The Silence in Delhi

The trial of India's vicious gang-rapists is under way, but don't think for a second the government is really committed to reform of women's rights.


When U.S. President Barack Obama declared, "I will put everything I’ve got into this," at a Jan. 16 news conference unveiling his proposals on gun-control laws, more than one activist in India surely let out a wistful sigh. Obama’s proposals might not be as robust as all gun-control advocates would like, but at the very least he was taking firm executive action — the proposals came barely a month after the Dec. 14 Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shootings, which killed 20 young children.

Just two days after the Newtown tragedy, on the other side of the world, a young woman was brutally gang-raped. The assault — which took place on a bus in New Delhi and resulted in such terrible internal injuries that the woman died two weeks later — had nothing to do with the horrors in Newtown, other than it was an incomprehensibly brutal act of violence that brought about fury and national outrage. But to many in India, America’s official response to the tragedy in Newtown became a kind of measuring stick against which they gauged their own government’s response to the Delhi incident. And by every means of quantifying it, India’s government came up short.

It may have fast-tracked the trial of the men accused in the gang rape — they are in court this week — but that is simply a band-aid over a gaping wound. Quick arrests and even convictions cannot replace systemic reform of rape and policing laws. Worse, India’s government seems to hope that people will simply forget the need for these reforms.

Obama gave a news conference only hours after the shooting, even before the names of the dead had been released. Speaking to the media, he said he was reacting to the news "not as a president, but as anybody else would — as a parent"; he wiped his eyes. The show of emotion in that response is a far cry from the immediate political reaction in India to the rape and death of the 23-year-old woman. Even as tens of thousands of Indians flooded into the streets to protest and mourn, the country’s political leaders were either silent or much worse.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said nothing about the violence for more than a week, though the situation continued to escalate. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at Delhi street protesters, only heightening their sense of being under siege. When Singh finally addressed the incident, it was to appeal for calm, in a stilted video address. "I feel as strongly about this as each one of you," he said, reminding Indians that he was the father of three daughters; yet his speech sounded canned and dry.

Earlier that day, police had closed off central Delhi in an attempt to tamp down the protests. Indian TV commentator Rajdeep Sardesai noted that the prime minister missed the chance to "take the emotional and moral high ground" with an India that feels "a loss of faith and an absence of trust in government." In fact, the most memorable part of Singh’s two-minute video address was the last couple of seconds, which inadvertently aired in some broadcasts, when Singh asked the videographer, "Is it OK?" (Indian social media exploded with ironic references to everything "being OK.")

Of course everything was not OK. It wasn’t until two days later that Singh responded to the pressure to take action; then the action he took was only to set up a committee, led by a former chief justice, J.S. Verma, to evaluate what needed to be changed to make India safer for women. This week, the "Verma committee" came out with its report, after receiving more than 80,000 responses to a call for input. The report slated the police and government for displaying "total apathy," and it recommended taking broad action to strengthen India’s rape laws and policing standards.

For weeks now, everyone from Bollywood stars to politicians has talked of "India’s rape culture," making this most taboo of all crimes an open topic of debate for the first time in the country’s history. The conversation has widened to include other inequalities women suffer in "modern" India, from dowry requirements to arranged marriage to the lack of job prospects. Writing in the Times of India, a former editor of that paper, Dileep Padgaonkar, declared that India is in the midst of a collective grieving process that he called "a catharsis." But India’s government has failed it, he wrote, by refusing to hear its people. Its response was "tepid and tardy, to say the least." Women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari, head of the Center for Social Research, called her government a "failed system." Without dramatic action on the part of the political leadership, she said, Indians will simply lose faith in democracy.

Sadly predictable were those who leapt to blame the victim. A well-known Hindu spiritual leader, Asaram Bapu, said that the young woman could have prevented the attack if she had begged her attackers for mercy and called them "brothers." A cabinet minister in the state of Madhya Pradesh suggested that when women cross moral limits, they will suffer the consequences. Still others have used the opportunity to call for greater restrictions on women’s lives. One politician in the state of Rajasthan demanded that skirts be banned as a part of school uniforms in his district, in order to prevent "men’s lustful gazes." Perhaps this is not so different from some of the extremist responses to the Newtown shooting, out of which a reprehensible "truther movement" has sprung up; an important difference is that these extremists have no influence on policy, the way some of India’s rape deniers do.

