Thursday, 17 January 2013

India needs justice for all

It is a month since a brutal gang rape in Delhi shot sexual violence to the headlines and brought the need for reform of India’s ramshackle criminal justice system into sharp relief. India is a successful economy, a powerful player in the BRICS group of countries, a nation of scholars, a country with admirable social policies for social justice. Civil society organizations are active in rights and development. An electoral quota system ensures that 33 per cent of local governance is reserved for women. This has brought millions of women into the public decision making arena. Women occupy political leadership at national and state levels – Sonia Gandhi is considered by some the most powerful politician in India. Against these seemingly progressive trends, reported violence against women and their exploitation continues to increase.

In 2011 alone, the police reported 228,650 crimes against women, 24,226 of which were rape cases and 35,565 kidnapping and abduction. As in any country, far more cases remain unreported and, usually, little happens as a result of a complaint.

However, the brutal gang rape of the twenty-three year old physiotherapy student in Delhi shook India´s complacence. For the past month, hundreds and thousands of women and men have been braving winter weather, administrative hurdles and police brutality to protest crimes against women. Unlike the many earlier incidences of violence against women, and against socially excluded groups, the Delhi case has triggered a movement which spans different social groups and economic classes, and includes both women and men.

The middle class has come forward. This is a sign of hope. The protest has shaken the apathy of the administration as well as the middle class itself, which has began to look at misogynist violence and, to some extent, patriarchy in their own lives. The government has set up a committee headed by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Verma, to examine legal reform and other strategies to address violence against women. The Indian Penal Code was drafted in 1860; it codifies colonial patriarchy. Marital rape is therefore legal, sexual assault is called ‘outraging the modesty’ of a woman, the minimum punishment for rape may be reduced to below seven years as long as the judge gives reasons. The Verma Committee received over 20,000 recommendations. However, even if new legislations is put in place, women, transgenders and male subjects of sexual violence may find it no easier to access justice.

Pervasive oppression

There is a need for much deeper analysis of social norms and values; a need for a radical mindset change. Can social change happen with the current patterns of social exclusion, exploitation and injustice? These invisibly permeate all pillars of the Indian democracy, be they the political system, administration, civil society, the media, law enforcement and even the judiciary. Gender oppression is internalised within the basic social building block of the family; female foetuses are aborted, young girls are not given medical attention, girls are forced into marriage while rape in marriage is not a crime.

Moreover, throughout India, violence against girls and women, their exploitation and oppression is reinforced because of caste, religious, ethnic identity. Equally, the response of politicians, the media and the judiciary are biased by these identities.

For example, during October-December 2012, over 20 cases of rape and gang-rape were reported in Haryana, the state adjacent to Delhi. Seventeen of the 20 women attacked were from the Dalit community – traditionally regarded as the lowest caste. One of the victims, a sixteen year old Dalit girl, committed suicide after being gang-raped. The father of another Dalit girl committed suicide when he could not register the case.

Violence against ethnic minority women perpetrated by the armed forces in India´s north east has been well documented. Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher in Chattisgarh State, who was arrested under dubious allegations and remains in prison since 2011, has been called a prisoner of conscience by civil rights bodies.

Recognising social exclusion

Can India put in place a just legal justice system when the moral justice norms do not support it? Can the highly hierarchical socio-economic structure install a foolproof system as long as those communities considered to be “low caste” are relegated to provide cheap labour, without dignity, to benefit the dominant communities? Will we continue to neglect and not acknowledge the struggles of the Dalit and Tribal women and communities against violence and exploitation?

What is needed is an honest recognition of the underlying social exclusion and systemic economic exploitation on which mainstream India has built its economic success. What is needed is a political, social and economic system based on the constitutional values of equality, liberty, and fraternity, with justice for all. 

The question is now whether the movement will be strong and enduring enough to attack sexual and other violence regardless of social hierarchy, and demand justice for all those women and children who have been abused, regardless of whether they are urban or rural, middle class or from socially excluded castes, live in cities or remote forests, are assaulted in public or in their home.

Annie Namala, Director, Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, Delhi;
Karuna Nundy, Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Delhi;
Gabriele Koehler, Development Economist, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex