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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Put the congratulation on hold


Our favourite image of a rape survivor is that of a girl with her face covered by her hands. The message is this: it is she and not the offender who must be ashamed. Puja Awasthi pours cold water on the euphoria over the December 16 convictions
PUJA AWASTHI | Issue Dated: October 7, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : gang raped | Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance | crimes against women | Allahabad High Court | December 16 gang rape |

We, of the selective conscience but the convenient privacies, of the strong lungs but the weak memories, deserve happy congratulations now that the verdict on the December 16 gang rape has been pronounced.

Each one of us who lit a candle, held up a placard, shouted a slogan, filed a report, aired our own personal shames (more prominently to the foreign media), bayed for the blood of the rapists, played on the symbolism of the victim’s media-given name, voiced opinions to anyone who was willing to listen, can take a collective bow for having ensured justice.

That we did none of that for the 21-year-old who was gang raped and killed in Noida days after the December 16 crime, or for the five-year-old who was raped, bitten and killed in Lucknow this July, or for the 101 atrocities/heinous crimes that were committed against Dalit women since that day and August 31, 2013 (the day of Asaram’s arrest for allegations of rape by a 16- year-old) must not matter in this celebratory din. At least not till a bigger monstrosity is unleashed upon us and we realise that little, if anything at all, has changed for the women of this country.

As Roop Rekha Verma, former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University and founder of Saajhi Duniya, an organisation that works, among other things, on gender issues explains, “Change requires sustained efforts. It is easy to come out on the streets and shout and get a photograph taken. Where are the support structures necessary to rehabilitate such victims? We lack the sensitivity to deal with rape victims. In a civilised society all forces should try to make the victim forget the trauma as soon as possible. Here, the victim has to be shredded. By the time a judgment comes- often broken and incomplete- the difference between justice and injustice has ceased to matter to the victim.”
Verma should know.

She speaks of a friend who was raped 21-years-ago by a relative of her landlord. The survivor had the presence of mind and courage to walk to a police station after the incident, well past midnight to report it, and to submit herself to a medical examination. The accused was caught, but let off on bail. The case trudged along in court till seven years ago when the entire file went missing. It is yet to be traced, and Verma is considering the option of putting it before the media.

That consideration is hardly prompted by an appreciation of the media’s role in highlighting socially relevant issues. Far from it, as Verma says that the media is only interested in ‘sensational’ cases or those with a ‘political connection’. “The press should stop this charade of socially useful reporting given that it uses sexual titillation to sell”, she fumes.

Each one of us in the media is also guilty of a discriminatory morality when it comes to rape, as we are in all matters relating to women’s rights and safety. Since our frenzies in response to the December 16 gang rape, we have protested only occasionally- for instance for the survivor of the Shakti Mills gang rape.

Meanwhile, we have continued to perpetuate negative images of rape survivors with the most popular depiction being that of a girl with her face covered by her hands. The not so subtle message being-it is she and not the offender who must be ashamed.

Maheshwari, a case worker with Vanangana, an organisation working to empower women in UP’s Chitrakoot district links this depiction to a patriarchy's perception of women’s complicity in cases of sexual assault. She says, “Any nature of sexual offence against a woman is blamed by the family and the police on her need to have sex. She is depicted in the nature of an addict who prompts men to unleash well deserved violence on her. A man on the other hand is never looked down upon for seeking myriad other ways, often legally and morally wrong, for gratification.”  

As a people, we rarely consider rape as a blot on a man’s character, as no rapist goes unmarried for want of a bride. For instance, in Lucknow’s widely reported ‘Ashiana rape case’ (in May 2005, a 13-year-old-daughter of a labourer, was abducted, tortured and gang raped by six men), the prime accused Gaurav Shukla whose uncle is a prominent politician with allegiances that vary with a change in regime, married and had a child in the eight years that it took the court to decide that he was not a juvenile at the time of the crime. (He has appealed against it since then) The victim, who lives in perpetual fear has also suffered the ignominy of having her identity revealed to a voyeuristic media by overzealous social workers claiming to represent her case.

Madhumita Bose, a lawyer practicing in the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court for the last 19 years says, “The attitude of the courts and police is very casual. For instance the police never examine the accused for signs of injury even though it is possible that the signs of struggle exist on the perpetrator’s and not the victim’s body. Likewise the courts assume that if the victim is married, or does not adhere to the accepted moral code, the question of rape does not arise. It is almost like a doctor not being as perturbed by life threatening diseases as a lay person.”

Rishad Murtaza, head of UP’s state litigation cell says, “In rape cases, it is not the offender but the prosecution which is on trial. The fact of a victim being habituated to sexual intercourse immediately dilutes the possibility of her being a victim.”

These biases have also worked their way into the much -lauded changes to the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 2013, which for instance does not recognise marital rape (unless the wife is below 15 years of age) with the logic that this would threaten the institution of marriage.

Another legal sleight fostered by the amendment is the provision that during rape whoever “inflicts an injury which causes the death of the person or causes the person to be in a persistent vegetative state, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 20 years, but which may extend to imprisonment for life, which shall mean the remainder of that person’s natural life, or with death.”


As Murtaza explains, “Death due to injuries caused during rape amounts to murder, and hence Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code which prescribes death or life imprisonment for the guilty should be applicable. By prescribing the option of imprisonment for 20 years, the quantum has in fact been reduced while creating a contrary impression.”

Such nitty-gritty is not the kind that can be addressed by short lived public protests, as useful as they are to impart an immediate urgency to the issue. While the law and its enforcers become more responsive to the issue, there are many little details that need to be taken care of, among them-neighbourhood watch committees, beat policing, gender sensitive curricula, social boycott of perpetrators of crimes against women and attitudinal changes. While the symbolic importance of the December 16 crime and punishment cannot be denied, let us gather our energies for the many other battles that must be fought till real change can be brought. Until then, let us put the congratulations on hold.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017