The horrific violence, gang rape and murder of the young woman veterinarian on a national highway close to Hyderabad has led to national outrage and protests in several States. Around the same time in Tonk, Rajasthan, a six-year-old child, returning home after having attended a school sports competition, went missing. Later, her bloodied body was found, sexually brutalised. In Coimbatore, a student of Class XI, returning from celebrating her birthday, was abducted and gang raped. In Ranchi, an Adivasi law student was abducted and gang raped by a group of armed men.
The week of dreadful sexual crimes brings home the reality that there is a national emergency in India as far as crimes against women, specifically sexual crimes, are concerned. A rape culture embodied in the brutal power of male sexual entitlement and impunity seems to have gained strength. But the government is in a state of denial. Since 2016, the annual National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) reports have been suppressed. The 2017 report was released only in 2019. Apart from the deliberate omissions in reporting lynching cases and honour crimes, the report showed an alarming increase in registered crimes against women. Specifically, on an average, around 1,000 crimes were registered every day, over 3.5 lakh in the year. On an average, 93 women were victims of rape every day. One-third of them were minors. Around 87,924 women registered cases of sexual harassment, an average of 241 a day. Every day, on an average, 28 women were burnt to death in cases registered as dowry deaths.
Most cases go unreported
These figures, shocking as they are, reflect only a small percentage of the crimes committed against women. As is known, most cases go unreported. For example, the National Family Health Survey-4 revealed that every third married woman had experienced physical and/or sexual violence but only 1.5% had sought help from the police. Accurate data collection is very important to inform policy initiatives. Unfortunately, the present Central government prefers to suppress or to rubbish statistics that reveal its failures.
The terrible crime in Hyderabad also showed the callousness of elected leaders. The Chief Minister of Telangana has not yet cared to visit the grieving family. In Parliament, when the issue was raised, Amit Shah, the Home Minister, was conspicuous by his absence. Delhi is directly under his watch. It is the most unsafe city for women. Has he even once reviewed the issue with the police in the capital or expressed concern? The safety of Indias women and children does not seem to be on his list of priorities. Meanwhile, in response to the anguish expressed by several members during the parliamentary discussion on the Hyderabad case, Rajnath Singh, who was standing in for the Home Minister, said all suggestions given by everyone present here will be taken and a law can be formed if needed. Our government is open to every suggestion anyone has to give to curb such heinous crimes. We are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that the most stringent rules be implemented.
Once again, the government deliberately turned attention to the issue of extent of punishment, instead of focusing on the urgent steps required for the prevention of such crimes. Every time the government is held accountable, it diverts attention to the stringency of punishment. In this context, Jaya Bachchans call for public lynching is dangerous and should be withdrawn. The death penalty for rape and murder is already on the statute book. Global experience is clear enough that such punishments have not led to a decrease in crimes. The issue, as repeatedly stressed by activists, is not just the extent and stringency of punishment, but as much the certainty of it through swift and fair procedures that discourage crime. There has been no improvement on this score.
Huge backlog of cases
The NCRB report shows that the backlog of cases, including cases of child rape, is huge. For all crimes against women, the pendency of cases is as high as 89.6%. In 2017, there were as many as 1.17 lakh rape cases from previous years pending trial. That year, 28,750 more cases were sent for trial. How many accused in this huge number of cases under trial were convicted? Just 5,822. This utter failure to reform the justice system and ensure conviction leads to an increase in the impunity with which crimes against women are committed. A UN report on steps required to provide safety and security for women states that womens safety involves strategies and policies that take place before violence has occurred to prevent perpetration or victimisation... Prevention efforts involve strategic, long-term, comprehensive initiatives that address the risk and protective factors related to perpetration, victimisation and bystander behaviour.
In India, after the Nirbhaya case, the committee set up under Justice J.S. Verma had made a series of recommendations for prevention of crimes. It placed the responsibility on the Central and State governments to ensure the social and physical infrastructure to prevent crimes against women. It added to and expanded on various proposals which had already been made. The suggestions included changes in school and college syllabi to educate young people on the social values of equality and respect for womens autonomy; ensuring safe public transport, city and street lighting, CCTV cameras; mapping unsafe areas and provision of increased police patrolling in such areas; and a slew of other steps. If these measures had been implemented seriously, perhaps the young woman veterinarian would be alive and safe today.
Basic safety measures
The Verma report stated: What is even more shocking is the incapability of the government of India and of the various State Governments to implement even the most basic safety measures with any amount of efficacy... Despite numerous recommendations, deliberations, consultations, studies, directions from the judiciary and, most importantly, the protests of civil society, the state continues to fall woefully short of ensuring the safety of women in this country. And now six years after this report, the government asks Parliament for further suggestions, displaying an utter lack of political will.
Under the present regime, retrogressive approaches to womens rights have become more prominent. Ministers and elected representatives openly side with the rape accused as in Kathua or Shahjahanpur. It is the victims who are named, shamed, and blamed. Womens assertions for a right to safe public spaces are met with a ferocious backlash. In particular, Dalit and Adivasi women, poor women working in the most unsafe conditions created by resurgent caste and class hierarchies, are the most vulnerable. The struggle against sexual violence is equally a struggle against the policies and cultures which disempower women.
The way forward is through increased public action for social change and enforcement of a code of accountability and responsibility on the Central and State governments to implement the recommendations necessary to make India safe for its women and children.
Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP