Look Back In Anger – But Also in Hope

Image Courtesy: PTI
December 16, 2012 -2015

The gang rape and torture of a young woman on a Delhi bus leading to her death, on the evening of December 16, 2012, broke through the complacence of a society towards sexual violence and gender discrimination.
In their anger at the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators and the callousness towards victims, several of the protesters raised misplaced slogans demanding death penalty and castration for rapists. But significantly, a very large number amongst them, having ‘tuned in’ to the issue of sexual violence for the first time, also listened patiently and empathetically to what the women’s movement had to say on the issue, and also to what women had to say about their everyday experience of being blamed for rape, and morally policed and imprisoned in the name of ‘safety from rape’. Rejecting the rampant cry for death penalty, a considerable section of the movement rallied around the slogan of ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ (Fearless Freedom), protesting that ‘protection from rape’ was the patriarchal code for restricting women’s freedom to live and love autonomously. What we said demanding safeguarding of our ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ to the then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit and to various Parliamentarians who were then grandstanding on the issue, bears repeating with added emphasis today.[1] 
The massive movement that followed ushered in some changes in the laws on sexual violence. But most importantly, that movement will be remembered for pointing its finger squarely at rape culture and victim-blaming, and its proponents among political leaders, top cops and others in the ‘law and order’ establishment.
The movement also sought to question the single-minded dominant media treatment of rape as an ‘exceptional’ occurrence, and the virtually exclusive focus on rapes by strangers in the capital or in big cities. Instead, it drew attention to the forms of violence and coercion that have been rendered ‘normal’ – rapes by persons in positions of trust and authority; rapes perpetrated in the course of caste and communal violence or by police or armed forces; sexual abuse of children – usually by family members or other trusted persons; domestic violence inside families, including rapes within marriage; violence and coercion of women by families and communities to prevent them from exercising choice in matters of love and marriage – to the extent that ‘choice’ elopements/marriages are falsely criminalized as ‘rape’; sexual harassment at the workplace.     
In one of the most remarkable and significant moments of the movement, the protesters decided to hold a ‘Freedom Parade’ to ‘Reclaim the Republic’[2] on January 26, 2013. There, they drew attention to the victims of rapes during communal and caste violence, rapes by the army and the police, and the courage of countless ‘unknown citizens’ who challenge the entrenched culture of impunity for perpetrators of rape. [3]
The Verma Committee report – an outcome of patient and painstaking dialogue with a range of feminist organizations working with survivors of gendered violence – was path-breaking. Some of its recommendations made their way into the amended rape law. But with it, the Government and Parliament also flouted several of the Verma Committee recommendations: most notably, it introduced the death penalty for rape, criminalized consensual sexual relations between young teenagers, and failed to remove the impunity existing for members of armed forces accused of rape.      
Three years later, how far have we come?
A Spark – Now a Steady Flame
What is most encouraging is the way in which various feminist movements have, in many ways, taken the spark of the ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ slogan and turned it into a steady flame. In the past three years, we’ve seen an explosion of campaigns and movements asserting women’s right to be out in public spaces at all hours of day or night, with or without a reason, without an ‘alibi’, with or without a companion, for sheer pleasure.[4] These movements have specifically challenged the gender discrimination in hostel rules – whereby the same authorities that ignore sexual harassment and punish complainants of sexual harassments – impose dress codes and restrictive hostel timings on women students in the name of ‘safety.’ We’ve also started talking about the ways in which similar pretexts and tools of moral policing are used by global chains and MNC factories in India to discipline women workers.[5]

These have been movements against moral policing[6], and in at least one instance, the police, unable to defend moral policing in the face of assertive feminist protests on social media, have had to backtrack and been rapped on the knuckles by the court. [7]There have also been several movements determinedly challenging menstrual taboos, and massive protests against the Supreme Court verdict re-criminalising homosexuality.       
A System That Lets Victims and Survivors Down       
Movements assure that the demands for justice and freedom thrive, and women have come forward to file complaints and seek justice under the new laws against sexual violence. Has a conducive climate where the sapling of justice can grow, been provided? Or else is justice finding it difficult to breathe in a toxic air of victim-blaming and impunity? Has ‘the system’ (the police, the judiciary, politicians and governments) stood by complainants – or has it worked to protect perpetrators?
Under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (2013), the amended Section 309 of the CRPC had stipulated that in rape trials “the proceedings shall be continued day-to-day” and “as far as possible be completed within a period of two months from the date of filing of the charge-sheet.”[8]

