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India's Church too must act on gender violence

The crisis is pervasive across all Indian institutions

India's Church too must act on gender violence
John Dayal, India

November 28, 2013

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The month of December 2012 saw India aghast at the brutal assault and gang rape of a paramedic in New Delhi, who died a fortnight later. Her death, which led to nationwide demonstrations, forced the government of India to enact a comprehensive new law against rapists. The law is in place, but nothing has really changed.

Rape of Dalit women, college girls and working professionals, and sometimes of babies as young as one, have taken place with sickening frequency in India’s major cities, as well as its smaller towns. Tourism has suffered as young women from Europe, Japan and the United States have all but stopped traveling to India. New Delhi has come to be known as the country's rape capital.

Rape, attempted rape, molestation and other gender violence in the work place, in public areas, and in the security of the home as custodial rape, also force themselves on the nation’s sensibilities all too often. But even in this dismal scenario, two recent incidents stand out for the sheer audacity of the crime and the social and professional status of the perpetrators.

The first is the case of a Supreme Court judge, unnamed until now and reported to have since retired, who tormented a young law intern who was assisting him. She did not go to the police, but narrated her anguish in a blog, which went viral.

A flustered chief justice ordered an immediate enquiry by a committee of three judges, which has since interviewed the victim. A week later, the chief justice set up a gender sensitization committee in the Supreme Court which will, presumably, be replicated in the coming days in each of the state high courts and other subordinate courts in the country.

The second case is that of the Tehelka investigative magazine editor-in-chief and celebrated author, Tarun Tejpal, who is accused by a young colleague of attempting to rape her in hotel elevator. Both of them were participating in a cultural “Think-fest” in the resort state of Goa, whose high profile national and international participants included Hollywood film star Robert De Niro.

In emails to the Tehelka managing editor, Shoma Choudhury, the young reporter, who has since quit the magazine, narrated in painful detail the shattering of her trust in her employer and his arrogance even as he wreaked violence on her. The magazine’s management failed to treat her complaint with any seriousness. Police in Goa and Delhi are now investigating the case, which has also forced the Indian media establishment to take a close look inside its own cupboard, not entirely free of skeletons.

Gender violence, especially at the work place, was the focus of the Supreme Court in 1997 when the then Chief Justice J S Verma -- who authored a report suggesting radical reforms in the jurisprudence on gender violence after the December 16, 2012 gang rape of the paramedic student in Delhi -- formulated what are called the Vishakha guidelines, which put the onus of a safe working environment on the employer.

The code says all work places must have institutional structures to prevent or deter sexual harassment. It demands procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of such acts. The guidelines also lay down a grievance redressal mechanism that mandates all companies, whether operating in the public or private sector, to set up a complaints committee within the organisation to look into such offenses.

Tehelka magazine does not have such a mechanism, and by all counts, neither do Indian courts.

And of course neither do religious organizations, such as the Church, which in India runs thousands of educational, medical, and social service institutions.

Over the years, formal structures and people in authority in almost every religion in India have been accused by their own members, followers and others of sexual harassment or actual crimes and exploitation by those in authority. It is perhaps not in the same class as accusations against some Catholic clergy in the West, but has often been grave enough to invite police investigation.

Catholic diocesan institutions and schools and colleges run by religious congregations, and similar institutions run by the Protestant denominations in the country, have often been in the news for deaths of students following corporal punishment, injuries to young boys and girls at the hands of their teachers and similar violations of the national education codes.

There have also been instances of gender crimes over the years, even within the Catholic congregation. Most have been glossed over, or dismissed as allegations of a feverish imagination or a political vendetta.

Even if so, there is no doubt that Church institutions across the board need to have their own equivalent of the Vishakha guidelines which will not just ensure transparency and help victims get justice and redress, but will also empower the Church to regain its moral courage to intervene in the discourse for gender justice.

Its silence in recent times has impacted on its image as an upholder of human rights and justice. In the process, perhaps, it will also help the Catholic Bishops Conference of India to at last evolve and publish a code for gender justice. A draft was submitted to it a long time ago by a group of concerned religious, but not much has been heard of it since then.

It is indeed time the draft is taken out of the cupboard and a code is formulated on gender justice and prevention of gender violence in organizations run by the Church, including its own offices.

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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