Sunday, December 22, 2013

Homage & Hypocrisy

Ironically, the land, which deifies her as Devi, is also home to world’s rape capital. Will this image ever change?

16 December has come and gone. This was the date in 2012 when the infamous Nirbhaya / Damini / Brave-Heart rape case shook up Delhi like no other crime had before. People came out in the streets and demonstrated their sense of outrage and anger in a manner that forced the usually complacent politico-bureaucratic establishment to take action on several fronts. Legislation was passed; the perpetrators were booked, arrested and convicted in a record time. This being the first anniversary, predictably, there were talk shows on news TV channels and homages paid in different parts of the country and even abroad. How have such gestures helped in making the country’s women and children safe? We need to ask this because rapes have become commonplace in the country – in fact, media reports point out that the number of reported crimes against women has increased several-fold in the last one year. They are happening in villages, towns and metropolitan cities, in homes, educational institutions and offices… and the victims as well as perpetrators are not confined to any particular socio-economic or political stratum. Godmen, politicians, bureaucrats, editors and judges are rubbing shoulders with ruffians and riffraff for a place in the national rogues’ gallery. Indeed, rape has become a great equalizer that has put the respectable and the despicable in the same dock. Victims too come from variegated backgrounds – farm workers, laborers, devotees, teachers, students, office workers, lawyers, medicos, journalists, homemakers…

So far, apart from Nirbhaya, the only other victims hotly discussed on TV are from the upper middle class stratum – one is a journalist and the other a former lawyer-intern. In addition, the perpetrators are from the rarefied social echelons, whose very mention is enough to send TV TRPs shooting northwards. If these two “celebrity” cases had not happened would Nirbhaya have been discussed with such strong feelings this year? Of course, there is a contra-question too. Had Nirbhaya not happened, had she reached home unharmed that fateful night of 16 December 2012, would the public outburst against Tarun Tejpal, Justice Ganguly and Asaram have been as strong and sustained as it is at present? These questions become pertinent because what is involved is not just the victims’ fate but also the quality of our national conscience. The last twelve months have revealed another aspect of crimes against women. So far, the focus was on streets. Eve teasing, molestation and rape in public places, buses and streets are visible and thus catch media attention instantly. This is as it should be. However, there are places where media cannot reach easily, viz., the genteel environs of homes, offices and luxury hotels. These are the places where maximum number of crimes go unreported. The perpetrators are generally too powerful and well connected, or otherwise respectable, enjoying status in the family or society. If a victim lodges complaint, invariably there is no witness, or evidence, to nail the criminal. 

On October 20, 2011, two young men – Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez – died while defending their girlfriends against molesters in Mumbai. They were stabbed to death in a busy area. Today, we hardly remember them. A BPO employee in Bangalore was raped and murdered by a cab driver in October 2005, and another BPO employee met the same fate in Pune in 2007. In Mumbai a young photojournalist was gang raped in August 2013. After the initial flurry of talk shows, those are hardly mentioned today. Their memories have just evaporated from the public domain, and for a good reason too. There are simply too many crimes of this nature happening routinely in this country where women are supposedly worshipped. In fact, the hypocrisy is too stark and all pervasive to be ignored. The land, where a girl-child is annually worshipped during the Navratras as Devi’s incarnation, has now become home to the rape-capital of the world. There is another aspect, too. By placing the woman on the Devi pedestal, the onus for “maintaining purity” too is placed on her. It is she, who is supposed to remain so pure as to deter any dishonorable act upon her person. The male thus escapes all responsibility. Obviously, there is a need to discard this Devi Syndrome in our society.

Indeed, respect for women has become less than ritualistic in our country; it has become a parody of a sacred socio-religious custom. Every time a rape is committed, often followed up with the victim’s brutal murder, there are any number of pious preachers telling us how we should remember that all our major beneficent deities are females (Devis) – Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth; Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge; Durga – the Slayer of evil and Goddess of Strength and Righteous Fury… Interestingly, these pious thoughts do not extend to molding attitudes in the society. The litany of discriminations against women is too well known to be repeated here. 

In the current narrative in media, the chattering classes emphasize the need for implementing the laws already passed for women’s protection against not just violence on their person but also their right to a dignified life without fear and exploitation. But who will implement these laws? The very same people who are so conditioned by the traditional patriarchal prejudices? The police that have yet to be acquainted with the term “professionalism” among other things? The men in police have repeatedly demonstrated what they think of woman’s dignity and respect. The Marine Drive Rape Case of 2005, wherein a Mumbai Police cop, Sunil Atmaram More, had raped a teenager by taking her into the police chowki is just one example of how protectors turn predators. This is not an exceptional case. Such instances can be multiplied several thousand fold at the national level. For instance, in the Chandigarh edition of The Indian Express dated 20 December 2013, there was a report of five Chandigarh policemen gang raping a girl continually for more than a month. And, this after the Nirbhaya case and its legislative fallout! Apparently, there is no fear of law even among those who are supposed to uphold and enforce it. We can well imagine the torment that girl must have been going through at the hands of these goons in uniform. And there is any number of examples of ministers and powerful politicians indulging in sex related crimes. So, where lawmakers and its keepers violate the land’s law with such impunity, what hope can their victims have of justice let alone pre-emptive protection against these sex predators?

Obviously, there is a need for concrete and concerted action against this fast spreading evil in our society. Along with legislating of laws, there is a need to take serious steps to implement them. Perhaps the following could be included in the national effort:

1. Every police station – big or small – should have special cells to investigate complaints of crimes against women. These cells should be manned by highly educated, preferably in criminal law, men and women. Apart from professional skills, their training should psychologically orient their attitudes towards prompt and impartial investigation into every complaint. Any lapse on this account should attract quick and severe retribution from higher authorities.
2. Incentivize schools and other educational institutions to include special classes wherein a healthy value system should be imparted to children vis-à-vis gender equality and respect for women.
3. Penalize employers who do not have requisite systems in place for protection of women employees. The penalties should be heavy enough to be credibly deterring.
4. There is a need for taking a close look at some of our Film and TV shows, including the so-called comedies, wherein regressive attitudes are reinforced.
5. There is a crying need for setting up nationwide courts specializing in crimes against women.

There can be any number of other measures – already in force or conceptualized – that can be added to the tiny list mentioned above. Last but not the least, our courts and police should ensure that celebrity criminals should be made an example of without fear or favor. 

Indeed, quite a number of people have expressed concerns over the misuse of the law. They point out that in a situation where it is a victim’s word against her tormentor, with no corroborative proof for and against the complaint, there is every chance that one of them will suffer – depending upon the attitude of the judge presiding over the trial, or even earlier at the investigation stage. The anti-dowry legislation is often cited as evidence of misuse of the law, wherein genuine female victims do not get even a hearing while unscrupulous women often blackmail their in-laws for getting their way. Such concerns cannot be brushed aside lightly. However, these can be addressed by prescribing well thought out procedures for conduct of investigations with due checks and balances in place that will filter out fraudulent allegations as these can destroy reputations and lives of innocent persons. Nevertheless, the focus should remain unerringly on providing foolproof protection to vulnerable women and children against all sorts of predators. The day our women feel safe in their homes, offices, schools and public places, and feel free of all fear, will be truly the day when the ritualistic homage will acquire true meaning.

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