The groundswell of public outrage which emerged following the gang rape of a young woman in a well-lit Delhi neighbourhood in December was to some extent liberating and essential.
But the question that looms behind the public rallies and vigils, and gapes in the backdrop of the political uproar is: why did it take an incident of such savagery to prick the collective Indian conscience?
India’s recent history of human rights is replete with rapes of Dalit, tribal and north-eastern women, but thus far they have not catalysed collective demonstrations nor have they triggered a public debate on reforming India’s inadequate legal framework, concerning sexual assault. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 24,206 rape cases were registered in India in 2011, and experts say the number of unreported cases of sexual assault is much higher.
This time, what provoked the upsurge of anger among ordinary Indians across the country was not just the brutality of the incident or the fact that it occurred in a well-heeled New Delhi locality - but the impunity with which it happened, on an unlicensed bus which drove past numerous police check points. The incident challenged assumptions: that rapes occur late at night in secluded places, or that often those targeted are either alone or provocatively dressed. Like the anti-corruption protests that continue across the country, the Delhi gang rape demonstrations have become yet another symbol of the ordinary Indian’s increasing frustration and anger at the state which is increasingly being seen as incompetent and corrupt.
Within the country and abroad, the Delhi case is a sobering reminder of the pervasive sexual violence ordinary women in India undergo, the majority of cases which go unreported. When rape is reported, the problem is not inadequate legislation that prevents those guilty from being punished. Instead, lack of prompt and effective investigations coupled with poor evidence collection ensures that not enough convictions take place to become strong deterrents to future abuse. Furthermore, delays in bringing cases to court allow violations, including sexual assault and rape cases, to occur with impunity.
In cases where state security forces are alleged to have committed sexual assault, little or no action is taken. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act virtually provides immunity to members of the armed forces accused of sexual assault and other abuses. Other pieces of law follow suit, for instance Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code which provides immunity to the police and other security forces by making it mandatory for a prosecutor to obtain permission from the government to initiate criminal proceedings against public servants.
The Delhi gang rape case has provoked a wider debate on punishment and the use of the death penalty for rapists. Undeniably, swifter punitive measures are needed to perforate the bubble of impunity around rape. These measures may take longer to implement but will undoubtedly be more effective in the long run as they will create institutional barriers towards sexual violence which till now has occurred with little accountability. The issue is whether the outraged Indian citizen will see this campaign through or whether the haze of blind rage and sentimentalism will blur substantive issues.