For the most part, such voices have been shot down by India’s educated middle class, the group often referred to as "civil society" in India. But civil society is not a majority in India. In spite of heady economic growth and a fast-expanding middle class, the country remains a traditional place, with only 54 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys over age 7 literate, nationwide. The comments blaming the victim — or women in general — for the actions of their attackers actually represent a significant strain of thinking in today’s India.

India’s top political leaders are careful not to make such gaffes. Neither Singh nor anyone in the central government made any stray remarks holding the woman responsible for going out to see a movie with a male friend, wearing highlights in her hair, or displaying other signs of globalized culture, as she apparently did. But more than likely, Delhi’s top leaders know well that these small transgressions against an ancient cultural code of honor are what got this young woman killed. They know she lived in a violent city that has not accepted that women have the right to independence. India’s police force is ranked second-lowest in law enforcement resources among 50 countries, according to the United Nations. Yet even in the weeks since India convulsed with anger over the shortfalls in the country’s policing, there has not been any official move to add to police numbers or improve police training.

The prime minister sought first to ignore, and then to tamp down, India’s fury. He promised to take action against the accused, but chose not to wade into an emotional issue that was sure to turn into a political nightmare, as Obama has done with gun control. Perhaps he was slow to recognize that this would become a national crisis; after all, the young woman’s victimhood was hardly unique. One woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau.

India’s leaders seem to have finally recognized that this issue isn’t going away. On Jan. 23, a prominent member of the prime minister’s cabinet promised to make reform of rape laws a top priority. The recommendations of the Verma committee include trying rape cases in separate courts, preferably by female judges, broadening the definition of sexual assault, and making police more accountable. Prime Minister Singh has not yet responded to the suggestions.

There’s no doubt that the young woman’s rapists will be punished — and quickly. While it’s not unusual for normal rape cases to drag on through India’s overburdened courts for a decade or so, the trial of five of the six accused in the gang rape began this week in a Delhi court (the sixth is a juvenile and will be tried separately). They may be convicted within two months of committing the crime; that’s lightning speed, by Indian standards. They may even receive the death penalty, which many of the protesters have demanded (and which has sparked its own controversy).

But other activists are concerned about what will happen after these men are convicted and the case fades from prominence. They say that India needs a raft of reforms — even beyond Verma’s extensive recommendations — if the country is to end the culture of impunity around sexual assault and give women some incentive to report the crime. For instance, India’s definitions of crimes against women do not include sexual harassment, stalking, or even acid attacks.

It’s not surprising that rape goes unreported in India when you consider that victims are often subjected to an archaic "two-finger test" that involves law enforcement officers using their fingers to ascertain whether a woman was "habituated to sex" before the assault. The idea is to determine whether "victims of sexual assault are ‘bad,’ ‘loose,’ or otherwise responsible for the attack," according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report. The test makes sexually assaulted women feel "they are the ‘accused’ when they submit themselves for medical examination and trial," two Indian sociologists argued in a recent commentary. "Unscientific and degrading" are the rather more blunt words that a government panel used to describe it.

Almost everyone agrees that India’s police need a radical overhaul if women are to be safe on city streets. The public transportation system in Delhi, as with many other Indian cities, is unreliable; most bus, taxi, and rickshaw drivers are not tracked by GPS or held accountable for the well-being of their passengers. And in spite of government promises, there are no policy prescriptions about transportation yet. More than a month after the high-profile gang rape, a steady pulse of protesters remains on the streets, including one rape victim who has launched a hunger strike in Delhi that she says will not end until the men who assaulted her are punished. But India’s Parliament has yet to debate a single new law on crimes against women, and Singh has been noticeably silent on the topic.

In the month since the Newtown school shootings, Obama has brought up gun control and school violence innumerable times. Of course, that isn’t a guarantee of legislative change. But it is a way to lay down a marker, to demonstrate that an issue is at the top of a government’s priority list. The head of India’s governing party, Sonia Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit — two women with rare positions of top political power in India — have made emotional appeals for a change to India’s systematic disregard for women. The government says it will listen to the demands for a transformation of its laws and attitudes toward women. But the official silence is still the loudest thing the people of India can hear.

Miranda Kennedy is the author of Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India, about women's lives in globalizing India.