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Rape Capital

By Soma Wadhwa

22 October, 2003

Delhi disgraced itself yet again. A series of gruesome rapes and sexual assaults in the last two months have served as rude reminders of how frighteningly unsafe the city has become for women.

But what happened last week in the parking lot of the capital's Siri Fort Auditorium, the venue for the 34th International Film Festival of India, has shaken off any remaining delusions of normalcy.

The victim this time was a 36-year-old Swiss diplomat returning home after a screening of a Chinese film. It was just 10 pm and the parking lot was still fairly busy, with people coming in and out from the auditorium and the adjoining restaurant complex. Undeterred, however, by the fact that they ran the risk of being spotted, the two assailants struck.

As the victim opened her Toyota Qualis, the duo pushed her into the back seat. One of the men raped her, while the other drove through the well-lit streets of South Delhi. Finally, after half-an-hour she was dropped off at Safdarjung Enclave and was casually given instructions on how to get back home.

The man who sexually assaulted the Swiss diplomat was well-dressed and spoke fluent English. The other, in a T-shirt, was more comfortable with Hindi. Both were in their late 20s and police suspect they had followed their victim from the auditorium.

According to the diplomat's testimony to the police, the man who sexually assaulted her seemed to be coldly casual about the entire act. After raping her he went into a monologue about life in Switzerland and Europe and spoke of the sanctity of Indian marriages. In her assessment, the rapist clearly came from an upper middle class background and seemed to have dealt with foreigners in the past. After recording her statement with the police, the diplomat has returned to Switzerland. But she has agreed to return to assist the police in its investigations.

Barely an hour later, at the same parking lot, a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker Akanksha Joshi went through a similar ordeal although she escaped sexual assault. Accosted by two men as she was getting into her Maruti 800, she threw her car keys into the bushes nearby so that they couldn't drive off with her. Enraged by such resistance, the men brought her down on her knees with one of them repeatedly hitting her head against the road, while the other scrounged the bushes for her car keys.
Finally, hearing a family approach, they fled from the spot.

The incident has outraged the diplomatic community in the capital. The Swiss embassy has given instructions to its women staffers and families of its employees to be extremely careful while going out shopping or partying at night. Women have been advised not to drive alone at night and to avoid secluded places. Senior officials of high commissions and embassies are to meet to review security arrangements.

The two incidents outside the Siri Fort auditorium being high-profile cases, the police is working overtime on nabbing the culprits. But there is very little by way of material evidence except for a cigarette lighter and some fingerprints in the Toyota Qualis. According to a senior police official, the statements of the two victims have thus become very crucial. "There clearly seems to be a link between the two crimes. In both cases, a similar threat of pumping six bullets into the victim was made. Also, the manner in which the two women were approached seemed the same," he told Outlook on October 17. The police has been combing residential colonies near the scene of the crime and claims it will crack the case.

What has outraged many is the surprising ease with which such human predators stalk the national capital. Says Poornima Advani, chairperson of the National Commission for Women: "It has become just too easy for rapists, molesters and eve-teasers in the capital.There is a complete breakdown of law and order here and these attackers seem to fear no one. Naturally then, the frequency of crimes against women in the city is on the rise."

In fact, going by police statistics, Delhi is the rape capital of the country.
This year, there have been 382 cases of rape that have been registered. This is a far higher figure than those for Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata which recorded 108, 26 and 15 cases respectively. Police officials admit that these statistics do not tell the entire story since many cases go unrecorded as the victim is reluctant to file a complaint with the police.

Of the many cases recorded in the last two months, only eight have received media attention. When the victim comes from the upper class, there is national outcry. But many less fortunate women also suffer the same indignities with no one to take up their cause. Admits a senior police official, "Why, even some of our inspectors are guilty of not recording a complaint. They often advise the victims to forget the entire incident since filing a case would end up embarrassing them. This sort of attitude has to change. We are trying to make the men more sensitive."

After the incident involving the Swiss diplomat, the Delhi police has come in for considerable criticism. Police commissioner R.S. Gupta has admitted that his men had failed him. "Had my men carried out their duty, such a thing would never have happened," he told the press. Since the city police comes under the Union home ministry, there is considerable pressure from deputy prime minister L.K. Advani to book the culprits at the earliest.

The pattern that emerges from the rape cases in the last two months is alarming, to say the least. It is not just secluded spaces, but even the most public of places which seem to be becoming increasingly unsafe for Delhi's women. So, an unidentified assailant found access into a government school in Saket and sexually assaulted a class VIII student in the school auditorium on September 14. A doctor at the upmarket Holy Angels hospital raped a 15-year-old in his chamber on September 23. And on October 6, four personnel from the elite President's Body Guard gangraped a college girl in broad daylight at the Buddha Jayanti Park not far from the heavily-policed Chanakyapuri diplomatic enclave. There is a chilling detail to this incident—one of the four jawans, after the crime, went off to sleep behind a dwelling unit for the soldiers inside the park.

Such "marauder-machismo", predicts sociologist Shiv Visvanathan of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, is only going to escalate in the capital. Says he, "The north Indian male, perhaps much more than his counterparts in the rest of India, is sexually repressed, has no role models to emulate as far as playing out his sexuality is concerned. He lives in gender-segregated spaces through much of his childhood and youth. And is now increasingly going to turn from voyeur to prowler to rapist."

Delhi-based Centre for Social Research's Ranjana Kumari offers yet another reason for the rising instances of rape in the capital: "Just look at how many rapes are reported in Delhi every month, then tally the number with those who are caught or punished. You'll know why rapists are becoming bolder by the day here."

In fact, according to court records, of every five men accused of rape, four walk away scot free. And countrywide there are 56,343 cases still pending. The legal process can take many years. But what makes the situation even more spine-chilling, argues Kumari, is that despite the low conviction rate, the administration has done precious little to inspire confidence in their seriousness to bring such men to book. "The hospitals in which women were assaulted in these past two months are still running.Rarely ever, unlike in the recent Swiss diplomat rape case where the five policemen deployed at the iffi venue have been suspended, is the police ever made to bear responsibility for such incidents. Where is the accountability?"

Indeed, in the aftermath of the rape at the iffi, everyone resorted to mere platitudes. While Advani dubbed the incident "shocking and shameful", leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi suggested that the DPM "review and make a comprehensive action plan" for the safety of women in the capital. Delhi Lt Governor Vijai Kapoor, meanwhile, said "we are taking a very serious view of what has happened and are determined to ensure that this does not happen again". And though the city police, by October 16 evening, promised an "investigative breakthrough in two days' time", few women's groups found solace in such assurances.

As Anjali Rai, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, puts it: "The reaction of our authorities to rape depends on the case. A high-profile incident is followed by news stories and statements, there's a flurry of activity. But within a week, it fades from public memory. That is why nothing happens to ensure that the city becomes secure for women in the long term." Legal, social restructuring is a must, she insists, and advocates a partnership between media, NGOs, institutes, and even religious leaders to deal with the problem. Joint Commissioner of Delhi's Crime Against Women's Cell Vimla Mehra says that nothing short of a change of attitude amongst Delhi's women will help make for a secure city: "Our girls need to realise the importance of being physically and mentally strong to deal with attackers."

She suggests a crash course in self-defence techniques, sharp reflexes, confidence to deal with the situation and a willingness to report sexual crimes to the police. "And, most importantly, they have to ensure that they don't panic, get scared and lock themselves up inside homes." Easier said than done.