Delhi Crime and Punishment

Netflix’s hit show Delhi Crime documents the changes rocking Indian society—and not all of them are good.

Actress Shefali Shah in “Delhi Crime.” (Golden Karavan/Netflix)
Actress Shefali Shah in “Delhi Crime.” (Golden Karavan/Netflix)

“There was nothing in his eyes. It was like his soul was missing,” Neeti Singh, a young police officer, tearfully tells her boss. Deputy Police Commissioner Vartika Chaturvedi, cool and calm, dismisses her discomfort. “If you’re trying to ascribe meaning to this, forget it.” She is already on to the next crime: another recent rape, this one involving a broken beer bottle. The victim had died.

This scene comes toward the end of the hit Netflix show Delhi Crime, which fictionalizes the real-life story of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young physiotherapy intern who was raped on a moving bus in New Delhi in 2012. The popular seven-episode series was written and produced by the Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta following six years of research, during which he interviewed police officers, consulted with the real-life police commissioner Neeraj Kumar, and investigated the case files. The show is made from the point of view of the Delhi Police, with Chaturvedi spearheading the manhunt that, in real life, led to the arrest of the six accused rapists in five days—a dauting task in a city with a population of 25 million.

The show may be a dramatization, but it taps into something real.

The show may be a dramatization—and one that spurred at least one of the people portrayed, the police inspector Anil Sharma, to threaten legal action—but it taps into something real. New Delhi is the rape capital of the world. In the first quarter of 2018, more than five women were raped every day in India’s national capital, according to Delhi Police statistics. And on a recent trip down the same route traversed by Nirbhaya—or fearless, as Panday has widely come to be called—the sidewalks were thronged with groups of young men. There was not a woman in sight.

The truths about New Delhi that the show picks up on make it difficult to watch, as do the scenes that recall the gruesome details of the real-life gang rape, in which one of the attackers used an iron rod to tear most of the victim’s intestines out through her vagina. But it is a useful reminder of why this particular case made the world sit up and take notice. The violence is a reflection of a deeply troubled society in the throes of dizzying changes—changes that Delhi Crime tries to document.

In one scene, two police officers race to a village in Rajasthan to hunt down one of the suspects. On their drive, one of them explains to the other why such heinous crimes happen. India has seen an explosion of uneducated youth, he says, who have no sex education and who are watching free porn online. They don’t know what to make of it, and they begin looking at all women like objects. They desire these objects, which are now more visible than ever thanks to India’s loosening mores around women in public. When the men can’t have them because they are poor, they want to take them anyway. Oftentimes, they pay no heed to the consequences. After all, when one’s prospects are so grim, what does one have to lose anyway?

In many ways, the police officer was on point with his comments. India is home to one in every three illiterate people in the world. Meanwhile, record-high unemployment, particularly among uneducated youth, is deeply disturbing. It is one of the main points on which India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is being slammed in the ongoing national election. According to the sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn, such a situation—when a nation’s demographics skew young and a large number of young people have low job prospects—can trigger widespread social conflict.

The manhunt in the series brings such statistics to life, as the viewer enters the suspects’ dwellings in the slums and meets their families in remote villages. We meet the mothers and fathers—and, in one case, the wife—in bucolic villages in the heartland of India. The show reveals how clueless the families are with regard to the new lives their sons are leading in the city. We come to see all six rapists for who they are: young men and all recent migrants, unmoored and unhinged, living in violent and filthy slums away from familiar social structures.

Their lashing out at a woman on a bus, then, is what the journalist Anjani Trivedi has called “the dark side” of India’s sexual revolution. It “is a manifestation of what has gone wrong, what is going wrong and what will go wrong when people, who are not ready for it, have new ideas, visions and, above all, freedoms thrust upon their existing patrilineal, patrilocal and patriarchal thought processes.”

No wonder that, during the show, one of the accused tells the police that when he saw the woman he raped on the bus with her boyfriend, he could not control his anger. By sitting together and flirting, they were flying in the face of India’s moral values. We find out through the course of the series that the man’s wife had died two years ago under unclear circumstances, after which he had regular fits of rage leading to extreme violence. According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation 2018 survey, India is the most dangerous country for sexual violence against women. India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 338,954 crimes against women—including 38,947 rapes—in 2016, the most recent government data available. That’s up from 309,546 reported incidents of violence against women in 2013.

Given that the events depicted in the show took place nearly seven years ago now, one might reasonably hope that things have changed for the better. And, indeed, the crime did lead to widespread public outrage and the creation of a fast-track court to better deal with sexual crimes. But it feels like nothing much has changed. Of the six real-life accused rapists, one, Ram Singh, died in jail in mysterious circumstances; another, who was a minor, was released after a three-year sentence. The other four remain on death row.

Daily media reports make rape and sexual violence seem rampant.

Meanwhile, daily media reports make rape and sexual violence seem rampant. And, indeed, more rapes are being reported across the country (although that could just mean a greater proportion of victims are coming forward). At the same time, there has been virtually no progress on gender or sex education. And faster and cheaper internet connections have made access to pornography easier than ever before. According to Gail Dines, the author of Pornland, porn is a public health crisis. She points to extensive scientific research that shows that exposure to porn threatens the social, emotional, and physical health of individuals, families, and communities.

A brutal and well-made series, Delhi Crime is a reminder that the inherent problems that led to the Nirbhaya gang rape—including deep-set patriarchy, lack of sex education, and migration into disorganized cities already bursting at the seams—are still very much a reality of Indian life. It is difficult to say what will follow. Most recently, the #MeToo movement has become a champion for women’s rights in India. Its campaign led to the resignation of a high-ranking minister who had been accused of harassing subordinates (he disputes the charge) and the fall from grace of several well-known personalities in the film, writing, and business worlds. But real, lasting changes in policy and governance are hard to find. Delhi Crime thus shows viewers that although changes may be coming to Indian society, not all of them are good, and the good ones aren’t happening fast enough.

Ira Trivedi is the author of nine books, including India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century.

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