India’s Persistent Rape Culture – What’s Behind It? What Will End It?

Women protest publicly to mobilize the public to demand a change to India's national rape culture

by Richard Cameron


India’s Rape Culture

Editor’s note  – the reader is advised that many of the details of this report are extremely graphic and disturbing.

Once again, the world was shocked at a grotesque rape story coming out of India.  Last week, a 16 year old girl was kidnapped from her home in rural Jharkand, taken to a wooden area nearby and sexually assaulted by as many as 20 men, according to reports.

The girl’s family, upon hearing what happened, reported it to the village council (panchayat) and demanded arrests be made.  Amazingly, the council decided that the penalty for the atrocity would be – in lieu of arrest and imprisonment, to order each rapist to perform 100 sit ups and pay a fine of just 15,000 rupees – that’s just $750 in American currency.  

Even that mere slap on the wrist, was deemed by the perpetrators to be an outrageous sanction.  Consequently, a mob formed by the rapists went to the home of the victim, assaulted the family and set the dwelling on fire, burning their victim to death.

Regional authorities have taken over the case and effected an arrest of both the prime suspect, Dhanu Bhuiyan, 20, and at this writing, 15 other alleged accomplices and participants in the gang rape.  Raghubar Das, the chief minister of the state of Jharkhand, tweeted his disapproval of the behavior. “There is no place for such barbaric acts in a civilized society,” he said.

A national rape crime wave

The incident in Jharkand is anything but isolated, nor the first in Jharkand – as illustrated by this report of an incident that proceeded the 16 year old’s murder – this just a few days before, the victim – 12 years of age.  Unfortunately, it is neither the most recent example of what is a persistent nationwide daily risk for women in India – as just within the last 24 hours, in the same region, yet another such crime has occurred. 

India’s National Crime Records Bureau indicates that an average of 100 sexual assaults are reported to authorities on a daily basis – the statistic extending to over 38,000 attacks (2016). 

The numbers also point to an increase in the assaults – a substantial double digit increase.  And that is taking into consideration that in a nation with over 1.3 billion people, the numbers are likely to be considerably understated in the public reports. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) estimates that only 50 percent of sexual assaults are reported.  Additionally convictions are only obtained in 25 percent of all cases where charges are filed. 

The national conversation about the pervasive activity of rape, began in earnest in 2012, following a highly publicized incident in which the rape and murder of a female college student in New Delhi in 2012 shocked the world.  A 23 year old physiotherapy student mistakenly boarded a charter bus that she and her male friend did not realize had been commandeered by 4 drunk men, with the acquiescence of the driver.

The men locked the doors and proceeded to manhandle the woman against the objections of her companion. The companion was beaten senseless when he attempted to defend her and the woman attempting to resist the rapes, was violated by an iron rod in such a savage manner that she succumbed to major internal injuries and died 13 days later.

The parties involved were convicted – and with the exception of a minor that was peripherally involved, were sentenced to death. The capital punishment sentencing at that time, was accountable to the murder charges, not the gang rape.

Protests about India's Rape Culture in New Delhi - 2012

Even though there were public protests and widespread outrage, the episodes have not abated.  In January of this year, 5 rapes also committed against minors occurred in the northern Indian province of Haryana as part of a remarkable rape spree that claimed 10 victims –  1 per day over a 10 day period.

In one of the incidents, a young teen was gang raped by three adult males in a car in Faridabad

Elsewhere, a 22 year old woman was raped, while her husband and brother and law were forced to watch while being held at gunpoint.

Cows might be sacred in India, but female children?  Not so much…

The other incidents involved the gang rape and murder of a 15 year old in Kurukshetra, the gang rape / murder of an 11 year old in Panipat and a 48 year old man under arrest for the extremely brutal rape of a 10 year old.

The widespread criminal pathology of sexual assault on females is even infecting younger males in India.  In one of the assaults during this wave of terror, a 3 year old girl was taken and raped by a 14 year old and threatened with harm if she told anyone. Sadly, that was not the only 3 year old assaulted, as this report of the horrific and brutal attack in March of this year, recites.

Some attackers are so brazen that they have no fear of witnesses or anyone intervening. Five men assaulted a young woman in Gurgaon next to a public roadway.  But that was far from last horrific attack leading up to last week’s high profile crime.

Police in mid April, discovered the body of a missing 11 year old girl on the grounds of a sports complex in the Bhestan area of Surat.  By the 21st of the month, enough evidence had been obtained to effect the arrest of Harsayai Gurjar, 35 – who admitted torturing the girl for 15 days before her strangulation. Gurjar was also charged with the death of the girl’s mother. 

Satish Sharma, the Surat Police Commissioner told the press that the injuries to the victim’s ‘private parts’ was so severe “that it could kill a child”.

