out and they were left for dead on the road. Did she ‘ask’ for it? The provocation was that she bit one of her assailants in self-defense and she had to be taught a “lesson”.
The young lady died 13 days later in Singapore where the government had flown her for an organ transplant. She came to be known as Nirbhaya (The Fearless One). Many things happened in the aftermath of her brutal rape.
Not all men are animals, not all men need to change their mindset. The population – young and old, male and female took to the streets in protest. They faced water cannons, police lathi charges and courted arrest. They demonstrated outrage on behalf of a young girl whose name was not known, who had no face. Their voice was heard in Parliament. The protests were not just held in Delhi, but nationwide and in many other countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and France.
The inmates in Tihar Jail beat up the adult perpetrators. Imagine how strong the outrage was! One of the accused allegedly committed suicide in March this year, another was classified a juvenile. The recent judgment in the case found all of them guilty. The rarest of the rare cases, death by hanging was the sentence for the adults – the juvenile got the maximum imprisonment and will be free to walk the streets in a year or so.
The story of Nirbhaya is one where a father dreamed that his daughter was entitled to a good education. He encouraged her in her quest for financial freedom and an identity of her own. Coming from a small village in the Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh, he works as a loader for a private company at the airport. He sold his agricultural land to finance her education. Nirbhaya, a physiotherapy intern, supported her education by giving tuitions. No doubt there was no mindset issue here.
Her friend, a software engineer, testified in court. He wanted justice for his friend. There was no mindset issue here.
The people of India who raised their voices and came out onto the streets were of both genders. There was no mindset issue here. We all felt the pain; we were all outraged that such a heinous crime could take place in a civilized society.
Some good, if any did come out of this tragedy.
Help lines were established for women, which were clogged within minutes of the numbers becoming effective. Rape cases will be heard in fast track courts. Important laws were amended.
A Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 came into force from 3 April 2013 amended and included new sections to the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
This new Act expressly recognized certain acts as offences which were dealt under related laws. These new offences included acid attack, sexual harassment, voyeurism, stalking now incorporated into the Indian Penal Code.
The most important change that has been made is the change in definition of rape under The Indian Penal Code. The word rape has been replaced with sexual assault in Section 375, and has added penetrations other than penile penetration an offence. The section has also clarified that penetration means “penetration to any extent”, and lack of physical resistance is immaterial for constituting an offence. Except in certain aggravated situation the punishment will be imprisonment not less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine. In aggravated situations, punishment will be rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than ten years but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
A new section, 376A has been added which states that if a person committing the offence of sexual assault, “inflicts an injury which causes the death of the person or causes the person to be in a persistent vegetative state, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than twenty years, but which may extend to imprisonment for life, which shall mean the remainder of that person’s natural life, or with death.”
In case of “gang rape “, persons involved regardless of their gender shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than twenty years, but which may extend to life and shall pay compensation to the victim that shall be reasonable to meet the medical expenses and rehabilitation of the victim. The age of consent in India has been increased to 18 years, which means any sexual activity irrespective of presence of consent with a woman below the age of 18 will constitute statutory rape.
Certain changes has been introduced in the CrPC and Evidence Act, like the recording of statement of the victim, more friendly and easy, character of the victim is irrelevant, presumption of no consent where sexual intercourse is proved and the victim states in the court that there has been no consent, etc.
Yet it leaves some unanswered questions in our minds. For starters, did it really need the sacrifice of Nirbhaya when there have been other brutal cases like the Shanbagh case where the victim continues to be in a vegetative state and cannot receive euthanasia or mercy killing because it is not allowed under the laws of the country?
There were celebrations when the death sentence was announced. Yet one witnessed a defense lawyer speak in derogatory terms about women. Was he suffering from the Stockholm syndrome or what? He seemed to condone the conduct of his clients. Je protest!
While the law has been amended, it can only do justice to Nirbhaya and the unknown Nirbhayas’ if it is implemented and executed effectively. This is not a case of silencing the lambs by saving one lamb.
