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India: Can rape protests be the beginning of broad social change?

India's angry reaction to the gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapist in New Delhi could strengthen various movements for social justice.
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Indian activists hold placards as they protest against the gang rape of a student that took place in New Delhi, during a rally in Amritsar on December 24, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

New Delhi police charged into a crowd of young men and women protesting the country's apparent impotence in the face of rampant violence against women over the weekend, evoking memories of the massive 2011 Indian protests against corruption and more ominous comparisons with Egypt's Tahrir Square. And while the anger is rooted in rage, fear and bitterness over the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapist in New Delhi, disgust with India's corrupt, callous and incompetent public officials has stoked the flames.

The question now is: Where do we go from here?

Can a rape protest be the catalyst that injects life into India's amorphous "women's movement" -- which can seem moribund compared with the strides that women are making for themselves professionally? Can a rape protest be the catalyst for a badly needed reconception of "law and order," including police reform and a legitimate attempt to untangle the broken court system? Can a rape protest be the catalyst that replaces the now-compromised anti-corruption movement, creating a committed, mobilized throng of non-partisan political activists out of the historically apathetic middle class?

So far, there are both promising and discouraging signs. On the one hand, both mainstream and social media are devoting new attention to women's rights activists who are otherwise widely ignored. But on the other, the most simplistic, ineffective, and unsurprising "solutions" have already dominated the discourse on what needs to be done -- with kneejerk calls for the death penalty and chemical castration giving rise to all the usual arguments and objections against those harsh measures, in an increasingly pointless back and forth.

In today's newspapers, for instance, the Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M) Sitaram Yechury bemoans India's 29 percent conviction rate for rape cases. The government has unveiled fast track courts and other legal measures to claim that these offenses will no longer be ignored or allowed to languish for years in the system. Meanwhile, protesters continue to wave signs reading "Hang Them" and "You Rape, We Chop." 

The idea that "Delhi is the rape capital of India" remains widely accepted, despite many intelligent op-eds and a spate of "rapes around the country"-type reports to the contrary. An assumption that violence against women is increasing has been taken for granted without much scrutiny or reflection. And the police have been raked over the coals for failing to stop rape, and then cracking down on rape-protesters, as thoughtful insights on the reasons for their failings, and how those failings might be corrected, have been shunted to the side. (Note: New York City, about half the size of New Delhi, actually faces about 50 percent more rape cases -- 990 versus 660 or so, while Delhi's 26-29 percent conviction rate isn't so dismal compared with New York sentences that allow 42 percent of convicted rapists out on probation or "conditional release," according to the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.)

Here are two threads that should be getting more attention, or where the existing fury should be channeled more specifically:

(1) Police reform.

When it comes to rape, or any other serious crime, prevention is more important than punishment. And the vast experience of countries around the world suggests that punishment--no matter how severe--is not terribly effective in preventing crime. What is needed for crime prevention is a larger, better trained, better equipped, and better funded police force, as well as simple things like more streetlights and frequent and well-regulated public transportation. Like every other problem in India, (think drunk driving) these things cannot be solved with a two-week "enforcement drive."  They will require a radical reallocation of resources and a rethinking of the nature of the police itself. (Why, for instance, is all the money and prestige thrown at the bureaucratic Indian Police Service, when it makes up such a small percentage of the force and has almost no impact where the rubber meets the road?)

The Institute of Conflict Management's Ajai Sahni put it best, even before protesters hit the streets: No one in power wants an effective police force. 

 “The expenditure on State policing in the country is Rs.1.10 per capita per day ($7.43 per year)," Sahni told the Hindu. "Compare this to an offer for health insurance coverage of Rs. 200,000 for Rs.8 per day. There is a complete disproportion. While we have in India 137 policemen per 100,000 population, internationally accepted standard is of 225 per 100,000 and it even goes up to 500 per 100,000 population,” the paper quoted Sahni as saying.

That is less true for Delhi, it turns out.  The New York City police employs 34,500 uniformed officers, to serve a population of 8 million people, for example, while the Delhi police employs 80,000 cops for a jurisdiction of around 16 million people. But the basic argument is still worth pursuing. In contrast to New York, Delhi's poorly lit, ill-maintained public spaces are much more difficult to patrol, and the territory that those cops need to cover is much larger.  Meanwhile, most everybody attributes New York's success in dramatically reducing crime since the 1990s to a dramatic expansion in the number of cops on the street -- but also more intelligent measures like "quality-of-life policing." (Here public order on the Metro provides a clue for Delhi, mirroring New York's clampdown on minor offenses on the subway).

More research is needed into this than I can provide here.  But the bottom line: Even if, as execution-proponents and others say, people don't fear the police, they are far less likely to commit a crime when the police are there to stop them.

(2) Societal acceptance is leading cause.

Too little attention has been paid to the oft-repeated observation that, as in the rest of the world, 90 percent of India's rapes are not committed by strangers. No amount of police reform will be able to prevent the rape of a niece by her uncle, or the rape of a wife by her husband. To reduce the incidence of these crimes, broad societal changes need to take place signalling that the mistreatment of women is unacceptable.  Here the government's recently announced measures offer some hope, with the intimation it may expand the definition of rape and the promise to treat groping and verbal harassment -- heretofore trivialized under the rubric "eve teasing" -- as serious crimes.

But as the Times of India points out in exactly the sort of "boring" article that will be ignored in favor of calls for castration, there are various other laws that need to be made gender-neutral. A pending sexual assault bill still fails to acknowledge the reality of marital rape, for example. The Indian Penal Code "defines adultery in such a manner that only the cuckolded husband can be aggrieved by it." Meanwhile, laws on honor killing and dowry-related harassment (not to mention "bride burning") are problematic. (Here those of you surprised by New York City's stats should consider why Indians might be underreporting rape and other forms of violence against women).

There's plenty of well-placed anger in this area, and plenty of groups working to get things done -- albeit sometimes with less championing in the media than they deserve. However, there's an excellent opportunity for the protest movement to commit to a specific target here. According to mandatory self-disclosures required from all political candidates, India's political parties have put up six candidates for parliament and 27 candidates for state legislative assemblies who were facing rape charges, and six MLAs with rape cases against them are currently representing the people of their states, the Hindu reports, citing National Election Watch figures.

This is one area where the strength of numbers matters. Nobody should vote for these guys. And protesters should call for their resignation. They have the right to a fair and speedy trial. But serving in the legislature is a privilege that should not be afforded to them while they are under the cloud of suspicion, as “by giving ticket to candidates who have been charged with crimes against women especially rape, political parties have been in a way abetting circumstances that lead to such events that they so easily but vehemently condemn in Parliament," according to National Election Watch.

Surely, that's worth going out to vote.

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