Sexual crimes and the social dynamic of sectarian violence

But the savagery was to continue.  A child by the name of Asifa Bano, was kidnapped while grazing her horse, made to ingest sedatives and then gang raped by 8 men over a three day period in a nearby Hindu temple. The arresting authorities learned that Asifa would have been strangled sooner, but one of the assailants requested she be kept alive so he could violate her one more time.  Among the group of men who serially assaulted Asifa were four policemen and a retired government official.

The added dimension of religious hatred became part of the post arrest narrative, due to the fact that the child killed was of a Moslem family. The province where the crime occurred, Kashmir, is one of the most volatile within India in terms of religious differences among Hindus and Moslems. Some state legislators in Jammu / Kashmir are questioning the behavior of law enforcement in the region. “The screams and cries of the girl were heard by neighbours. Why was there such a delay by police [to help her?]” lawmaker Shamima Firdous said a few weeks after Asifa’s body was found, according to the Asia Times.

The ongoing rape epidemic even extends to legislators in state governments as revealed by an investigation into a powerful lawmaker in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, who is suspected of raping a teen and and plotting to have the girl’s father killed to silence the victim’s family.  Rape, frequently committed by both government forces and rebel militant groups, is viewed as a tactic in ethnic cleansing. 

The Rape Culture Mindset

To give you a sense of the pervasive mentality about rape – and by extension, the attitudes regarding females in India, we need look no further than the comments by one of the men convicted for the New Delhi gang rape and murder. 

Mukesh Singh told a BBC reporter who interviewed him in prison, that, “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” Singh went on to say, “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’, and only hit the boy.” Despite the reporter reciting the extensive list of injuries his victim suffered before her death with the convict, he remained unrepentant.     

In 2015, Michael Kugleman, from the Wilson Center’s department of Asian studies, told Vice News that, “There’s a conversation about rape in India that you’d not been hearing very loudly before People are more likely to come forward now and report rapes when they happen. They see that it is starting to get attention and it is starting to be condemned.”

Daily Mail photo showing protests against India public authorities' lackadaisical attitude toward the national rape crisis.

 

The structural impediments to justice for victims

Kugleman’s optimistic assessment turned out to be considerably premature.  In a detailed report issued last November, Human Rights Watch, outlined how rape survivors in India find themselves up against significant institutional barriers to securing justice for the crimes committed against them.  The report, which you can review here, describes the nature of this – as summarized below in an abstract from that report:

“women and girls who survive rape and other sexual violence often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals. Police are frequently unwilling to register their complaints, victims and witnesses receive little protection, and medical professionals still compel degrading “two-finger” tests. These obstacles to justice and dignity are compounded by inadequate health care, counseling, and legal support for victims during criminal trials of the accused.”

A 17 year old girl, victim of rape in Punjab state, committed suicide out of desperation at authorities’ fecklessness in handling her complaint.  The victim’s family told local television that the teenager’s final words were: “there is nobody willing to listen to us, mother.”

If you are gathering the impression that the plight of rape victims in India, is a component of a broader tradition of cultural misogyny, you would be correct according to Morgen Lucey, who writes in the Daily Princeton that:

“There is a prevalent culture of acceptance of sexual violence against women in India, and it persists despite repeated outrage over various incidents. Some speculate that the rape culture stems from the caste system, which strongly values men over women. Others argue that it could also be caused by interpretations of Hindu religious scripture, in which deceit and rape against female characters is common. No matter what the cause, the threat of sexual violence haunts Indian women, especially given that the victims themselves are often blamed without any justice.” 

Observers of the national rape crisis point out that accountability for violence against women breaks down in the rural villages due to minimal supervision by regional law enforcement and government agencies, together with the known factor that the crimes are often handled by village councils – dominated by a patriarchal structure of older males.

Critics describe these informal hearings and investigations as ‘kangaroo courts’, whose objective is more to throw cold water on the complaints of the victims rather than a pursuit of justice.

Will there be a public mobilization that leads to systemic changes that protect women?  It remains to be seen, even though India’s national Parliament appears to be on the cusp of passing legislation – Amendment in Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) that applies the death penalty against anyone convicted of raping a minor as well as prison sentences of a minimum of 10 to 20 years depending on the age of the victim.

But with respect to justice and prevention, not only will a commitment to education require support of society and government, there must also be serious moves to protect witnesses, a zero tolerance policy toward mishandling of complaints by law enforcement, tip lines, proper medical attention for the victim and a national sex offender registry.

Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director says that, “Today there are stronger laws and policies, but much remains to be done to ensure that the police, doctors, and the courts treat survivors with dignity.”

Women in India – young and old, are watching and waiting.

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