Below is the script of the talk I gave at the Oxford India Society to discuss the future course of action that the Indian state and its people need to take in the aftermath of the Delhi Gang Rape in December.
At the outset I’d like to clarify - that I am not a legal expert and I have never thought of calling myself a feminist. I speak here as an ordinary citizen who feels strongly about the issue of women’s safety... Strongly enough to take part in the recent protests, to ponder over and articulate my thoughts on this horrific event. And strongly enough to feel compelled to go along with some friends - to Sandeep Dixit (an MP from Delhi) with a list of demands and suggestions to ensure safety for women. We then sent this list to the Justice Verma Committee that was set up in the aftermath of this gang-rape to propose amendments to laws relating to crimes against women.
Neither of us works full-time on this issue. Our demands and suggestions are therefore based on our own intuitions, past experience, knowledge and understanding. But we did try to inform ourselves as much as possible through dialoguing with those who were more informed than us, and by reading as widely as possible - within the given time constraints. I would like to share with you our suggestions regarding the future course of action that can be taken. I divide these in 3 parts:
1) Judicial reforms,
2) Measures to increase security for women, and
3) The most difficult - but also the most important --– tackling the misogynistic attitude in our society.
To start with judicial reforms, I am wary of aligning myself with demands for death penalty & chemical castration which gained shrill popularity during the protests. I personally do not support this form of retributive justice. And arguing from a different viewpoint, when enforced - neither form of punishment has been proven to be a deterrent.
The very fact that the victim was brutalised with an iron rod, makes it clear that rape is not just about sexual pleasure for the perpetrator, but is an assertion of power and dominance. Apparently one of the accused in the recent case categorically mentioned that it was the defiance and resistance of the victim that angered him the most. If indeed that is the case, then, chemical castration, quite apart from being morally questionable, isn’t an effective deterrent at all.
As for capital punishment, I personally feel the debate around it is too complex – both morally and practically - and going into the details of it will only divert the issue at hand.
I strongly feel that what is needed is not more brutal punishment, but CERTAINTY of punishment i.e perpetrators must feel that they WILL be caught, quickly tried and punished if they commit a crime, and that there is NO way out.
Therefore we must demand certainty of REGISTRATION OF CRIME. There have been innumerable instances of the police being unwilling to register crimes against women or discouraging the filing of complaints. We need to demand a zero-tolerance policy on non-registration of crime, as without registration, how can the investigation begin? Then, we need thorough and honest investigation by the police. Many cases are damaged by shoddy investigation and evidence-collection. ‘Fast-track courts’ can only lead to fast-track acquittals without these measures. Finally, we need efficient trials and speedier delivery of justice where cases do not drag on for years with the accused out on bail. Yet we must remember and ensure that speedy trials don’t occur at the cost of FAIR trials.
Regarding a change of law, given my limited knowledge, I can only say that apart from enforcing a strict prohibition of the antiquated “two-finger” test to establish rape, two other extremely important measures are needed. These are a) the rectification of the current ‘peno-vaginal’ definition of rape to include other forms of sexual assault such as peno-anal or by means of objects and b) the inclusion of MARITAL RAPE within the legal definition of sexual assault. This oversight needs to be corrected as marital rape is the most pervasive form of rape in India. The Indian state needs to take into consideration, the informed opinion of eminent lawyers who have been working for years on such legal reform.
Some measures that have been suggested to increase security for women are the following: better surveillance (for instance more functional CCTVs with regular analysis of data), the adoption of modern methods of hiring and training the police, upgraded technology for it, incentives for the police so they find their job fulfilling and remain honest and motivated, a regular audit to weed out non-performers, plain-clothes policemen in buses and the Metro, more police women in PCR vans and in police stations, allocation of funds to a special cell for crimes against women that must be present in every police station... And so on. However, while ensuring women’s safety DOES require these measures, I feel there is little point – and even grave danger – in simply putting more police out into our streets. This is because, currently, there is a massive trust deficit in citizens vis-a-vis the police. When we think police, we think ‘thug’, ‘corrupt’, ‘extortionist’, ‘intimidating’, ‘dishonest’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘conservative’ - a force that exploits the vulnerability and legal illiteracy of ordinary citizens. So before the state puts out more police onto our streets, we must demand and insist that this be a SENSITISED police force.
