With the recent release of Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter, which investigates the 2012 brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in New Delhi, India’s rape crisis has resurfaced as a critical point of public discussion. The film, which was banned in India, revived people’s consciousness of the events that shook the country in late 2012. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped in India every day.[i] Seeking justice through the police is often a lengthy and humiliating process that is met with little concern and plenty of shaming. If an arrest is successfully made, the process of prosecution is slow and inefficient, with only 24% of cases resulting in conviction. The Delhi gang rape generated public outrage over safety concerns of women across India. Over two years later, the release of Udwin’s documentary serves as a valuable measuring point of what that outrage has resulted in. It is a painful reminder and one that should be utilized to examine what has changed, what has remained the same, and what movements have developed since the event that galvanized so many to defend women’s rights in India.
On December 16th, 2012, a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern was returning home from the movies with a male friend when they were picked up by joyriders who assured them that their bus was headed in the same direction as the couple’s homes. When the bus began to drive, the individuals were beaten and the girl was gang raped by six men. A metal rod was inserted into the young woman who suffered severe injuries including the removal of her intestines. She and her friend were then thrown off the bus where they were found in a bush on the side of the motorway and taken to the hospital. Despite receiving the best medical care, the girl died 13 days later from her injuries.[ii]
The incident caused an outcry in Indian society, particularly in New Delhi and the Northern regions. Angry citizens took to the streets in mass demonstrations that witnessed violence both at the hands of the protestors and the police.[iii] The public cried out for the execution of the offenders, chanting, “Hang them!”[iv] While particularly brutal, the Delhi gang rape was not unfamiliar. The girl’s encounter resonated with so many other Indian women who face daily discrimination, violence, and harassment. The female became known as “Nirbhaya”, meaning “fearless” – a symbol for the wider struggle many women face in the highly patriarchal society.
The six men, Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, and an unnamed Juvenile, were all arrested and convicted. Ram Singh was found hanging in his jail cell during the trial period. It was ruled a suicide, although his family and lawyers believed him to have been murdered. The Juvenile was sentenced to the maximum sentencing for a non-adult (a mere three years), while the remaining four offenders were sentenced to death by hanging. Their cases are currently in an appeals court.[v]
The amount of national and international scrutiny that the event generated forced changes in the Indian judicial system, in particular the way in which cases involving violence against women are handled. Six new fast-track courts were created specifically for cases of rape, in an attempt to speed up the lengthy and backlogged judicial process. Additionally, a minimum 20-year sentence was mandated for cases of gang rape. The legal definition of rape was also expanded to include rape from a foreign object.[vi] However, many argue that these changes, which occurred on an institutional level, have not helped to alter the ambivalent attitude of police and other officials towards rape, particularly in poorer and more rural areas
Leslee Udwin’s film brought to the surface the social beliefs that are the root cause of India’s rape culture. Outside of the government’s legal promises lies a far more difficult obstacle to tackle: the way in which women are perceived in Indian society. In an interview with one of the convicted rapists, he is recorded making statements such as: “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night,” and: “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal.”[vii] The offender went on to say that decent women should be committed to housework and that in regards to women who wander around at night, the men had a right to “teach them a lesson.”[viii]
What is more frightening than these statements, from a convicted rapist is that they reflect the beliefs of many men and women across India. In fact, government and legal officials have expressed similar sentiments to those of the rapists. The former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh stated, in regards to the jailed rapists that “boys will be boys.”[ix] Additionally, one of the defense lawyers for the 2012 gang rapists stated that if his own daughter were caught having premarital sex, he would take her outside in front of their family, throw petrol on her, and set her alight.[x] In an interview with the New York Times, a group of Indian men asserted that rape was a result of poor choices by women “wearing the wrong kind of clothes, eating the wrong kind of food, going to the wrong kind of places.”[xi]
Whether it is from the mouths of criminals, government officials, or every day citizens, these views are rampant. The fact that marital rape is not considered a crime in India is telling of the traditional views pertaining to women’s roles in society. These perceptions not only minimize the gravity of acts such as rape and sexual violence, but they are also institutionalized to create a bias against victims who do come forward. The one area where the 2012 Delhi rape appears to have made a significant impact is on the number of female victims who report rape and sexual assault. This number has increased dramatically, although most activists still believe that only 10% of sex crimes are reported.[xii] While a positive step forward, reporting the crimes has not necessarily translated to police being more receptive towards victims. Local police show ambivalence and sometimes intimidate many of the victims who gather the strength to come forward. In a recent case, a 12-year-old girl in a rural town was raped by her 40-year-old neighbor. When her mother attempted to pursue him through the local police, they not only failed to help her, but they also told the woman to make peace with the rapist.[xiii]
Social status also plays a large role in how cases are dealt with and how seriously they are taken. On May 27th, 2014, two female cousins were found hanging from a Mango tree in Northern India. Their family claimed that they were gang raped and killed and that the officers initially refused to investigate the case because of the girls’ low caste. They belonged to the Dali caste, previously known as the “untouchables”. Due to this fact, local authorities were apathetic towards their deaths until media scrutiny put pressure for action to be taken.[xiv] Many women who are raped in India come from poorer backgrounds and lower castes. Their position in society renders them insignificant and often helpless to pursue justice through institutional means.
