The last few weeks have been traumatic for most of us, with sordid and heart wrenching details surfacing about the Kathua and Unnao rape incidents. The brutality, depravity and brazenness of the perpetrators shook the conscience of the nation. Protest marches have been held all over the country. After the Prime Minister was criticised from all quarters for not responding conclusively to the public’s angst, the government has briskly introduced an ordinance to award death penalty to those convicted of raping children below the age of 12.
For those who feel that this is the rightful consummation of public anger, we ask the following questions: The criminal law was amended in 2013 post the Nirbhaya case, again partly owing to public pressure, expanding the understanding of rape and doling out tougher punishment to perpetrators. What is happening with the implementation of these amendments? Why is it that we as citizens have to repeatedly come out onto the streets to question how the systems work; to demand that the cases are filed, the arrests are made? Why can’t the systems run on auto pilot? Both Kathua and Unnao incidents give some insights into why the systems don’t work, despite legal reforms. It is because they are subservient to those who have influence and clout. When the high and mighty are the perpetrators, the systems are manipulated to deny justice. Even seemingly independent institutions such as the National Commission for Women and the Human Rights Commission maintained a deafening silence on the cases for a long time. This is unnerving considering both these bodies are vested with the power to intervene. Is it because of mere ineptitude or the large scale politicization of these bodies?
Another set of questions to ask is regarding the innumerable cases that are reported in the papers almost on a daily basis, equally heinous and barbaric, that go unnoticed. There may be many more that are not registered or reported for fear of stigma or fear of the system. How many of the cases registered actually go through the complete judicial process? How many cases are withdrawn? How many cases result in acquittals because of lack of evidence or witnesses turning hostile? Although the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports compile the statistics, there is no detailed reporting on the same. The conviction rate of rape cases in 2016 according to the NCRB report was just 25.5% in 2016. Why was this so? Who is supposed to monitor charge-sheeting and acquittals due to lack of evidence? How do we build accountability of the prosecution and judicial system? These are the questions that we need to ask ourselves. It’s more important to work towards sympathetic responsive systems and effective convictions to address the issue holistically, rather than propose superficial measures like death penalty to appease “public conscience”.
Moreover, while it is necessary to raise our voice when an unjust incident happens, it should also serve as a pivot for introspection about why it is happening. The Kathua case epitomises the use of rape as a means of violence to terrorise a community into silence for political and economic gains. The main accused Sanji Ram proudly declared the same. We need to highlight and address the issue of aggression against women’s bodies as a tool to make political points or, as in the Kathua case, to stress communal superiority, terrorising minorities or assert right over land. It is also important to seek solutions to tackle the rape culture in the nation, which exposes even infants to sexual violence, hitting at the more basic mindset and behavioural aspects as well as the patriarchal roots of the issue. What is it that makes a young man rush to a crime site to plead to rape a bruised, battered and drugged 8 year old?
Further, in addition to the gendered aspects of the issue, another crucial collective introspection needs to take place regarding why it is becoming so easy to use fear and terror to address social issues in general. Juvenile perpetrators were involved in both the Kathua and Nirbhaya cases (along with many other cases of violence including the mob lynching incidents over the past few years). What is it that is making our youth so vulnerable to radicalisation, whether right wing or left wing? Why is there such a dearth of conversations, dialogue and critical thinking among the youth? Why are they not developing a sense of respect and empathy?
A lot of the responsibility for the increasing violence and aggression among the youth, and their vulnerability to indoctrination lies with our education system which is now referred to as the “education business”. This factory-model of education is reinforcing unquestioning allegiance to authority, wiping out compassion and integrity. In an education system which works solely for better results in examinations and material acquisition, which makes children slaves to rote learning, which deprives children of opportunities to play and bond with others, which ignores instilling the right values and ethics, which does not provide space for healthy disagreements and negotiations, we cannot hope to have children who can resist indoctrination. All through their lives they are being indoctrinated – to be mere followers and not leaders.
We also need to look at government programmes such as Skill India more critically. The question is: are we creating an environment wherein youth can contribute productively and creatively to society or are we merely facilitating corporates and multinationals to create a vast pool of semi-skilled cheap workforce? While the number of people being ‘skilled’ is important, the quality and content of skilling is much more crucial. Whether it is a shop floor assistant or delivery staff of a major retailer, what opportunities do they have to fulfil their long-term career development needs? How do they deal with the conflict between their rising aspirations and the ground realities? Does it make them more vulnerable to indoctrination? The disintegrating networks of physical neighbourhoods and communities on the one hand, and the increasing influence of reactionary and compartmentalising social media on the other further compound the problem.
All-in-all, public pressure may lead to piecemeal government responses to specific publicized cases. But till the time we ponder about some of these deeper and interconnected questions as a society, we may continue to go out onto the streets once in a while and get back to our comfort zones; oblivious of the world we are creating -making the vulnerable more vulnerable and the powerful more brazen.