This brings me to my 3rd point about tackling the deep-seated misogynistic attitude in India and increased SENSITISATION of people in positions of authority as well as of ordinary citizens. This change is the MOST difficult to bring about: It requires long- term commitment and sustained efforts by the Indian state and its citizens. I believe the state can play a crucial role here by starting at the INSITUTIONAL LEVEL.
· Apart from gender (and indeed, more GENERAL) sensitisation of the police force through initial and regular training, the state perhaps needs to make a course on gender equality and citizens’ rights a permanent part of the school curriculum from an early stage. In addition, regular gender sensitisation workshops and self-defence classes need to be held for both boys and girls. Compulsory sensitisation of teachers is another important step - as they have an indelible impact on a child’s life.
· At the college level, we need EFFECTIVE gender sensitisation committees which will hold regular and mandatory workshops - and, here too, a sensitisation of the administration is imperative: authorities like Girls Hostel Wardens often resort to blackmail to coerce victims of sexual harassment to NOT file a complaint.
· At all schools, colleges AND indeed workplaces, contact numbers and addresses of local, verified NGOs must be publicised so that students and employees have somewhere to go if their administration is unresponsive.
A gender sensitisation and rights awareness drive by the Government needs to be pursued through media such as TV, radio and newspaper ads, through posters and hoardings in all our different languages, through collaboration with local community leaders, and through social education packages for families.
The sensitisation and awareness campaign, in my opinion, needs first to be against the idea that after a sexual assault the woman has been ‘dishonoured’ and has nothing to live for. The campaign must emphasise that she still has reason to live a normal life: she can and should be helped to re-build her life. Second, the campaign needs to be strictly against any association of blame with the victim, and must shift it to the perpetrator. It needs to emphasise that NOTHING JUSTIFIES sexual assault and a violation of rights – no specific clothing worn by a woman nor any behaviour on her part... Be it drinking, going to a nightclub or being out in the evening with male friends. Therefore the campaign must NOT promote a flawed concept of ‘protection’ i.e. It mustn’t promote the idea that women can be protected by keeping them indoors or by wearing particular kinds of cloths. Third, the campaign should emphasise the fact that women are EQUAL to men and therefore are entitled - to the same rights and freedoms as them– to go wherever they want, whenever they want and in whichever clothes they want to wear. And that these rights must not be violated in the name of their ‘safety’. It must highlight - as abominable - all acts and norms that violate the principle of gender equality – these include preference for sons, female foeticide, inheritance inequality, dowry, wife-beating, forced widowhood etc. Finally, it needs to educate citizens – men and women – on:
a) What constitutes sexual assault and harassment; what is meant by consent and what constitutes its violation,
b) what are OUR fundamental and legal rights and what is the course of action that can be followed when these are infringed.
I feel such a campaign should involve collaboration between the state and ‘civil society’ – roping in survivors of sexual assault, women’s organisations, keen students from schools and colleges, local community leaders, the newsmedia, advertising gurus, designers and artists. This would make it collaborative, inventive and effective.
I think the way forward - on part of the state - should consist of a multi-pronged approach - which needs to include short and long-term measures. As of today, many of our demands and suggestions have found a voice in the recommendations announced by the Justice Verma Committee yesterday. These include: a rejection of the death penalty & chemical castration but the enhancement of the minimum sentence for rape from 7 to 10 years and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for it... Making touching-without-consent, voyeurism, stalking and other forms-of-sexual harassment punishable offences, making marital rape a punishable offence, establishing a protocol for the medical examination of the rape victim, and punishment of officers who fail to report rape. These are far-reaching recommendations and now it’s up to the parliament to implement them.
As for citizens, I feel that - at this point - we must be extremely vigilant. First, with regard to a clampdown on liberties in the name of ‘security for women’. Instances of this include the discriminatory rule that girls living in college hostels need to return by 10pm, and other measures taken in the aftermath of this rape - such as discotheques being closed at 1am, the Puducherry Govt prescribing compulsory overcoats for girls, and Eastern Wing of Delhi Police advising girls to ‘go straight home after school or college’. We must insist that the police make the streets safe for women at all times, and does not absolve itself of its duty by enforcing such ‘cop out’ measures. Second, we must be extremely wary of tokenism and knee-jerk populism.
Indian citizens need to remain consistently engaged with this cause and persistently demand that the media and Govt remain committed to it. Equally urgent is the need for them to increase their knowledge of the rights and values enshrined in our constitution, and of our legal and political processes - in order.. That they don’t resort to ill-informed, knee-jerk responses.. But instead - become capable of making demands which are informed, practical and morally defensible.