The protestors are out on the streets of Delhi again. In December, post the gruesome gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student, public anger had bubbled out into days of sustained protests which led to the Justice Verma Committee recommending changes in our laws in order to better protect citizens against sexual assault. The Anti-rape Bill was passed in Parliament last month against this backdrop. The fact remains that despite the country-wide outrage, despite the protests, despite the committee and the amendment of the laws, the horror doesn’t cease. Every single day brings a new case to the fore, each more horrific than the previous.
The protests now are for a five-year-old girl, abducted on April 15, kept hostage without food and water, found three days later raped, sodomised and brutalised so terribly that doctors recovered candlestick pieces and a hair oil bottle from within her abdominal cavity. Found only when the neighbours heard her cries, the child is currently undergoing treatment at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Meanwhile, the police had initially refused to register a missing person complaint and worse, allegedly offered the parents Rs 2,000 to hush the matter. Apart from severe internal injuries which necessitated surgery, the child has infections and bite marks. Yes, the station officer and his deputy have been suspended following the outcry in the case, but this isn’t the first time that parents have had to face police apathy in registering missing person cases. Back in 2006, when the Nithari case in Noida was unearthed, residents complained that the police had refused to take action or investigate despite the alarming number of missing children that were reported.
“The recent cases of child sexual abuse, including that of the little girl in Delhi, have once again exposed the failure of police training and reform in India,” says Human Rights Watch director, South Asia, Meenakshi Ganguly. Enacting strong laws is simply the first step. The government needs to focus urgently on implementation, if it is serious about protecting children and other victims of sexual abuse, she says. “The inadequate response of the police has become obvious in these recent cases from Bulandshahar, Aligarh and Delhi. Police and other officials that fail to do their jobs and instead engage in abusive behavior should know that they will be punished,” Ganguly adds.
Children are going missing across the country and there seems to be no concerted effort to tackle this epidemic. Add to this, the fact that sexual assault on minors is also on the rise. Shocking figures from a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) state that child rape cases in India have witnessed a 336% rise since 2001.
The fact remains that rape cases are underreported to begin with. Nonetheless, in Delhi itself, police records show that this is the fifth case of sexual abuse of a minor reported in just one week in April. An article in the New York Times blogs, says that in 2011, 2,582 rape victims in India were under 14 years of age, or about 10 percent of the total number of reported rape cases.
In Delhi, the protests aren’t just limited to the streets. In Parliament, the budget session was disrupted due to this case, apart from other issues. The leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, has been quoted saying that the new anti-rape law should include two more provisions for providing death penalty to those who rape children and those who commit heinous and brutal crimes. She also asked for the legal machinery to be more effective to ensure such cases are not dragged for years. The Rajya Sabha, on 21 April, had members state that “the new anti-rape bill should be relooked, if required, to make it further stringent.” To quote from a news report, Prabha Thakur (Congress) demanded that the accused be hanged and an all-party meeting called on this issue. “Why are such people not hanged? There should be a time limit of one month,” she said and sought a stronger law.”
What is ironic is that a stronger law against sexual crimes was passed just last month. In March this year, the Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2013. The bill, drafted based on the recommendations of a three member committee of legal experts, lead by the late Justice J S Verma, and including Gopal Subramanian and Leela Seth (who invited recommendations from the public at large to take into consideration before filing their report within a commendable 29 days), had incorporated most of the recommendations of the report of the committee, but some parts of the bill were diluted. While the bill provides for “stringent punishments for the crime of rape, but considerably diluted from the ordinance promulgated … for lesser crimes such as sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism. While a repeat offender of rape or one who leaves his victim in a permanent vegetative state could attract death, the maximum punishment for acts of sexual harassment, physical advances and gestures has been reduced to three years in jail in the bill from five. All offences of sexual harassment will also be bailable, with the first offence of stalking and voyeurism eligible for bail.”
The government did not accept the recommendation by the committee of criminalizing marital rape, which was a landmark recommendation in the Indian patriarchal context, which conferred upon a woman the right to her body and her sexuality, and endorsed the concept of equal consent by both partners within a marriage. In addition to this, “The Lok Sabha voted against life imprisonment for perpetrators of acid attack incidents, rejecting the amendment by a margin of 105-62 and also turned down another seeking to make first-time stalking a non-bailable offence. The House also voted against life imprisonment for child-trafficking.”
This watering down of the bill, coupled with ridiculous statements by our parliamentarians that criminalising marital rape would threaten the institution of marriage, because the institution of marriage as they understand it does not allow for equal consent at ALL times. Some stated that stalking is a form of wooing and romance, ignoring the numerous instances where stalking has morphed into kidnapping, sexual assault, acid attacks and even death, as seen in the case of Priyadarshini Mattoo. They failed to not recognise that child-trafficking is a serious and growing concern in our country where children are being kidnapped and trafficked by organized gangs for both organ trade as well as child prostitution. We have a law in place, but not one that is a complete deterrent to sexual crimes. The sexual assaults on women and children continue unabated.
While poor policing also plays a role in the sense of impunity that continues, there seems to be no fear of punishment amongst perpetrators. Tragically, the bar continues to be raised over how depraved a crime needs to be before we take note and outrage over it. Finally, we need to remember that only one third of our elected leaders were present in the Lower House to vote when this bill came to be passed. That fact, by itself, despite the current outrage and adjournments in our house of representatives, says it all.