On December 16th, 2012, a young medical student was gang-raped on a private bus, subsequently dying of the horrific injuries she sustained during the ordeal. This month, four of her rapists had their death penalties upheld – another was found dead in his cell last year, and the single minor in the group is undergoing rehabilitation. Viewing the case, it is tempting to say that India has turned the corner with regards to its hideous track record on women’s rights. There have been mass protests, politicians seem to have kow-towed to calls for change, and now the rapists are soon to be dead. In a nation where claims that women invite rape or lie about it are common, the verdict was somewhat shocking. In a nation where trials are known to grind on for years, the speed with which justice proceeded astounded even more.
It is tempting to imagine that the suffering of Braveheart, the nickname given to the anonymous victim, has helped shape modern India. The truth on the ground, however, is much bleaker. Though the Delhi gang rapists will die, there have been limited changes in society. The brutality of the atrocity was nothing special for India – what proved particularly shocking was the revelation that the police had sanctioned the rapists’ illegal private bus in return for cash. The immediate response from many quarters to the gang-rape was less horror, more jaded misogynistic cynicism. Asaram Bapu, an influential god-man, came out with the claim that if the victim had thrown herself at the attackers’ feet and called them brothers, they would have ceased their attack – in his words, “can one hand clap?” Even today, major political leaders still come out with comments blaming women for being raped. The police too have failed to adequately respond to the gravity of the situation, with tales of sexual assault committed by the authorities remaining worryingly common.
Furthermore, with the religious hardliners of the BJP looking to make major gains in the upcoming election, women’s rights are likely to take a backseat. Traditional values are the order of the day in an India which is tired of the policies of more moderate parties, including secularism. This has manifested in the rise of moral policing, with modern urban Hindus enforcing antiquated gender roles and behaviour, sometimes with violence. ‘Western corruption’, as embodied in revealing clothing, tight jeans, and American culture, is seen as being at the heart of rape: tainted women are still seen to be leading men by their sexuality. Men – unable to control themselves – simply act in a natural fashion, according to this theory.
If India is ever going to allow women to go out into the streets, to end this terrible patronising degradation, it must be prepared to challenge the prevalent belief in ‘home-spun’ values which have deviated so far from scripture so as to be unrecognisable. You do not have to embrace or even support Western culture to understand that nothing – no dress, no behaviour, no previous history – can excuse rape. If the authorities can accept this fact and enforce it, the face of a nation will be transformed. Sadly, it is not in the interest of an old guard of primarily male candidates – a number who have been found guilty of sexual charges – to commit to such action.
When the last of the gang rapists dies, there will be a great deal of back-patting amidst the authorities: a job well done, justice achieved. The response from the people will be a little more subdued, and when the next appalling case makes the news the hue and cry will simply begin anew. Unless the Indian public stand up, takes up the spirit of Gandhi and forces massive change, Indian women will stay second class citizens in their own nation, and the cycle of rapes, fast-track trials, executions, and rapes, will continue.
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