On May 5th, perpetrators of the Nirbhaya gang rape incident were given a death sentence by the Supreme Court. One would think the severity of the punishment meted out to the Nirbhaya convicts would discourage people from engaging in such crimes—and yet two equally horrifying incidents have been reported in the last ten days near the national capital.
This article aims to study the changes in narratives, social attitudes, laws and policies since the Nirbhaya incident in December 2012.
Why did the Nirbhaya rape outrage the nation to the point where legal and judicial reforms were almost immediately implemented? Are women safer now? Why has there been relatively little outrage against equally heinous rapes post-2012? Has anything changed since then?
Narratives and Power: Social narratives on rape, ranging from caste to communalism, are reflections of power relations, and define not only how society responds to a rape, but also why rapists think they can get away. Neither the perpetrators nor the judges of the Nirbhaya case saw it for what it was—an expression of power and not a crime of lust.
This power can be expressed in many ways—as an upper-caste man abusing a Dalit woman because the police are unable or unwilling to punish him, or as a man exerting his dominance over an educated, empowered woman who rejected him.
Victim-blaming continues to be common in sexual assault cases, especially when the man has a position of some authority or is a relative of the victim. In rural areas, notions of preserving “family honour” often lead to khap panchayats, thus keeping incidents out of courts.
Even if a case reaches the courts, the judiciary itself gets wrapped up in patriarchal narratives and tends towards victim-blaming. Using lust (but not power) as the primary lens through which rapes are seen is deeply rooted. This is dangerous because “lust” leads to the idea that the victim, by exciting her rapist’s passion, was somehow at fault.
Social Attitudes: Nirbhaya’s story, of a girl from a disadvantaged background with dreams of making it big through education, struck a chord with India’s aspirational class. Part of the public backlash was because it was easy to identify with her story. Massive protests and media outrage have been lacking for rapes of low-caste women in rural areas or citizens from the North-Eastern states, because the audience doesn’t identify with these stories. This lack of attention can be ascribed to classism and racism.
Post-2012, Nirbhaya’s ghost hangs over the Indian media. It has become a convenient term under which all rape cases are lumped. After the most “sensational” rapes, the victim is named after Nirbhaya—the latest being “Rohtak’s Nirbhaya”. In today’s world, where public attention and outrage waxes and wanes with news cycles, the media should hold lawmakers and law-enforcers to account.
To be fair, attitudes towards the recognition of sexual assault as a problem have changed. An analysis of English media reports from 2010 until 2014 has uncovered a marked difference in the terms used to describe rape, with an increased use of terms such as “gruesome” and “horrific”. Post-Nirbhaya reports have been more accepting of the victim’s side of the story. Perhaps it is this recognition of the problem that has led to more rape cases coming to light. But, mere recognition is not enough. Social attitudes and legislation have a long way to go.
Laws and Policies: Within a week of the Nirbhaya incident, the then government appointed the Justice Verma Committee to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law. This led to the passing of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, which broadened the definition of “rape” and strengthened the punishments for sexual crimes. Later, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 provided that juveniles between 16-18 years of age involved in heinous offences be tried as adults. But other recommendations of the Verma Committee, such as inclusion of marital rape in the definition of rape and removal of the gender biased language in Criminal Law were not accepted.
Six additional fast-track courts were set up in Delhi to hear cases of sexual assault. Nearly 15 months after they were set up, 1374 cases were pending in these courts with new cases piling up each day. With these courts not being empowered with additional infrastructure and judges, it is anybody’s guess how fast these fast-track courts really are.
The government had also announced a `3000 crore Nirbhaya fund for initiatives to ensure women safety. These funds remain underutilised, with policies aiming to improve the capabilities of law enforcement agencies remaining promises on paper. Moreover, capability alone is not enough—the police are hardly a credible deterrent, especially since they continue to be handicapped by political interference, and (especially in rural areas) are dominated by the same upper castes which are the primary perpetrators of violence against low-caste women.
What next? Social narratives justify rape before and after the act, feeding an individual’s propensity to commit a crime. This is reinforced by the lack of capability and credibility of the law and order system, perpetuated by the lack of political will. Politicians in India are generally not held to their promises. The public is convinced that advocacy and lobbying do not lead to changes in the system. Yet without political will, the system won’t change—and political will is not confined to politicians, but to the voting public as well. A day of selective outrage on news channels is not enough.
It is the society’s action or inaction that allows rape. People might be more aware of assault and report it better, but without lasting social change, leading up to sustained political will, India will continue to lose her daughters to senseless violence.