India’s notorious reputation as one of the worst places to be a woman is back in the spotlight following a spate of brutal rape cases in recent weeks. The widely reported sexual assaults have reignited public outrage and intensified debate over increasingly gendered violence and the general attitude towards women in a country that is still governed with deep-rooted patriarchy.
On 6 December, police officers in the South Indian state of Telangana shot and killed four men accused of raping and killing a 27-year-old veterinarian, whose charred body was found on 27 November near the city of Hyderabad, India’s tech hub.
The killing of the accused drew widespread commendation from the victim’s family, politicians, celebrities and outraged citizens. Hundreds gathered at the site, chanting “police zindabad (hail the police)”, distributing sweets and showering flowers over the spot where the vet’s charred body was found and where the alleged encounter took place. Social media was abuzz with support and accolades for the police.
Many rights activists termed the killings “custodial deaths”, while some legal experts described them as “extrajudicial”. India’s National Human Rights Commission took suo motu control, or acted on its own cognisance, and ordered a spot inquiry into the incident. The Indian Supreme Court has also agreed to hear a public interest litigation (PIL) that claimed the alleged encounter was “fake” and that the police officials involved be charged.
“It is worth remembering that when cops resort to custodial killings, bypassing the due process of law, it indicates a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system,” wrote Sreemoy Talukdar, adding that the “extrajudicial killings in Hyderabad, that look and smell verily like fake encounters, are an example of state meting out vigilante justice through cops who acted as the cat’s paw”.
Amnesty International India executive director Avinash Kumar echoed this sentiment, asserting that “extrajudicial killings are not a solution to preventing rape”.
Some members of parliament had earlier called for the “lynching” of rapists. “I know it sounds harsh, but these kind of people should be brought out in public and lynched,” former Bollywood star and lawmaker Jaya Bachchan told the upper house of the Indian parliament. Her statement drew criticism for promoting the sort of lawless mob justice that has resulted in the death of dozens of Muslims at the hands of Hindu mobs since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
In another gruesome case, a 23-year-old rape victim died in a Delhi hospital after she was set ablaze by a group of men, including two of her accused rapists, in the North India state of Uttar Pradesh.
The police reported that the woman was on her way to a court hearing for her rape case when the accused doused her in petrol before setting her alight. The victim had filed a complaint with the police in March, alleging rape at gunpoint. The incident occurred in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, where another girl was raped in July. The local police opened a murder investigation case against a ruling-party lawmaker when the 19-year-old girl was seriously injured in a car crash that the victim’s family alleged was engineered by BJP legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar, the main accused in the rape case.
In January 2018, an eight-year-old Muslim girl from a nomadic community in Jammu and Kashmir was allegedly kidnapped, confined using sedatives and repeatedly gang raped in a temple. She was strangled and then hit with a heavy stone. BJP supporters and other Hindu groups rallied in support of the accused rapists, a development that divided the Kashmiri community.
In July 2018, 18 men were charged in the South India city of Chennai for repeatedly raping a 12-year-old girl over a seven-month period, sedating her with drugs and then taking her to vacant apartments in the block to assault her. Later, in October 2018, Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal was arrested in the South Indian state of Kerala after a nun accused him of raping her repeatedly over a period of two years.
Stats reflect distressing situation
Although the Indian government has taken steps to strengthen its laws on sexual crimes, the official data on crime shows that not much has changed on the ground. According to the latest government figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, Indian police registered 32 559 cases of rape in 2017. This equates to an average of 92 rapes every day, with about 30% of the victims being children. Indian courts processed only about 18 300 rape-related cases that year, with more than 127 800 cases overall still pending at the end of 2017.
India recorded 359 849 cases of crime against women in 2017, an increase of 6% compared with 2016 and up by 9% from 2015. The state-wide figures reveal that Uttar Pradesh tops the list, with 56 011 cases of crime against women, followed by Maharashtra with 31 979 cases and West Bengal with 30 002. Crimes against women constitute murder, rape, dowry death, suicide abetment, acid attacks, cruelty and kidnapping.
Madhya Pradesh in central India had the highest number of reported rapes in 2017, at 5 562. Delhi, which is notoriously unsafe for women, saw a decline in the reporting of rape. Only 13 076 incidents were reported in 2017 against 15 310 in 2016 and 17 222 in 2015.
According to the government data, in 93.1% of the 32 559 reported cases of rape, the accused were known to the victims. The report highlights that in 16 591 cases, the victims reported that the perpetrators were family friends, employers, neighbours or other known persons. In 10 553 of the cases, the accused were friends, online friends, live-in partners or the separated husbands of the victims.
The epidemic of rape in India made international headlines after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student on a moving bus in the national capital of Delhi. It shocked the country and caused thousands of people to take to the streets to demand stricter rape laws.
The girl, who was raped repeatedly and suffered massive internal injuries as a result, died in a Singapore hospital two weeks later. About a year after the crime, a court sentenced four of the five men to death by hanging. The incident prompted the Indian parliament to pass stricter laws on sexual violence, including a minimum 20-year prison sentence for rape and, in the event that the victim dies, the death penalty. Fast-track courts were established to speed up trials in sexual assault cases.
Critics, however, say the Indian legal system is known to be slow, with rape cases often taking years to conclude. Cases like the 2012 gang rape case that drew widespread media coverage are often fast-tracked to pacify the public. With rape still a subject shrouded in shame and stigma in India, victims often hesitate to report sexual assaults to the police for fear of retribution and social isolation.
Experts have underlined that India’s highly stratified social structure has made sexual aggression appear more acceptable when the victim is lower caste or from other minority groups. The majority of gang rapes have caste aggression behind them, with Dalit or tribal women often the victims. Public outrage is regularly confined to rape incidents in which the victim is from an upper caste or class community, while cases involving lower caste or class woman are often intentionally ignored or rendered invisible.
The Bhanwari Devi case from 1992 is one well-documented case that drew caste-based sexual violence in India into the public debate. A resident of Bhatheri village in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, Bhanwari Devi worked for the state’s Women Development Project. Upper-caste men from the village gang raped her because she stopped a child marriage in a Gujar family. Bhanwari belonged to the Kumar or potter community, which is listed as lower caste and backward, while the perpetrators belonged to the dominant Gujar or pastoral agriculturists caste and Brahmin caste.
In 2006 in Khairlanji village in the western state of Maharashtra, men from dominant castes tortured, paraded naked, gang raped and beat to death members of a Dalit-Buddhist family. The upward mobility and prosperity of the victim’s family had irked the dominant castes of the village and, when some members of this Dalit family helped another Dalit person escape a murderous mob of dominant-caste men, it stoked the upper-caste community’s anger towards them. On 29 September 2006, the men dragged four family members out of their house, including the mother and daughter, and assaulted and killed them.
In a separate incident on 29 March 2016, a 17-year-old Dalit girl from a village in Rajasthan was found dead at the training institute where she was studying. Her teacher had raped her and in an attempt to hide the criminal act, the institute released a written apology from the victim and the accused teacher, stating that the act was mutual. The girl was found dead the next day.
In June 2014, two cousins from the Dalit community, one of whom was a minor, were kidnapped, gang raped and hanged from a tree in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. India’s premier Central Bureau of Investigations concluded that there was no gang rape and released the accused. A local court, however, struck down the investigation. The incident triggered massive outrage, with even the United Nations condemning it.
Scholars have highlighted that the norms and functions of caste patriarchies are structurally different for women of higher and lower castes. While there is tight control over the sexuality of upper-caste women along the lines of purity and “pollution” to maintain endogamy, lower-caste women have been made sexually available to upper-caste men through ritual practices to legitimise sexual exploitation within the caste system.
For instance, the sexual availability of lower caste women was religiously sanctioned through the custom of ‘devadasi’, or servant of God, in which lower-caste, specifically Dalit women, were married to the deity and initiated into ritual prostitution. On the power ladder of caste and gender hierarchies, Dalit women are on the lowest rung, making them three times more oppressed in terms of caste, class and gender.
India’s patriarchal norms have enabled men in powerful social and political positions not only to sexually abuse and harass women but also to evade the law, even after committing heinous crimes such as rape and murder. These social norms, which manifest particularly strongly through caste and class structures, are deeply embedded in law enforcement and judicial institutions, making women even more vulnerable to gender violence. Unless the social attitudes that legitimise violence and discrimination against women are completely reconfigured, legal remedies will not yield any tangible improvements to the safety of women in India.