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Rape In India : Legitimate Concerns And The Outrage Industry

By Karthik Ramanathan

30 December, 2012

The high degree of sex crimes in India does indeed raise concerns about safety particularly for women. The recent report of assaults against a woman and her male friend in South Delhi is another ghastly such event that requires attention, specifically due process, painstaking police and investigative work keeping in mind India's constitutional principles that are also well established internationally.

While noting (as observed by many commentaries online and in print) the protests were only triggered because this event happened in an elite part of the National Capital, one observes that Manipuri and Kashmiri women who have faced abuse by security forces, or the plight of adivasi and dalit women, or cases of regular domestic abuse does not spark such universal outrage. This does not in any way minimize the crime that has been reported in South Delhi . The assailants should certainly be punished after a fair and just trial that establishes their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. One also can see the genuine concern in the eyes of protesters including many Indian women, each of whom would sure have their own stories of struggle against a sexist system to share. Nevertheless, a critical examination of the nature of the protests and consequent demands that have emerged can only ensure a positive and humane contribution to this debate.

Can protests be of a limited humanity?

If one were following the protests and the coverage in the media, there was legitimate condemnation of the crime against the woman, but no banner or report one could find taking a concerned view about all the affected people, which in this case is the woman and her male friend. It's true that the woman has now lost her life after a battle of about two weeks. But her death cannot be the cause of this disparity as the protests far preceded the end of her life. This is quite a unique and baffling experience. In the US , where I live, there was recently a terrible crime too. Twenty young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut state were murdered by a gunman along with six teachers, many reportedly trying to protect the children. Two more adults were wounded. A shocked America remembers the children and the adult victims as all of them were people who were victims of a terrible crime. When the Mumbai attacks happened, we did remember the people of India who were killed in the attack, but we for sure also remember and reported the stories of the foreign visitors who lost their lives.

But why do the protesters and the media coverage constantly give the impression that while demanding action on behalf of the rape victim, they seem to be forgetting that the woman's boy friend was also severely injured almost to the point of fatality? Even as reports came in middle of December of the two injured individuals to be followed by protests, one could strain to find a banner that indicated that there were two humans injured, or a report that raised concerns about the condition and future of both the persons. As a man, I wonder if it's just possible that society brutalizes men in ways that makes them forget their own humanity. Could that also be a factor that is contributing to many men forgetting love and embracing crime?

Of course, one is glad that there are exceptions. One of them is the opinion piece by Urvashi Butalia's in The Hindu (Lets ask about how we contribute to rape, December 25, 2012) where she calls us to raise our voices for all women, but to also understand that this is part of a larger struggle for humanity and to not forget “that the young rape survivor in Delhi was accompanied by a friend who too was subjected to violence and nearly killed”. A very worthwhile suggestion that I'm sure even the now deceased woman would have appreciated.

Delhi Police actions and suspension of Assistant Commissioner of Police without enquiry

India 's parliament maybe part of our democratic representation but the days after the crime certainly marked a lack of cerebral thinking on the part our legislators at a level lower than their average poor performance. If the BJPs Sushma Swaraj, along with some other parliamentarians were calling for the death penalty, Ram Jethmalani demanded removal of the Delhi Police Chief over the failure to stop “ the crime”. Since “the crime” in question is not a singular occurrence, the only logical interpretation is that Mr. Jethmalani is demanding removal of the Police Chief for failure to stop all crime. [1] Given all the shortcomings of our police force, and they are many, is there a police force anywhere in the world that has prevented crime of any nature completely?

The subsequent protests and media coverage (with exceptions such as noted previously) largely followed this pattern and seem to be in a shouting contest to see who is capable of demanding the most amount of blood in the shortest possible time. And to demand blood from a powerful state today that is gleeful about it anyway seemed less about protesting the state, rather a rally around knee jerk demands. It's after all in very recent memory that India voted against banning the death penalty at the UN general assembly. [2]

Inconvenienced, but readily agreeable, the Delhi Police suspends two Assistance Commissioners of Police Mohan Singh and Yad Ram for “failure to prevent the gruesome incident” and does so without any inquiry.[3] Is there available evidence that these two officers were at the scene of crime or did they prevent any of the fellow officers from taking action? Maybe they were being suspended for systemic failures such as lack of public security, but then how can responsibility for systemic failures be pinpointed to specific personnel without an enquiry? Or is it a convenient time to remove police officers that the administration wanted to remove anyway?

Not a few days had passed and the Delhi police was already in self-congratulations for a “painstaking, meticulous and awesome job” in apprehending the suspects. [4] We need reassurance that the “awesome” job will not involve custodial torture and denial of adequate access to an attorney for the defendants. More “awesome” jobs awaited the Delhi Police as the East Delhi Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) Usha Chaturvedi complained that the police “tried to pressurize” her to “record the statement as per their convenience” and on refusal “misbehaved and intimidated” her. [5] All this should point to an awesome incompetence in ensuring that the due process and truthful investigation will ensue. Without these, it's hard to understand how justice in any meaningful form can be delivered to the survivors of this violent event.

It's noteworthy that the protesters don't ask these questions or are agreeable to suggestions about the death penalty or even quite monstrously demand castration for rape convicts. Perhaps, the sudden nature of the protests has not left much room for debate and discussion. Or maybe we as a nation have not understood what human justice delivery means. But then this only adds to democracy's dilemma and the possibility that power can use this situation in a regressive fashion.

Dangerous legal suggestions and further threats to free speech

The call by the Members of Parliament and subsequently by sections of the protesters for death to the assailants implicitly demanded legislation to extend the death penalty for rape. In the US where I live about half of people executed are people of color, who are the marginalized and minorities of America . [6] Even last year a black gentleman by name Troy Davis was executed despite serious questions raised by Amnesty International and civil society about the reliability of evidence used to convict him. His quest for justice will forever be put to an unnatural end. A country like ours, which is still a relatively new nation and with greater inequities of power, wealth and caste can ill afford to play tricks with the ultimate penalty. We should be questioning the relevance of the death penalty in the 21 st century, be lenient to current death row prisoners, not be creating more Troy Davis in India. For are the Delhi elite going to guarantee that a Dalit Bihari man will not be sent to the gallows for eloping with a Brahmin woman? If they cannot and surely no human can, then the death penalty should not be extended to rape convicts. In the given case, the suspects have now rightly been charged with murder in addition to the previous charges that included rape giving rise to the possibility that they may be executed even without a change in laws. Nevertheless, the death penalty must not be awarded in the interests of humane punishment. In this and in other cases, there are other stringent punishments available that can be given.

There are other suggestions too which will simply boomerang the effort to ensure security for women. The government has accepted a set of demands from protesters which include expanding the definition of “sexual assault from eve-teasing to rape”. Preventing sexual violence and ensuring good work environments is one thing but the Indian government would potentially charge a man who whistled at a woman with sexual assault is completely another. So, mavericks, jokers and the bitter one making a distasteful but non-violent vulgar remark in public, a group of bullies are all to be charged with the same type of crime. There will then be no recognition that these are disparate acts some of which are not criminal, and when they are a crime not the same type of crime. Such pronouncements if followed through are fraught with threats to freedom of expression and most certainly will be used to target political dissidents and marginalized people.

American writer Noam Chomsky in Understanding Power, a collection of his talks and interviews, makes a relevant note about free speech and feminism. Chomsky notes: One way of overcoming the highly unequal access to channels of communication, “the Catherine MacKinnon [feminist legal scholar] way – is to give people in power even more power: give the people in power even more power, so they can use it even more inequitably.. And they'll stop the speech they want to stop. Alright, that's one way. The other way is to try to change the distribution of power in the society, but not to attack the freedom of speech... giving the state the power to determine what people can say does not improve the position of people who are now powerless.” [7]

Tragedies are a double edged sword. They can provide a catalyst for positive systemic change. But they can also be a political tool in the hands of the powerful. The September 11, 2001 attacks in New York could have been an opportunity for constructive US engagement with the middle-east, but instead was used to invade two Countries and kill and maim hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans and to crackdown on civil liberties within the US . Terrorist attacks on Indian soil often lead to war cries against our neighbor and curtailment of freedom within. Anti-corruption protests have led to demands for an all powerful superman Ombudsman who is not accountable to the democratic setup. The criminal assault in Delhi demands justice for the sole survivor and the family of the deceased citizen in a reasonable timeframe and lengthy discussions about institutional and even personal attitudes toward women, but should not become another political football with severe consequences for due process and free speech, already under threat in a dangerous world.

[Karthik Ramanathan is a Senior Engineer at Samsung Electronics in San Jose , California . Outside of his work, he has written about and been involved with various political movements against war, third world solidarity and economic justice in the United States . He can be contacted at ramanath.karthik@gmail.com]


1 “A nation Outraged”. The Hindu, December 19, 2012

2 http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-11-21/india/35257141_1_india-votes-death-penalty-resolution

3  “Crackdown mutes protest”. The Hindu, December 24, 2012

4 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2252261/Delhi-Police-pats-officers-awesome-job-making-arrests-following-rape.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

5  “Sheila Dikshit, police lock horns over interference in victim's statement”. The Hindu, December 25, 2012


7 Understanding Power: The indispensable Chomsky, Edited by Peter R Mitchell and John Schoeffel. Pages 272-273, Essay on “Positive and Negative Freedoms”.





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