The movement also sought to question the single-minded dominant media treatment of rape as an ‘exceptional’ occurrence, and the virtually exclusive focus on rapes by strangers in the capital or in big cities.
The communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 (that played a key role in the outcome of the Parliamentary Elections of 2014) involved many instances of gang rape.[9] Only a handful of the rape victims – rendered homeless and incredibly vulnerable in hostile circumstances – could come forward to file complaints. Two and a half years later, the lives of these women and their families are a “living hell.” [10]The accused delay court proceedings and use the delay to threaten and intimidate the complainants. And this month, just a week before December 16, 2015, a Central Minister in the Modi Government Sanjeev Balyan, himself one of the accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, visited the rape-accused inside prison.[11] Meanwhile a BJP MLA Sangeet Som threatens the police and warns against any punishment for those accused of rioting and raping. [12]
The system, it appears, is seeking to wear down the women who risked so much to complain. And it may be succeeding – at least two of the complainants have reportedly withdrawn their complaints, afraid of the relentless intimidation. Today, as news channels focus on the December 16th 2012 Delhi gang rape, how many of them will ask why safety and justice has eluded the rape complainants of Muzaffarnagar?  
In March 2014, four Dalit teenagers were abducted and gang-raped in Bhagana, Haryana. When they filed complaints, they and their families were evicted from their village for having dared to seek justice. Since then, they have remained at Jantar Mantar, demanding justice in vain. [13]But a year later, all the accused in the case were acquitted. The acquittal is being challenged in the High Court, but the system – and successive Haryana Governments – are silent on the fact that entre families were evicted for demanding justice in rape cases. This is just one among the epidemic of rapes of Dalit girls and women in the country. In a rare instance, feudal criminals accused of gang-raping Dalit girls in Kurmuri (Bihar) were convicted[14] following a sustained agitation led by the CPIML in the area. But in Bihar itself, an entire village of Dalit women who were subjected to sexual violence after a Dalit boy eloped with a girl from the dominant caste, still await justice. [15]
In August 2013, a teenage girl filed a complaint of sexual assault by the godman, Asaram – the same man who had said that the December 16,  2012 victim was responsible for her own rape and could have escaped had she called the assailants ‘brother.’ Following her complaint, other women too came forward with complaints of having been assaulted by Asaram and his son.
More than two years later, the complainant fears for her life: her brother was threatened, a witness stabbed, another witness killed, and not surprisingly, another witness turned hostile.[16]
At the same time, Asaram’s supporters have launched an aggressive propaganda war against the complainants. Several times a month, hashtags supporting Asaram and branding the complainants as liars and conspirators trend on twitter – coalescing with misogynist campaigns
against ‘misuse’ of rape laws and other laws against gender violence. Asaram’s supporters gather in thousands at Jantar Mantar, distributing literature warning that these laws against gender violence must be scrapped to make sure ‘our social structure is not broken’ (hamara samaajik dhaancha na toote). This literature quotes various powerful people ranging from BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to the late VHP leader Ashok Singhal, in Asaram’s defence. In spite of the series of witnesses being bumped off in the case, Asaram’s defenders shrilly claim that his being denied bail is a miscarriage of justice. 
But it is not just people of a particular political persuasion that smear every complainant of rape as a political conspirator and a ‘false complainant.’ The FIR in the Tejpal case was filed by the Goa Government suo motu in November 2013. The chargesheet was filed in February 2014. The trial has been stalled (amended CRPC notwithstanding). On what grounds? The Supreme Court granted a stay on the trial on grounds that the accused had demanded but not been given cloned copies of laptops, phones etc – in spite of the fact that the forensic laboratory clarified that cloning facilities do not exist in India! Meanwhile the footage of the outside of the fateful lift is being liberally shown to all and sundry by the accused – to underscore how the victim appears ‘normal.’ The identity of the complainant – spiced liberally with real and imagined details of her personal life – is an open secret, leading to prurient probing and speculations wherever she goes, whatever she does.  

