Rape protest ... an Indian woman shouts slogans outside the residence of Delhi state government Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Photo: AP
Two weeks ago, two young girls from India’s northern province of Uttar Pradesh wandered into the fields near their home to relieve themselves. They were set upon by at least three men, who gang raped them, strangled them and then left them hanging, dead, from the branches of a mango tree. The crime was shocking not just for its sexual violence, but for the contemptuous arrogance shown to the girls’ bodies even in death.
The two girls were cousins, aged 14 and 16, and both members of the impoverished Dalit caste. In India’s hierarchal caste system, the Dalit are referred to as the ‘untouchables’ - literally, the bottom of the bottom. India’s National Crime Records Bureau has said that more than four Dalit women are raped every day across the country - and these are just the ones who report their assaults.
Meanwhile, Dalit Media Watch reports that two Dalits are assaulted, murdered or have their homes torched every hour throughout India. But Pratap Kumar, a Dalit rights activist, says, “The national figures are grossly under reported since many cases of rape of Dalit women are not even registered. Conviction is a distant dream for many.”
Demonstrators hold candles during a prayer meeting for a five-year-old rape victim in Jammu April 20, 2013. Photo: MUKESH GUPTA
When the girls’ bodies were found, angry protesters from the village of Katra Sadatganj gathered around the mango tree for 15 hours in protest over the authorities’ failure to act. The powerful statement was captured and shared on news outlets around the world, the image rapidly becoming a symbol for everything we think we understand about the proliferation of sexual violence and misogyny in the populous country of India. Five people have since been arrested for their role in the murder including two local policemen. Two further suspects are still at large.
These external impressions of a country in crisis aren’t helped by the response of some of the political leaders who’ve weighed in on the issue. Babulal Gaur, a member of India’s ruling political party, recently stated that rape is “sometimes right, sometimes wrong”. Gaur is the Home Minister of central Madhya Pradesh state and is responsible for law and order.
Describing it as a “social crime which depends on men and women”, Gaur’s comments have caused understandable outrage in a country which is struggling to combat a political indifference towards sex crimes and the subjugation of women. The comments came only a few months after Mulayam Singh Yadav, a prominent politician in Uttar Pradesh, commented that three young men convicted of raping two Dalit women didn’t deserve a death sentence because “boys will be boys”.
A water cannon is used to stop people protesting over the rape and murder of two girls. Photo: Reuters
Whether or not you support the death penalty or not is irrelevant - the excusing of sexual violence as a matter of a boy’s raffish urges is reprehensible, particularly when expressed by a political leader in a position to influence social policy.
But while it would be easy to catalogue instances of India’s abuse and indifference towards women and use it as evidence of the country’s more entrenched misogyny, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Misogynistic violence is certainly a problem in India and it is perhaps allowed to proliferate a little more easily due in part to its expansive size and massive population, but violence against women isn’t confined to that country alone. And while it might be addressed in an infuriatingly light handed way by authorities, the response from the public is often anything but.
It was only at the end of 2012 that Jyoti Pandey Singh, a 23-year-old student, was brutally gang raped while travelling on a bus in Munirka, South Delhi. Singh’s suffered internal injuries so severe that she died in hospital thirteen days later. Her murder prompted nation-wide outrage; tens of thousands of people - women, men and children alike - marched across India in protest of the continued violence faced by women and children in India and the weak judicial treatment of rapists.
Two Indian teenagers were raped and hung from a tree. Photo: AP
As a result of the public outpouring of anger and grief, new laws were introduced to mete out harsher penalties for rapists. From something truly heinous and gut wrenching came change - and it was the public which demanded this.
In 1972, a teenage girl was raped by two policemen in Kolkata. The girl, Mathura, was an adivasi - a member of one of the Indigenous tribes and accorded similar status to the Dalit. At this time, it was considered shameful to be the victim of rape (indeed, it still is in many parts of the world, not just India).
Despite her lowly social status and the mores of the time, Mathura pursued her case in court. After her attackers were found guilty, India’s High Court decided Mathura was lying and overturned their convictions. It was a terrible blow for a woman who had bravely taken on the establishment against the odds.
But Mathura’s case did spark nationwide change. It spawned a women’s movement, members of which would march eight years later to implore the High Court to reconsider Mathura’s case. Those who protested in favour of Mathura were instrumental in bringing about the reform of sexual assault laws.
And 40 odd years later, it was that same power of public outcry which led to the nation seeking political and judicial justice for Jyoti Pandey Singh. I suspect that with this latest horrific case of sexual violence in Uttar Pradesh, further change will be wrought not only for women but also for Dalit rights.
So while it’s tempting to wholly condemn a nation when you hear of these things, it’s shortsighted. Much of India’s citizenry has proven themselves not only committed to changing laws to support women, but also to lending their voices to one very loud cry in their favour.
Activist groups around the country battle tirelessly to bring the plight of violence against women to the public’s attention. These are actions we’re still yet to see in parts of the West we like to pretend are enlightened and progressive, where we are so used to having stories of rape cast through the eyes of the ‘promising young men’ who commit it that we are surprised to hear of a community that actually rallies behind a victim.
Does this mean that India is a utopia of public equality? Absolutely not - no country or culture is. The whole of humanity and its history has been party to a war on women.
But together, the people of India ARE rising to bring change and liberation to everyone. Misogyny is a splinter whose root we cannot always see - but with the right pressure, eventually even the gnarliest of thorns can be pushed out to make way for healing.