The year 2012 ended very badly for India. The violent and sustained rape of a 23-year-old woman by a gang of youths in Delhi before the eyes of someone who, according to reports, she was to marry is a particularly gruesome act. That it happened in an upmarket area of the Indian capital was worse. It has serious implications for the nation’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
The brutal assault on the couple, and the events leading up to the woman’s death at a Singapore hospital, has been one of the most widely covered topics outside India about the country, and rightly so. When a crime prompts the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to castigate India, and to remind the government that “every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected,” it must be taken as a matter of national shame.
While many Indians have reacted with anger and shame, some responses have been either thoughtless, or given the impression of shameless male chauvinism that infects society. It is sad, though not entirely surprising, to see that several of these expressions have come from the higher echelons, including the country’s ruling class. Rape is a crime that has to do with power, exercised in a particularly brutal and humiliating manner on a fellow human. To blame the victim, or to be non-committal about the issue of personal safety, is surely to abandon public responsibility. Such behavior by responsible people, let alone elected officials, cannot engender confidence in the justice system, and society at large.
A subdued atmosphere into the New Year was the least essential after an outrage of such enormity. It is not that the outrage was unique, for further cases of assault on women, even girls, have happened before and since. It was the image that said it all––a young female student, going with her fiancé, attacked, raped and thrown off the bus in the heart of the Indian capital. Demonstrations across India, and a national debate highly critical of the authorities everywhere, are a sign of the public mood. What were perceived as official attempts at offering feeble excuses and buck passing in the first few days contributed to the widespread anger.
Promises to strengthen the law, including fast-track courts to try rape cases, seem inadequate to large numbers of people, in a society where it is not unusual for trials to go on for years, because the accused are powerful, rich and able to pay bribes to have their day put off in court virtually indefinitely. Such is the sentiment in India now that there is a rush of inquiries by women about getting gun licenses. The irony cannot be lost, because it is happening in a country of tough gun control laws, when there is renewed debate about introducing gun control measures in the United States in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre.
The Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court, Justice Altamas Kabir, has added a word of strong warning. People’s reaction has been, he said, “to not send the accused to trial …. We will deal with them or hang them. But let us not get carried away. A swift trial should not be at the cost of a fair trial.” In the present conditions in India, a swift but fair trial is the need, but the forces against are formidable. Five men have been charged in court. A sixth accused is a juvenile, and under the Indian penal system will have to be tried separately. His case, in particular, raises serious questions about how a country educates its children.
The glorious lives with the ignominious in modern India, and the country faces a moral crisis which seems to get more and more acute as time goes by. Official lethargy and disingenuous excuses cause alienation and resentment in society. Senior leaders fail to understand that the state’s primary responsibility is to provide safety to citizens, because otherwise there are few other reasons for its existence. Politicians cannot get away with even a hint that government may not be to blame, because the assault was committed on a private vehicle. Others fail in their duty to provide basic safety in the country they rule when they demand a ban on certain school uniforms for girls, because they are “provocative” for young men. Unsurprisingly, those who make such demands are almost always men. Talk is absent about better education for young citizens, and the need to teach them that a “no” really means no, and it is they who are the source of the nation’s moral crisis. More than anything else today, Indian society is going to be judged by how it treats its women.