India Doesn’t Understand Its Rape Problem

Two years after the horrific gang rape in Delhi, India has yet to grapple with the complex psychological and gender issues at the heart of the matter.


MUMBAI — “Rapists must be hanged,” said Aasan Koyi, from behind the counter of his south Mumbai coconut water stall on a recent afternoon. “Some people work; some study. Other people only know how to do obscene things. For that, they must be hanged.”

Koyi’s cold logic echoes the sentiment that has swept through much of India since the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi in December 2012. In September 2013, a Delhi court sentenced four of her rapists to death.

Others have given up on the justice system altogether. In July, villagers in West Bengal responded to the alleged murder and gang rape of a 7-year-old girl by beating the 60-year-old man they suspected of the crime to death. In October, locals in the city of Ganganagar in Rajasthan apprehended a 40-year-old as he allegedly tried to rape a teenage girl. They dragged him into a nearby butcher shop and castrated him with a meat cleaver.

These incidents don’t occur in a vacuum. Protesters, politicians, and celebrities have advocated vocally for harsher punishments for rapists, from public execution by firing squad to surgical castration. But violent retribution, judicial and extrajudicial alike, has done little to end rape. Statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau show that incidents of reported rape in the country increased 35.2 percent between 2012 and 2013.

Rather than solving the rape problem, the bloodlust pulsing through India has instead squelched the country’s ability to address the problem’s roots — something Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has said it intends prioritize. In 2013, for example, a whopping 94 percent of rape cases involved offenders the victims knew, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Rape, in other words, most often occurs between friends, neighbors, and family members — a troubling social reality India refuses to grapple with.

Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the advocacy group All India Progressive Women’s Association, argues that the obsession with punishment “deflect[s] attention from the accountability shared by the state” — its failure to address social norms that lead to sex crimes against women. These norms often emerge from legal and educational institutions that place little to no premium on gender equality. India’s preoccupation with capital punishment gives “individuals a way to distance themselves from potentially sexist beliefs they may themselves hold.”

In the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang rape, India’s then-ruling United Progressive Alliance government assigned a group of prominent legal experts, led by former Chief Justice J. S. Verma (now deceased), to draw up a set of amendments to the country’s criminal code to help expedite trials and punishments for sex offenders. But the group, known as the Justice Verma Committee, soon found that creating a safe society for women would require far more than new legislation.

“Our original mandate was to recommend changes to the law,” explained Abhishek Tewari, counsel for the committee. “But … we realized that the solutions to problems of sexual assault and rape required a much larger, holistic approach,” he said. As the group consulted with social workers, psychologists, and other experts on gender-based violence over its 30 days of work, it “came to realize that there had never been a serious study in India directed at understanding the psychological factors that drive rape,” Tewari said.

The result: a 644-page report of unprecedented depth, one that couched rape in India as an issue of deeply rooted social and gender inequity. Published in January 2013, the Justice Verma Committee report included numerous legal reform recommendations, such as stiffer sentencing and an expanded list of criminal offenses against women. It also advised against capital punishment or chemical castration as punishments for rape, citing a lack of empirical evidence that either deters violence. The report even included interviews with victims of human trafficking and child abuse, using their testimonies to help draft recommended guidelines for police and medical personnel on how to care for and respond to rape survivors. The committee also recommended creating sex education programming in schools.

Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India and founder of the Human Rights Law Network, a group of Indian legal experts who offer legal aid to disadvantaged members of society including victims of sexual assault, calls the report unprecedented. “The fact that it was so extensive and put together in only a month made it a truly ground-breaking document.”

But on March 19, 2013, some two months after the report’s release, India’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill that ignored many of the Justice Verma Committee’s most substantive recommendations. While the bill expanded the list of punishable offenses for violence against women and issued stiffer sentences per the committee’s recommendation, it failed to criminalize marital rape. What’s more, the bill defied the Verma Committee, recommending the death penalty for repeat rapists.

Since the report’s release, many of its most substantive ideas for police and educational reform have been ignored. The committee had, for instance, pointed out bias and lack of gender sensitivity in the police force, and had recommended sensitivity training and awareness initiatives. But today, “you still have policemen who will tell victims to take a shower after a suspected case of rape,” says Shwetasree Majumder, a researcher for the committee.

The BJP may yet pick up the baton. Modi raised the hopes of many when he questioned socially accepted approaches to sexual assault in his Independence Day speech last August, almost three months after coming into office. “Young girls are always being asked so many questions by their parents, like ‘Where are you off to?'” he asked. “But do these parents ask their sons where they are going?” By holding parents responsible for teaching their sons “the difference between right and wrong,” Modi’s comments seemed encouraging in the face of a national conversation that has otherwise sought to supplant serious social introspection with vengeance.

But the likelihood of a deeper conversation on issues of rape and sexual assault in India seems in doubt. Few public officials have echoed Modi’s fresh thinking. On the contrary, Subramanian Swamy, a senior member of the BJP, recently made statements in which he stated his preference for castration of rapists as opposed to execution.

Lalitha Kumaramangalam, chair of the National Commission for Women, a government advisory body tasked with protecting and promoting the rights of women, and a member of the BJP’s National Executive, said she is “hopeful” that Modi’s government will implement some of the Verma Committee’s recommendations. But when asked for her party’s stance on recommending the death penalty for rapists, she was less accommodating. “As a party, we endorse no lenient measures for people considered hardened criminals.”

In April 2014, a Mumbai court handed down death sentences for three men convicted in the 2013 gang rape of a journalist. Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor in the case, said he sought the death penalty because he “wanted to send a message to like-minded persons that if they commit such crimes the death penalty is inevitable.”

“For the government, legislation was the easiest change they could enact,” says Nikhil Mehra, an advocate who served as a researcher with the committee. “Generating serious societal change, on the other hand, is much more difficult.”

Photo by Sajjad Hussain / Stringer

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