It makes me wonder; will executing the criminals bring back Nirbhaya or make a dent in India’s rape crisis? Would making the death penalty in rape cases make it safer for women in India? One of the perpetrators of the diabolical crime, and indeed the one who was most brutal was the juvenile who will walk free in less than 2 years. Interestingly, in another recent case involving a journalist, 2 of the perpetrators have claimed to be juveniles. So should we make amendments to the juvenile law and treat them as adults in gang rape cases? How many more perpetrators will declare themselves juveniles and escape hard punishment with a maximum sentence of 3 years?
In a recent news report that I read, last year, there were 24,923 cases of rape reported in India, according to the government’s official statistics. But the actual figure is believed to be far higher with experts saying women are reluctant to file complaints for fear of social stigma in the socially conservative nation. Such was the case of our domestic help.
In the same report, Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association is quoted as saying that the punishment would hardly go to serve as a deterrent. She points out that in the same court; there were acquittals in 20 out of 23 rape cases. Potential rapists can see how remote their chances of conviction are, leave alone the punishment.
So where does that leave us?
The death penalty is, I feel, still appropriate for the rarest of rare cases but there are deeper issues to be dealt with, and not reduce the law to an eye for an eye scenario. Instead of retributive punishment, we need to take constructive steps into the future.
Perhaps the need of the hour is to stop rape and that means undertaking an extensive public education campaign to change the mindsets of those who still do not respect the basic human rights of a woman – to have dignity of self and person. We need to educate mothers that their girl child has the right to live with dignity; to remind them that a rape victim is a woman, so is a mother, a wife, a daughter or a sister. Only then will they instill respect for women in their sons during their formative years. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
We need to stop acting like ostriches that keep their head in the sand and instead accept and tackle deep-rooted social problems. The girl child should be given her right to existence. In one State, the government of that State has a scheme which encourages parents to keep the girl child and educate her with incentives. It has made an impact in female infanticide rate for that State. Likewise, we need to bring about institutional reforms that change the mindset of those people who can attack other Nirbhayas and think it is their right as men.
We need to imbibe the mindset of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to uplift women and embed institutional reforms.
That first step was taken by the Indian people in the wake of the Nirbhaya case. Now is the time to follow up and bring about the required reforms so that we do not have to take to the streets again to get justice for another faceless Nirbhaya. Only then will Nirbhaya’s sacrifice not go in vain.
And I ask again, Nirbhaya, when did we forget that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world?
Update: This post was originally written as a contribution for Blog Action Day 2013 and has been updated on 16 December 2015 on the 3rd anniversary of the incident that shook Indian Society to the core. RIP Jyoti ‘Nirbhaya’ Singh.
Update 16 December 2015 – Nirbhaya Case
Following the incident the government set up the Nirbhaya Fund to address violence against women. The Fund is administered by the Department of Economic Affairs of the finance ministry.
One of the accused, Ram Singh committed suicide in his jail cell hours before he was supposed to appear in court while the other perpetrators of the heinous crime were found guilty and have appeals against their death sentence going through the process of the courts. There have been protests to prevent the juvenile who perpetrated the most brutal assault on Nirbhaya that night from being released on December 20, 2015 because he is considered to be beyond rehabilitation. The others have their appeals against death row pending in the higher courts.
India’s Daughter, a documentary film on the subject, directed and produced by Leslee Udwin as part of the BBC’s ongoing Storyville series was scheduled to be broadcast on International Women’s Day in India on NDTV’s 24×7 channel and in the UK on BBC Four.
It was later revealed that the filmmakers had paid and interviewed one of the rapists while he was incarcerated in Tihar Jail where he states in a sotto voce tone that the victim ‘had asked for it (to be raped). There were violation of rules governing access to prisoners ’and the broadcast was blocked by the Indian government via a court order on 4 March 2014.
BBC complied but moved the transmission forward to March 4 and showed it in the UK. The film, which has generated a lot of controversy in India and internationally was also uploaded on You Tube and went viral when the Indian government directed You Tube to block the video in India and You Tube complied.
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