Rape, Rehabilitation And The Legacy Of The Nirbhaya Case

18/01/2016 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - DECEMBER 16: Placards against rape is pictured beside a memorial at the protestors corner in Jantar Mantar on the second anniversary of the fatal gang-rape of a student on December 16, 2014 in New Delhi, India. On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutally gang raped and by six men, including a juvenile, in a moving bus. The incident unleashed a wave of public anger over levels of violence against women in the country. (Photo by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The gang rape on that fateful night of December 16, 2012 sent shock waves across India and the world. It was not just the brutality or brazenness of the assault that was terrifying, but it was also the fact that it happened in the heart of the country's capital, right in the midst of its usual hustle and bustle. It wasn't perceived as a stray incident of rape in an isolated outpost, it was an assault on the people's sense of security. Middle-class India identified with the victim, named "Nirbhaya" by the media, and a society that is normally divided over most issues suddenly coalesced in its collective outrage.

As the public rallied behind Nirbhaya, there were protests, debates, introspection, and a call for serious action to stem the rising menace of rape in India. The police swung into action, and even before Nirbhaya succumbed to the horrific injuries she suffered, the perpetrators had been apprehended. A trial followed and all the accused were found guilty and sentenced.

The question many Delhiites want to ask Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is whether he would be willing to send his own daughter, alone, to such a tailor...

Ordinarily, the sentencing would have taken the case to its logical conclusion, bringing about a sense of closure. However, there was one discomfiting element. Among the five rapists, there was a minor and he was supposedly the most vicious and barbaric of the perpetrators. Due to the prevailing laws, the maximum punishment he could receive was three years in a juvenile home. That three-year sentence recently came to an end and he walked free. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the process for formulating a new law dealing with juveniles accused of committing heinous crimes had been initiated. However, due to political differences, this new law had been stuck in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament.

The run-up to the rapist's release led to another round of turmoil and angst and reopened old wounds. The public sentiment against the juvenile rapist was so strong that it even compelled the Rajya Sabha to finally pass the Bill, although it was not applicable retroactively. Several attempts were made to thwart his release and various organisations explored multiple avenues to ensure his continued incarceration. These efforts ultimately went in vain as the courts interpreted the laws in letter and spirit. As much as all of India would have liked to see him behind bars forever, the judiciary had to respect the letter of the law, which is actually a reflection of the solidity of the country's judicial set up. Many people, nevertheless, felt frustrated with what they see as the impotence of the legal system. Very often it has been seen that people get disproportionately harsh sentences for minor offences while in certain cases, others have gotten away with relatively lighter punishment for more heinous crimes. At any rate, the juvenile rapist, now 20 years old, was a free man on the evening of 20 December, 2015.

Toughening the laws is a welcome step, but it will be a difficult battle in the backdrop of the prevailing patriarchy and misogyny in society across South Asia.

Those opposing his release, including Nirbhaya's parents, see this situation as a travesty of justice. They advance the argument that a person who is capable of committing such savagery is surely not deserving of any leniency and will clearly be a threat to society. He is unlikely to be reformed and it has been reported that he remained unmoved and uncommunicative with reform home workers through his three-year term. The Delhi state government is giving him a sewing machine and a grant to start a tailoring shop. The question many Delhiites want to ask Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is whether he would be willing to send his own daughter, alone, to such a tailor to give her measurements.

The authorities do plan to monitor him but they need to ensure that it is done effectively. He must not be allowed slip under the radar and get involved in more violent and destructive activities.

The Nirbhaya case was a pivotal moment in the continuing evolution of Indian society. The only positive thing that has come out of this tragedy is that sexual violence, which is actually a global issue, took centre stage in Indian public discourse. Since then genuine efforts have been made to reduce this kind of violence against women. Toughening the laws is a welcome step, but it will be a difficult battle in the backdrop of the prevailing patriarchy and misogyny in society across South Asia. It will require tough enforcement of the laws, a sustained campaign to sensitise young males about the need to respect women, a reformation of the mindset that mostly blames the victim for the crime, and ultimately education in responsible management of personal sexual desire. All societies owe it to themselves to equip their members with the skills to manage their energies and impulses at the mental, emotional and physical levels in a way that is not harmful to other people.

In addition to robust preventive measures, it is also important to reform the way rape is treated. There is much to learn from the way ancient India handled these issues. Rape is deeply traumatic, but it need not be stigmatised. That's an extremely important aspect to consider and society must provide complete support and sympathy for the victim. Her physical violation should not be linked to her honour or self worth (as Nirbhaya's mother noted when she asked for people to refer to her daughter by name). Rape is abhorrent and reprehensible. Every incident of rape deserves the utmost indignation and outrage and every perpetrator must be held to account. Hopefully, the country is moving in the right direction, towards a more equal society, liberated from the burden of gender oppression.

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