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India struggles to deal with gang rape

Existing laws simply need to be enforced

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • April 1, 2013
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China, as ancient a civilization as India but with no democracy, may perhaps be exaggerating a bit when its Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper says “the increasing number of rape cases reported in recent months in India is an indicator of the failure of its democracy to ensure good governance” and “the weakness and incompetence of its democratic system.”

But a rash of gang rapes since the brutalization of a Delhi girl last December  raises serious questions at home and abroad, more so because European women were victims in at least three of the crimes.

There was a horrendous attack in Madhya Pradesh on a 39-year-old woman from Lausanne, Switzerland, who was on a cycling tour with her husband. They had camped on the outskirts of a forest village for the night when she was raped by a group of men from a nearby village. Five of them were later arrested.

No less horrific have been gang rapes of Dalit women in the same state and in neighboring Uttar Pradesh. Even New Delhi, the national capital, has reported a rash of gang rapes of young women, most of them professionals, who were held captive in cars as they were raped. There have been few, if any, arrests.

Convictions are rare. In New Delhi, of more than 600 rape cases registered in 2012, just one led to a conviction. More than 80 per cent of rape cases were pending in courts across the country. Over 83.6 per cent of the rape cases are still pending trial.

Caucasian, Japanese and Korean women tourists, under the generic term of “white” persons, have always been vulnerable in India, especially when travelling alone.

In recent years, incidents have been reported from all major tourist spots, including Kashmir, Rajasthan and Delhi. Their attackers have included drivers of hired vehicles, or local goons.

Although studies have been conducted in the US and the UK, there is no social or psychological research in Indian universities on gang rape, other than superficial generalizations on incidents during episodes of inter-religious violence as in Mumbai, Gujarat or even Kandhamal in Orissa, or in the case of violence against Dalit and tribal women.

Academics define gang rape as Multiple Perpetrator Rape (MPR). In 2010, Birmingham and Middlesex universities were asked by the British Psychological Society to form a network of professionals dedicated to advancing knowledge on MPR. Not much light has been shed.

In India, it is commonly understood that gang rape of Dalit women, and of the women of religious minority communities, is “political,” sort of teaching the subaltern groups to stay in their place at the bottom of the socio-political hierarchy.

It is difficult to say if gang rapes are a “preventable” crime.  Other than in cases of violence against Dalits, tribals and religious minorities, there may not even be advance signs of social tension or other indicators, other than the fact that such incidents take place at lonely spots, unlit roads and often in the darkness of the night.

Surprisingly, there is something the Indian government can do: enforce the existing laws without fear and favor. Caste and religious violence is endemic even in elite educational institutions. In the case of violence against Dalit, tribal and landless women, the aggressors are almost always from higher social and economical groups.

The Supreme Court has now ordered fast track courts to try the suspects in rape cases, but inefficient investigations makes conviction very difficult. Tragically, the government has not shown the political will needed to redress the systemic shortcomings.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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