In spite of its status as a developing state, India has been taking strides to become one of the world’s most advanced nations. India, along with China, is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and it has recently overtaken Britain’s spot as the fifth largest economy in the world. India is also a leading country in the realm of technology, and AI science and is one of the few countries in the world to have a space programme. In late 2018, the Indian government has spent more funds towards its space programme as it has set its sights to becoming the fourth state to send a human to space, with only Russia, the US and China having previously done so. While India has been on the path toward further economic development and exceptional scientific accomplishments, there is one category that has still not been adequately addressed, namely the treatment of women in Indian society. Although there are signs that India is moving towards the right direction in terms of increased female employment and increased female political participation, sexual harassment and sexual assault is still running rampant across the country, particularly in rural India.
In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation polled 548 experts asking them to rank the most dangerous countries for women, telling them to compare countries on certain criteria, healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual and non-sexual violence and human trafficking. Controversially India was ranked as the most dangerous country for women, garnering criticism from members of the Indian public and political sphere, citing that it was ludicrous that India would rank worse than countries like Syria, and Afghanistan, the former of which was at the time largely occupied by ISIS and the latter of which is still controlled by the Taliban; no reminder is needed for how these groups treat women. Regardless of biases that might have been incited during this polling, it still stands that sexual violence is a widespread social problem in India, according to a 2019 Time article around 90 rape cases are reported in India each day. Although India has a number of laws that protect people from sexual violence, the number of cases that go unreported indicates that many perpetrators get away with their acts. Furthermore, another issue that has complicated the issue of sexual violence is the politicisation of sexual crime, especially when the victim and perpetrator come from different religious sects.
WHICH LAWS PROTECT AGAINST SEXUAL VIOLENCE
India’s Penal Code contains exhaustive and clear laws, which list various examples of sexual assault and the punishment that perpetrators of different kinds of sexual violence receive. The law differentiates between sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, voyeurism, human trafficking and rape. The law even gives specific criteria and examples of what is considered sexual harassment and rape and clearly defines what constitutes consent and lack thereof. While the law is clear and undeniable, many activists have stated that there are many legal loopholes that can be exploited in order to give perpetrators a less severe punishment or in some cases dismiss the case. As such, courts can actually protect those who have committed the crime rather than those who have suffered from the crime. Another legal problem found within the Penal Code is the fact that it doesn’t include marital rape in its definition of rape. As such, husbands who rape their wives are exempt from punishment due to this careless exclusion. An aspect that has led to the rapists escaping punishment is the fact that Indian law and society still views rape and sexual assault as crimes that are done by strangers, however concrete evidence demonstrates that such a views aren’t true in India. A report from the Indian National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) states that 90 per cent of sexual violence offences were committed by those who were close the victim, i.e. members of family or friends. As a result, the cases of sexual assault that are often reported or make headlines are the ones in which the perpetrator was a stranger.
THE ONE CASE THAT SPARKED A NATIONAL DIALOGUE
In late 2012, a young girl and her male friend in New Delhi were riding a public bus home after spending the evening together. A group of young men (which included one minor) then proceeded to gang rape her, and beat her friend unconscious. After committing the crime, they threw the girl out of the bus and she subsequently died in hospital days later. The incident caused national outcry throughout the nation, as many women across India protested in solidarity with the victim and a national debate over women’s rights and amending rape laws was spreading in all states. The incident also highlighted the dilemma of bystander apathy, as many onlookers fear that getting intervening to stop such crimes will force them to get involved in police investigations and court cases. The four men were subsequently arrested, and put on a long trial that lasted into 2020, when they were finally sentenced to death. While the incident did start a new dialogue in India, most activists have stated that no concrete changes have happened as a result of these talks and the streets in India are no safer now than they were back in 2012.
WHEN SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND SECTARIANISM COLLIDE
India is a diverse state home to many religious groups, sects, and indigenous tribes. Unfortunately, with this diversity comes the curse of sectarianism that has caused violence targeting those of a certain group. In 2018, an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir was raped and murdered by a group of eight men including one minor. The victim of the crime was a Muslim girl from a nomadic Bakarwal tribe, while the perpetrators were Hindu. Police evidence had showed that the attack was politically motivated as the perpetrators had planned to kidnap a child from the tribe in order to scare them off the land, however according to a report from AP News the plan was quickly discarded once they had kidnapped the girl and the men decided to go further drugging the girl with anti-anxiety medication, repeatedly raping and burning her, before finally killing her and throwing her corpse in the forest. This incident and what followed afterwards highlighted the religious divisions in India. While many Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir protested against the girl’s rape, a minor group of radically zealous Hindus belonging to the Hindu Ekta Manch, or Hindu Unity Platform staged counter protests asking for the men to be released from jail. The use of sexual violence against religious minorities is not a problem that is unique to India, as there have been many incidences in neighboring Pakistan in which men from the majority Muslim community rape and/or assault women from minority Hindu and Sikh communities.
MORE THAN EDUCATION IS NEEDED
Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, has been outspoken on his desire to enhance women’s safety in India, and just days after taking office in 2014 he announced that his government would adopt a zero tolerance policy on female violence. Moreover, he moved away from the mindset of blaming victims of sexual assault for their plight and instead told parents to raise better sons rather than bring up better daughters. In 2015, he launched the “Save the Daughter, Teach the Daughter” campaign that aimed at reducing female infanticide and promoting gender equality through education. Nevertheless, critics of the Modi government have pointed out that it has not done enough to counter rising rates of rape, as 2017 statistic pointed out that a woman is raped in India every 15 minutes. Human rights activists are also critical of Modi for allegedly turning a blind eye towards sexual assault cases that have Hindu nationalist elements; an example of this was when he condemned the rape of the eight year old Bakarwal girl only after mass protests broke out in New Delhi. It is clear that the problem of sexual assault in India will need strong will power from the political elites, the law enforcers and society as a whole.