So much has been written about this unfortunate incident that it is now needless to repeat the details. What, however, matters is that this rape has become a sort of a watershed in the Indian social consciousness. Reports of rapes in the newspapers and the electronic media have been frequent, if not regular, and common people have been taking them in their stride, pursuing their day-to-day activities leaving the rape-victims to fend for themselves in the tortuously protracted (and sometimes gender-biased) investigations followed by adjournments-and-appeals infested legal proceedings. But the mindless brutality exhibited in this particular case of sexual violence seems to have acted as the tipping point that released unprecedented social energy in the shape of protests and strident demands for the lives of the brute rapists who displayed traits worse than predatory animals.
The barbaric rape provoked an acute sense of horror, distress and shock stirring up the nation, setting off spontaneous reactions right across the country. Massive peaceful assemblies were held, to start with, in Delhi at a scale much larger than what one had seen in 2011 during Anna Hazare’s Lokpal campaign. Later, it spread all across the country from north to south and east to west. Largely non-violent, barring a few stray incidents of violence engineered by miscreants in Delhi, the demonstrations, though leaderless, exhibited exemplary discipline and restraint. There was no breast-beating, only loud and vociferous demands for, inter alia, change of the laws, meting out prompt justice ending in severe punishment to the perpetrators of the horrific crime. The civil society has never reacted in this manner in the past bewildering, as it did, the political and governmental establishments.
The protestors, with their legitimate demands for harsher punishment for rape and sexual assault, built up such a pressure on the government that it promptly appointed a committee headed by a former chief justice of the apex court to review the existing softer provisions dealing the offences. They had to, as the protestors gave vent to their anger against the MPs who, they said, unanimously enact legislations within three days raising their salaries but amendments to the laws for sexual violence proposed by the Law Commission have been left unattended for more than a decade. Likewise, Delhi Government promptly set up five “fast track” courts to deal with rape cases on the basis of 2003 recommendations of the same Commission. Typically, commissions are created for specific purposes but their recommendations are seldom acted upon with promptitude for the benefit of the society. The pressure this time was so overwhelming that the government couldn’t tarry any further.
Fearful of the pervasive anger, the political class demanded special session of the parliament to enact the amendments in a hurry when most of them remained dormant earlier, never bothering to raise this vital issue even as rapes and assaults on women were frequently being reported.
Clearly, it was not the lapse of the government alone; every political outfit was at fault. When the Home Minister put his proverbial foot in the mouth by saying that the government could not meet protestors all the time, he obviously forgot that three senior ministers had met and spent about three hours meeting the Yoga Guru Ramdev with a view to buying him off during 2011 agitations for enactment of a Lokpal bill. The unforthcoming Prime Minister made a bland statement with a gaffe of a “theek hai?” (all right?) at its tail end and later made amends by remaining present at the airport with the seemingly insensitive UPA Chairperson when the body of the rape victim arrived from Singapore at the unearthly hour of 3.00 AM.
The Delhi Police never had it so bad, despite the Union Home Secretary’s gratuitous pat on its back for prompt investigations followed by arrests. The Home Secretary’s fatuous praise overlooked the fact that the unfortunate assault would not have taken place had the Delhi Police functioned in accordance with the law. Before the horrific attack there was a series of failures of Delhi Police which are now common knowledge.
Recent reports indicate the bus was booked on several occasions for violation of various traffic rules in the past but each time it was somehow let off lightly. Investigations have revealed that the bus-owner was paying “hafta” (weekly bribe) to the Police; an entry to that effect was found in a police diary. Such entries are reportedly communicated to all traffic police officers to enable the buses in question to illegally operate without let or hindrance. The young life of the aspiring paramedic was lost largely because of the utter lack of governance as exemplified by the ineffective and corrupt ways of Delhi Police.
Its strong-arm methods in dealing with the protestors too came in for severe criticism. Its use of batons on unarmed protestors, including elderly women, firing of numerous tear-gas shells and directing high-pressure water cannons in severely cold conditions were condemned by all. Evidently, Delhi Police’s assault on sleeping devotees of Yoga Guru Ramdev Delhi’s Ram Leela Grounds in 2011 was not a one-off action. It has a history of such atrocious conduct. It also came in for heavy criticism for its steps to prevent peaceful assembly of protests at India Gate and Jantar Mantar by blocking all roads and imposition of prohibitory orders, respectively. The Delhi High Court pulled it up asking it to maintain law and desist from curbing basic rights. Later, it had to apologise before the High Court for suppression of the names of delinquent policemen.
Although the print and electronic media called her “Nirbhaya” (fearless) and “Damini” (lightning), respectively, the rape victim has remained faceless and nameless even after her death. The media, however, has been doing outstanding work ferreting out relevant facts connected with the incident. Even the companion of the victim was interviewed who emphasised that instead of lighting candles people should help others who happen to be in distress. Had people promptly responded to appeals made by him while lying on the roadside, he asserted, the victim might have survived. A news channel has, therefore, launched a campaign for change in attitudes of such pervasive callousness prompted by fear of harassment by the Police. A distinct hands-off attitude has been perceptible all over the country in such cases largely because of protracted, virtually interminable police investigations in which witnesses and others who attempt to help the victim are browbeaten and threatened by the corrupt police investigators. The channel’s initiative is indeed praiseworthy but the policemen all over the country also will have to mend their ways.
Even as the nation was virtually on an unofficial mourning for the death of an innocent victim because of a brutal assault some conservative legislators and organisations placed all the blame for her misfortune on the girl. While some felt that she should not have been out on the streets with her male friend so late in the evening, others blamed only her for the incident.
According to them, mostly it is the women who invite trouble either by way of their conduct or by wearing Western dresses that expose far too much. They blamed Westernisation of social mores for whatever was happening to women in the country. The chief of an extreme right wing organisation, while showing utter disconnect with reality in speciously calling rapes an urban phenomenon, asserted that Hindu marriages were a contract under which women were ordained to serve the needs of their husbands. Another self-styled god-man blamed the victim for not seeking mercy from those who attacked her.
The media has been proactive in hitting out at and tearing apart those who have made regressive statements or sexist, gender-biased comments. The newly elected Congress MP, the son of the President, had to face inquisitional questioning from several channels for his idiotic comment against the protestors whom he contemptuously called “highly dented and painted” socialites.
Rapes were being reported every day from various corners of the country even while the protest against the Delhi rape were continuing. It seemed the rapists were immune to whatever was happening around them and the sub-culture of rape seems to be flourishing unabated. The spate of reports in the dailies made one wonder whether it was the media’s way of trying to project before the country the enormity of the problem. The silver lining, however, was that police, having shaken away its lethargy, promptly nabbed most of the rapists.
In many ways the gang rape has turned out to be a defining episode. Never before people were brought so close together in sorrow, anguish and anger against the non-functionality of the established system. Shaking the people and the political class alike, it has left a deep impact on the nation’s consciousness. As far as the establishment is concerned, the cruel episode has driven another nail in the coffin of the UPA government.