So what is developing in Indian society? What has the outrage resulted in? We have seen that certain minor legal changes have been made since 2012, but the root problems of stigma, shame and the marginalization of women remain. One development that is worth noting is the groups that have emerged to fill the vacuum of inefficient policing and handling of violence against women. Spearheading these movements is a group known as the “Gulabi Gang” – recognizable from the pink saris that they don. The organization was founded by Sampat Pal Devi a former child bride, who motivates women with the belief that alone, they are helpless, but in numbers, they have strength.[xv] The group will visit the houses of abusive husbands and force them to stop beating their wives, either through violence or public shaming and humiliation. The women of the Gulabi Gang wield sticks in the event that they need to utilize violence to achieve justice. Domestic abuse is only one of the offenses the gang watches out for, as they also punish and condemn dowry, child marriages, rape, sexual harassment, and depriving female education.[xvi]e
The Gulabi Gang provides a resource for women that have nowhere else to turn. With deep mistrust of the police force and a highly inefficient bureaucracy, women are painfully aware of the fruitlessness of their attempts to pursue justice in a traditional sense. The Gulabi Gang has created a support system for impoverished women, and their numbers (currently estimated to be approximately 40,000 strong) display the desperate need for grassroots women’s organizations in India.[xvii] These are the kinds of groups that are influencing India’s patriarchal society. While efforts to improve the status of women at a bureaucratic level should always be pursued, the social norms engrained in both educated and uneducated citizens are incredibly difficult to undo. Rather than a court ruling or a passing of a law, the image of women breaking with their traditional roles in a unified movement of protest is the kind that is able to reverse perceptions of gender.
Since the 2012 New Delhi rape, there have been both hopeful signs of improvement and unfortunate examples of continued discrimination. The release of the documentary India’s Daughter revived some of the anger that existed and in many ways petered out after the case of “Nirbhaya”. It is crucial for India’s population to hold on to that anger, so as not to retreat from the battle for women’s rights. Some criticize the Gulabi Gang as a form of vigilante justice, but when there is no real justice to speak of, that is the only available alternative.
[i] Philip, Christin Mathew. “93 Women Are Being Raped in India Every Day, NCRB Data Show.” The Times of India 1 July 2014: n. pag. Print.
[ii] India’s Daughter. Dir. Leslee Udwin. BBC, 2014.
[iii] Datta, Aesha. “Chaos in Capital as Police Block Roads, Shut 9 Metro Stations.” The Hindu Business Line. N.p., 24 Dec. 2012. Web.
[iv] India’s Daughter. Dir. Leslee Udwin. BBC, 2014
[vi] Shen, Aviva. “One Year After Horrific New Delhi Gang Rape, India Still Struggles With Rape Culture.” ThinkProgress RSS. N.p., 29 Dec. 2013. Web.
[vii] India’s Daughter. Dir. Leslee Udwin. BBC, 2014
[ix] Sullivan, Tim. “India’s Gang Rape Problem: A Scourge Reflecting the Country’s Immense Cultural Divide.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 03 June 2014. Web.
[x] India’s Daughter. Dir. Leslee Udwin. BBC, 2014
[xi] Giridharadas, Anand. “India’s Rape Problem, and How Men See It.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Dec. 2013. Web.
[xii] Desai, Kishwar. “Behind India’s Shocking Gang Rapes Lies a Deep Crisis among Young Men.” The Guardian. N.p., 4 June 2014. Web.
[xiii] “India’s Rampant Rape Problem.” VICE. VICE Canada, 26 Jan. 2015. Web
[xiv] Sullivan, Tim. “India’s Gang Rape Problem: A Scourge Reflecting the Country’s Immense Cultural Divide.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 03 June 2014. Web.
[xv] India’s Daughter. Dir. Leslee Udwin. BBC, 2014
[xvi] “India’s Rampant Rape Problem.” VICE. VICE Canada, 26 Jan. 2015. Web