The New Delhi gang-rape – Will attitudes change?


Like most women around the world, I felt horror and emotional shock on hearing about the gang rape of the 23-year-old victim in New Delhi on 16 December and her death from her injuries. I was not however, surprised at the lethargic follow-up action by the authorities and the very many patronising and insensitive remarks from those in positions of power in the immediate aftermath. It had to take robust consistent and mass public protests by the very many brave people who have taken to the streets of New Delhi and elsewhere unfaltering determination to move the Indian Government to take action in this case.

Before that took place, the Government turned water cannons on protestors, arrested them, and suppressed freedom of expression.

The police are still holding protesters that they say are responsible for the death of a police constable when eye-witnesses’ statements contradict this. That said, now that the Government is publically appearing to listen and with the world watching, there is a glimmer of hope that there might finally be justice brought about by the people’s public outrage at this incident. It is encouraging to see that the media in India, Europe and North America are beginning to its weight behind reporting this case. In the past similar brutal atrocities that are daily occurrences in rural areas that make up the other 80% of India have had very little or no coverage.

So now this incident also brings with it a glimmer of hope that maybe time has come for justice for all of India’s women. This includes the very many Dalit women who are raped, mutilated or assaulted – physically, sexually or psychologically – and whose pleas go unheard. In many cases this leaves them or one or more of their parents with little option but to commit suicide or become social outcastes.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) the architect of India’s Constitution, in his article titled ‘The Rise and Fall of Hindu Woman’ states that the root cause of suffering for women in India is the so-called religious tracts that separate and divide people into a caste system and promotes inequality between men and women. Indian women’s oppression is not however, only because of religious texts. It emanates from India’s engrained, inherently sexist society. This condones and justifies violence against the female sex from foetus to adult.

Alarming as the official statistics on rape in India are, they do not provide a true picture because many rapes go unreported because of the impacts on victims and families, such as their families’ social reputations.

There is strong evidence of institutionalised sexual violence against Dalit women. There are 80 million Dalit women in India. Sexual violence is suffered by Dalit women systematically as a means of punishment, control and dominance by men of higher castes. The findings of a three-year study of 500 Dalit women’s experience of violence across four Indian States in 2006 (available on the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) website) found that 46.8% had experienced sexual harassment and 23.2% rape. The 2009 report of UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (also available at the IDSN website) contains numerous examples of cases of Dalit women being raped and assaulted by higher Castes. The study also reported that, when many of these women had tried to file a complaint, they were threatened by the police to keep quiet or there would be further repercussions. The study also found that the perpetrators for cases that were logged were usually released on bail and without arrest – free to intimidate witnesses and their families.

A recent example of atrocities against Dalit women is the gang-rape of Dalit girl in September 2012 in the State of Haryana. There had to be mass protests before the police took action in the case of the 16-year-old girl who was about to sit her final year exams. She was drugged and gang-raped. The rapists filmed, then circulated the incident on their mobile phones. The shock of learning about this and the impact of this on the family’s reputation and grief caused her father to commit suicide. So we have a position where if there is a poor woman and a Dalit, then their chances of justice are even slimmer or simply nonexistent.

Painful as it is to keep hearing about the cases, let us hope that the deaths of the 23-year-old gang-rape victim in New Delhi and countless others in the remote rural area that gathered no publicity and generated the same of level of public outrage are not in vain. It is time for real change as we have witnessed in the recent years in various countries where people have spoken up with courage and said enough is enough and it’s time for the old order to go. This widespread sickness of rape that must be banished for good. The public outrage for justice by women and men in the New Delhi case can but move to justice for all women, including Dalit women, and the beginning of the end of the Caste system too.

As a start, let’s call for the swift exit of India’s Parliamentarians or public officials who have rape and other charges of violence against women dragging on and on and on. Let’s demand the removal of the medieval tests the India police carry out to prove if rape has taken place. Let’s demand that the police record allegations of sexual and other violent crimes against women and girls accurately and as soon as crimes are reported without intimidation, bias or protecting the guilty. Only when this happens will criminals be convicted. Let’s wake up and deal with India’s socially engrained and unacceptable problem.

Santosh Dass MBE