More importantly – where do boys and teenage men learn rape and impunity? Every time we fail to punish an adult offender (as cited in all the cases named in the previous section, for instance) are we not giving them lessons in getting away with rape?
A woman employee of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) filed a case of sexual harassment against R K Pachauri in February 2015.  Charges are yet to be filed in this case, too, even as the complainant has been forced to resign, because TERI continued to back Pachauri and rehabilitate him in spite of an internal complaints committee finding him guilty of sexual harassment. [17]
The complainant in the St. Stephens sexual harassment case watches helplessly as she is accused of lying by the college Principal, even after she submitted evidence of bullying and pressure by the same Principal to take back her case. [18] Her laboratory research,  her PhD, her career are all in jeopardy – and neither the University nor the police has come forward to support her.   
In cases in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where teachers have been found guilty of sexual harassment of students by the internal complaints committee (GSCASH), the Administration has been notoriously reluctant to act, delaying or diluting recommendations – and acting to protect the perpetrators rather than the student complainants.     
The socially and economically more vulnerable women face a rough time. But even women who seem more privileged do not necessarily have any easier access to justice when they complain against the powerful or the popular. Such women are asked ‘Why make such a big deal of sexually inappropriate behavior? Why harm the reputation and family of such a good/great man?’ As one such complainant put it to me, “When men of our class ignore consent, we’re told it’s ‘just a misunderstanding.’ When men of a lower class grope or finger us, it’s treated as rape.” Another such complainant told me she wondered if it had been worth putting herself through the legal process; she had lost most mutual friends who chose to stand by the accused and turn against her; in her own social circles she was being branded a liar, and as she put it, ‘My integrity, rather than his violation of me and ignoring of my lack of consent, is on trial.’       
In these and countless other cases, the complainants feel isolated, vulnerable, betrayed by the system that seems determined to protect impunity. The discourse veers from demanding instant mob justice or severe punishment in a selected, exceptional few cases to the leniency and tolerance for rape in the vast majority of cases. In the latter, it has become routine to assume that most complainants are ‘false’, especially if they have accused one of ‘our own’. Women who file complaints of domestic violence and refuse to accept domestic violence as ‘normal’ are being accused of breaking up family and society. Now, increasingly, women who refuse to accept violations of consent by bosses, acquaintances, teachers or friends as ‘normal’, are accused of breaking up reputations of men and institutions.   
Misplaced Cry for More Severe Laws
Unfortunately, there is little discussion in the media about how we need to do more to support survivors and to implement existing laws. Instead, if on the one hand existing laws are being trashed as ‘draconian’ and an invitation for ‘false complaints,’ [19]on the other hand, there is a shrill cry for new and more severe laws to ‘deter’ rape. The Central Government and the Delhi Government have been pushing for lowering the age of juvenility in rape cases, and for the media too, December 16th is an occasion to project the juvenile convict who will soon be released, as the symbol of dangers to women on the streets. The Central Government is also proposing a ‘sex offenders registry’ in the wake of this case.
There are many reasons why such proposals are dangerous and misguided – though they of course suit Governments that wish to divert attention from their abdication of the responsibility to support survivors and implement existing laws.     
There is no evidence in India that any significant number of those convicted for sexual crimes go on to commit more such crimes. There is no evidence either, that juvenile offenders form a large percentage of rape offenders in India. It is well known that a large number of juveniles accused of rape have actually been accused by parents of girl-friends with whom they have had consensual relationships. How, then, will locking up juveniles in adult jails make women safer? Should we not instead seek to make better systems of reform and rehabilitation for both juvenile and adult offenders – to create ropeways to help convicted offenders turn their lives around and away from gender violence?

The Government and Parliament also flouted several of the Verma Committee recommendations: most notably, it introduced the death penalty for rape, criminalized consensual sexual relations between young teenagers, and failed to remove the impunity existing for members of armed forces accused of rape.   

More importantly – where do boys and teenage men learn rape and impunity? Every time we fail to punish an adult offender (as cited in all the cases named in the previous section, for instance) are we not giving them lessons in getting away with rape? Timely trials and surety of punishment in most cases, and a total end to victim blaming and excuses for rape, would be a much better deterrent than severity of punishment in one or two cases. 
Feminist activists and others have together issued a statement putting these issues in perspective.[20] But ironically, there is a tendency to accuse feminists – who work with survivors of gendered violence – of ‘supporting rapists’ when they argue against death penalty, castration or lowering the age of juvenility! So one is witness to the piquant situation where a Subramanian Swamy who openly defends Asaram and brands a teenage girl complainant as a liar, poses as a champion of justice by baying for sending juvenile rape convicts to adult jails – and the same Swamy brands feminists who oppose such a move as ‘soft on rapists’!     
The War on Women’s Freedom
Finally, let us ask if the autonomy and freedom that women had so passionately demanded, is being safeguarded?
The answer is a sad one. Women did – and still do – face the routine, systematic denial and crushing of autonomy, especially in matters of love and marriage – at the hands of families and communities, as well as hostels and factories. But now, this offensive is being compounded by a more organized political force.
A recent Cobrapost sting operation[21] has caught BJP and Sangh leaders on camera, admitting that not a single genuine love jihad case exists. Instead, these men openly admit to inflicting violence on women – in the name of ‘rescuing’ them – to force them to file complaints against their lovers!
The sting caught on camera BJP MLA Suresh Rana casually describing the violence and coercion used to force Hindu women to falsely accuse Muslim men: “A girl is a girl after all. It has always been said about them that they change in five minutes according to the circumstances. …they insist ‘No matter what, I will stay with him. I won’t go without him’. If she is taken aside and given two slaps, then she herself goes and gets the FIR registered claiming, ‘They sexually assaulted me … he has been doing it for a month.’ Then she will tell the whole story and slap a case on him. You can mould a girl the way you want.” 
BJP leader Sanjay Agrawal openly admits to bashing up and brutalizing Hindu girls to ‘persuade’ them: “If she doesn’t listen to us, we hit her. We get her beaten up. We misbehave (Poori badtameeze karte hain). Such a girl is treated with a wooden board (bilkul, phatte se bajwate hain). Are we wrong to do so?”
Agrawal also boasts of how the entire police and judicial machinery cooperate with the Sangh group to intimidate the Hindu woman into getting separated. Agrawal explains how this works: “We don’t let the girl appear in court for days. We say that the girl is not listening. They [police] say it’s alright, we will see her tomorrow. If she isn’t listening even tomorrow, they say it’s alright. They help us a lot. They send her mother to her to talk. We are not allowed to do that. They help us a lot. Judges help us, so does the SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police).” And judges help the cause by decreeing to handover the girl to her parents: “The judge gives the girl to us in his judgment. He hands her over to her parents. Once she is under her parents’ control, we can get her married in three days.”
If the system –especially police and judiciary – does not stand by rape and sexual harassment complainants, and treats most as ‘false complainants’, it is all too willing and eager to participate in violence and coercion against consenting women, and to pursue to treat patently false, coerced cases as though they were genuine. India’s ruling party is – as part of a concerted, countrywide campaign – sponsoring this all-out violence against women’s freedom, even as the Modi Government’s slogan of  ‘Beti Bachao’ ‘coincides’ with the Sangh’s ‘anti-love-jihad’ slogan of ‘Beti Bachao.’ And there are few takers among the Opposition parties for any real defense of women’s freedom and autonomy.
These are not good times (acche din) for women’s quest for truth, justice and freedom. But the ray of hope lies in that steady flame of movements that dauntlessly expand the space for this quest.
(The writer is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, AIPWA)





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