From Mathura rape case to Nirbhaya and beyond: What has changed between now and then?

Did rapes take place 30 years ago? Yes, but they barely came to light. The case of a dalit girl’s rape in police station led to the formation of rape law in India. What has changed between now and then?

A 16-year-old tribal girl, an aging illiterate social worker in Rajasthan, a 23-year-old physiotherapist  in Delhi, a young journalist in Mumbai, a 50-year-old tourist from Europe, a six-year-old school girl in Bengaluru–what do these females, from different parts of the country, with diverse backgrounds, have in common ? They were all  victims of gruesome rapes that made “news”.

One of the first lead stories that I wrote, over three decades ago (1979), was about the infamous Mathura rape case, in which the court released the accused policemen (who had raped Mathura at the police station) on grounds that the 16-year-old girl was “habituated to sex with her boy friend”, and so was not a virgin. The judge also remarked that the “marks of violence and resistance” on her body were “inadequate” to prove forced sex.

The judgment led to widespread public outrage, and four leading lawyers wrote a letter of protest to the Supreme Court which resulted in an amendment to the rape law in 1982-83, forbidding any mention of the female’s sexual history or “morals” in defending the accused.

I also wrote about the sathin Bhanwari Devi’s rape from Rajasthan, in which the aging village woman was “punished ” by upper caste men for her efforts to stop  child marriages in her district. After years of court hearings, the judge declared that the accused, being “upper caste men”, would not have raped a woman of a lower caste. This acquittal in 1995 also caused widespread outrage. There were also the cases of Maya Thyagi and Rameeza Bee (Hyderabad) during the decade of the 1980s that hit the headlines.

What does the outrage lead to?

Then there are more recent cases. But for every case that becomes ‘news’, there are at least ten more that do not get reported, according to activists who work with victims. In spite of all the national uproar in the wake of the Nirbhaya case, we see at least two reports of rapes in the newspapers, every single day.

So, has anything changed over these 35 years, since the landmark letter from lawyers to the Supreme Court and the two subsequent amendments to the law? Is it that reports proliferate because victims are more ready to register a complaint today, compared to three decades ago, so we see more media coverage? Or is it that the breakdown in socio-cultural matrices in the name of globalisation in the new millennium, has caused behavioural crassness and a crumbling of morality and ethics? Or, is it that women are filing ‘fake’ complaints about sexual assault, to ‘punish’ the male or extract money, as one reputed medical specialist alleged at a seminar we had recently in Malleswaram?

Where does the truth lie? Are we becoming a society that treats the female more and more as a commodity, and erodes her personal safety? Why do we have VIPs – ministers, MLAs and sundry party bosses – making crass statements that demean females? Certainly, we did not have that, three decades ago. And there was no television during the early 1980s, to bring “breaking news” into our living rooms. Police constables were the accused in the Mathura case, but today we see judges, lawyers, teachers and instructors, ministers, and high profile professional achievers among the perpetrators along with illiterate drivers and bus conductors.

I also find, from a perusal of my old clippings, that when the rape law amendment was being discussed in parliament 34 years ago, a mere 16 MPs turned up for the debate, out of a total strength of 540. Last year, when a similar discussion was on in the Karnataka legislature, reporters caught the state’s chief minister snoozing comfortably, with his chin resting on his chest. So much for ‘progress’.

Rising GDP could not solve problems

The only conclusion one can draw is that despite rising GDP, per capita incomes, and “standard of living” indices in the decades since 1990, this economic ‘progress’ has not translated into a more egalitarian society. Gender equity remains a distant goal, despite a few women rising to top positions as CEOs, bankers  and ambassadors. On independence day this year, we had a senior minister of UP declaring that women are filing false charges of rape to get government compensation. A leader like Mulayam Singh Yadav also went on record declaring that ‘boys will be boys”.

Such insensitivity to a very painful gender issue of vulnerability would not be articulated if men faced the same kind of violence and violation (and we are not even talking lf marital rape, which  Indian law still does not cover). The brutality is in fact, getting worse, with more child victims than in earlier times. Which means it is not the way women dress (does a child titillate?) or behave. The problem goes far deeper, in mind sets, and this has not been addressed by economic progress.

In some cases, the victim complains of rape if the couple eloped and the promise of marriage was not kept, the police say. How many such cases are there in the hundreds of incidents of sexual violence that get reported with sickening regularity?  At Vimochana, the activists’ group that has worked for gender equity for over four decades, we had recently a meeting where a judge of the Karnataka high court and a police inspector listened to women victims narrate their stories. Most of them had not even got justice, despite long years of court procedures.

Law cannot change the mindset

The law merely facilitates, it does not change society or gender inequalities. To say that women “misuse” the law for economic gain, is to deliver a vicious slap across the faces of the thousands of women who are victimised, day in and day out. Politicians misuse their power and positions, why is there no outcry demanding that all politicians should be in jail? What about the contradiction in the reality that families do not wish to file a complaint because of the social shame on the one hand, and the assertion by politicians that women file false complaints for the sake of money?

At the end of a talk I gave for an audience in Koramangala last month, in the wake of the rape of a six-year-old schoolgirl, I suggested that all females learn martial arts, to defend themselves against attacks. At the end of the meeting a young girl came up to say that she was learning karate, but the instructor molested her, so what does she do? I had no answer.

As I see it, the only thing that will work is mobilisation of both men and women, in every sphere of activity, to focus on morals and ethics. Boys learn to handle computers from the age of six, but don’t get training in gender equity. Morals have been jettisoned from our school syllabus. Right and wrong, fear of retribution, the wrath of god, make no sense to a generation growing up on titillation, violence and a philosophy of ‘anything-goes-as-long-as-it-brings-profits-and-fun’. This is not my idea of progress or development.

Ranji Trophy Season Opener 2014-15. Karnataka Vs Tamil Nadu

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  1. skeptic says:

    Another thought provoking article from the author. One other thing that stands out from the article is that our judicial system is deeply flawed, possibly because it was created by the British, but also because of the people in the system, who have done very little to improve it and make it relevant to our needs. Need I add that corruption has many dimensions and in this case is the judiciary prefers to be self-serving and comfortably aloof.

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