What does December 16 signify to a country where sexual offences against women are rising by the day? Can we talk of an India before and after December 16? Why didn’t the 23-year-old gangrape victim’s courageous struggle, that lasted 13 more days in the hospital, after she vainly battled the five young men who raped and mutilated her on a bus, deter the countless rapists who have followed in their wake? Or the protests and the thousands of women and men who came out on the Delhi streets braving the biting cold to express their anger against the State and the five men? Or the new laws and fast-track courts that have come into existence in the aftermath of the protests? December 16 is a day to ask such questions about the role of gender, the various arms of the State and the future of the women’s rights movement.
In the evolution of Indian laws on sexual offences before December 16, 2012, were two milestones: the 1972 Mathura gangrape case and the 1992 Bhanwari Devi gangrape case. The Supreme Court judgment acquitting two policemen who allegedly gangraped 18-year-old Mathura, employed a blatantly male chauvinistic argument that “because she was used to sex, she might have incited the cops to have intercourse with her”. Following protests, the Evidence Act was amended in 1983 to state that if the victim says she did not consent to sexual intercourse, the court could not presume consent. The Indian Penal Code was amended to define custodial rape and provide stiffer punishment for rape. The Bhanwari Devi case highlighted the ostracism and aspersions victims faced, besides the upper-caste and patriarchal bias in the judiciary. The Vishakha guidelines to counter sexual harassment of women in workplaces were framed subsequently.
The response to the December 16 gangrape incident was unmatched by precedent. Sections of society, hitherto unmoved by political or social causes, joined the protests. The government, Parliament, judiciary and media were forced to relook the approach to sexual offences. What saved the establishment the blushes was undoubtedly the Verma Committee report. Sadly the three-member committee’s many recommendations were rejected in the Ordinance and legislation that followed. Acid attack, stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment were criminalised. But a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to try army officers accused of crimes against women under civilian law, criminalising marital rape, holding senior police officers responsible for sexual offences committed by juniors, mandatory videography of the victim’s statement, and redefining rape in the IPC as sexual assault were all dropped.
The hope that the new laws and fast-track courts to try sexual assault cases, would ensure deterrence has been dashed by statistics. They tell us of a society that is increasingly prone to violence, especially against women. The number of rape cases reported in Delhi have risen by 100 per cent since last year. While the reporting of crimes have increased by 30 per cent and registration of FIRs is being strictly enforced in the Capital, this trend is not spreading to the states. The conviction rates, now at 24 per cent, has been on a free fall for decades. Here is a reality check: 20 of the 23 rape cases tried by the Saket fast-track court, before it sentenced the December 16 rapists to death penalty, ended in acquittal. The solutions — gender sensitisation of the populace and improving investigation, forensic and prosecution wings — need more attention.
After the unnamed braveheart of December 16, several courageous women have taken the fight forward: the photojournalist gang-raped in Mumbai, the legal intern allegedly harassed by a judge, the journalist allegedly assaulted by the Tehelka editor, etc. They were all attacked by men who exploited a position of power; unfortunately, the fear of law, society and their own conscience eludes many Indian men.