It is fourth anniversary of 16 December 2012, the brutal gang rape and murder of a student in Delhi that shook the conscience of the nation and led to unprecedented protests against sexual violence across India. Crime against women has been common in India, as has been the support for such crime in the form of misogynist statements by those holding seats of power. The grammar of shame in cases of sexual violence has always been inscribed on the bodies of victims, avoiding most perpetrators.
It is in this context that the Supreme Court of India taking on Azam Khan, a powerful minister of Uttar Pradesh government, and making him unconditionally apologize for a brazenly misogynist statement against gang rape victims, is a welcome step.
Even more welcome is that the Court has done so while framing a few fundamental constitutional questions over such statements impeding with rule of law in general and getting redress for the victims in particular. The Court contemplated whether a person holding public office making such statements can create “distrust” in the minds of victims about a fair probe in the case and whether such a statement can be a part of freedom of speech and expression. The Court had also asked if such statements could influence the investigation into alleged crimes and thus affect the chances of victims getting justice.
Having said that the Supreme Court has rarely shown similar zeal in dealing with such misogynistic statements by those in power, including many sitting Union ministers, Chief Ministers and other lawmakers. For instance, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal has done the same time and again. She had once termed the infamous Park Street gang-rape case as “shajano ghotona”, i.e. a staged incident to destabilise her government. She had similarly termed villagers of Kamduni as Maoists for protesting the rape of a girl student!
There is no dearth of similar statements by other notables, including by Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has several terms as Union Minister and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and is chief of Samajwadi Party that is in power in Uttar Pradesh even now. Opposing death sentence for rapes, he had termed the crime a mere mistake by “boys” and went on to promise to change such rules! Om Prakash Chautala, former Chief Minister of Haryana, had similarly proposed early marriages as the way to stop rapes in 2012. To add his name to this list of dishonour, Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar had asked protesting nurses to not sit on hunger strike in the sun as it could ruin their marital prospects.
The worst of the lot, however, came in 2014 from Tapas Pal, a member of Lok Sabha from Trinamool Congress when he openly threatened to send party cadres to rape female family members of opposition parties. That was until the current Union government upped the ante by appointing Nihal Chand Meghwal, a gang rape accused summoned by courts, as a Union Minister. Thankfully, he was removed as Minister in the last cabinet reshuffle, though he continues to be a Member of Parliament, one amongst 186 of his parliamentary colleagues that have serious criminal charges against them, including that of murder and rape.
The Supreme Court of India, which sat many-a-time over Azam Khan’s remarks and even rejected his conditional apology, did not take notice of many of these statements and appointments. It has not taken on the misogyny that legitimises institutional bias against women in society and systemises it into all its arms, official as well as social.
One might hope that the proactive handling of this case by the Court would not end up as a one-off case over a powerful Minister of a state ruled by a party that is in opposition in the centre. One might also hope that the Court would take the process ahead and would also direct the justice institutions to deal with all crimes against women, including sexual violence, with the seriousness they deserve and would get the women redress.
One might hope that the Court would summon, say, top cops to enquire about such abysmally low conviction rates and direct them to tighten up loose ends of investigation process. One might hope that it would also take on the defence lawyers who often end up converting the trial into traumatic repeat rape for the victims. One might hope that it would also take on other misogynist leaders to create a deterrence India so desperately needs against sexual violence.
Alas, all this seems a far cry today, with conviction rates even in rape cases standing at a paltry 28% in 2014. To put the figure in clearer perspective, let’s take the case of Delhi, which reported 706 rape cases in 2012, the year that shook the nation’s conscience.
Only 1 of those 706 rape cases has ended up in a conviction till now!
Evidently, if the Court stops at making Azam Khan apologise, it would seem more like a farce than the quest to build a gender just India safe for its women.
Post script: Yet another case of rape in a moving car has been reported from Delhi today.
Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong