ARANYAK SAIKIA, ST Stephen’s college
The recent gang rape incident in Delhi has shaken the hearts of millions across the country and has even the brought out the young onto the streets in protest against the heinous crime in particular and the lack of adequate security for the public in general. Emotions seem to be running high in the country at this time- with calls for the death penalty to rapists or amendments to the rape laws. Sections of the media seem to also have played along in this frenzy- blaring out every bit of news related to crimes against women or the insensitive remarks made by a few political leaders. However, rather than just making swift and hasty decisions purely based on emotions, it is imperative that we try to understand the socio-economic and legal implications of the rising crimes against women, against the backdrop of the rapidly changing Indian social context.
LAW AND ORDER
To begin with, let me deal with the law and order. There is no denying the fact that the brutal incident on the night of December the 16th was for the most part due to the failure of law and order, though attributing the entire blame to the inefficient law enforcement agencies would be inadequate, as I will point out later.
India’s police to public ratio is extremely poor with an average of 174 policemen per one lakh population while the police to VIP ratio is very high, with an average of three cops for a single VIP. At the same time, the police force itself has a very high manpower shortage with many of its posts lying vacant. In such a scenario, there is bound to be lapses in law and order. Add to this the meager salary the constables, inspectors and those working on the ground (with whom the public first comes into contact) receive along with the severe pressure from working with insufficient resources, incidents of police apathy or the perpetuation of violence during custody will recur. This does not mean that I am justifying the police indifference or inaction. No argument can justify their dereliction of duty and the crimes committed on those who are in police custody. I only mean to point out the apprehension that the police force cannot just be made efficient in a day without addressing the concerns of the people on the field (constables, inspectors, etc).
Furthermore, there have been calls for making the law more stringent in case of crimes against women, including calls for making rape a non-bailable offense, preventive detention of one year, imposing the death penalty to all rapists as well as the abolishment of the right to appeal in a higher court by a convicted rapist against the death penalty. All these measures, no matter how much of a deterrent to crimes against women they may be, can have detrimental effects in the long run. After all, all these measures give even more power to an already corrupt and unaccountable police force to abuse and misuse that power upon its citizens. India’s laws for the protection of crimes against women, such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005, or those related to rape and/or murder are one of the most stringent in the world. However, the only problem has been its implementation and the snail’s pace nature of the legal process in the country. Instead of arguing for better policing and the need for judicial reforms, measures like the imposition of the death penalty would only lower down the already skewed conviction rate, thereby further endangering the justice delivery process.
The recent protests in Delhi starting from Anna Hazare’s movement to the gang rape protests, all appeared to show that India’s middle class seems to have lost faith in the country’s legal system. It appears as if the protesters in Anna’s movement wanted to try out the corrupt politicians themselves or the youths in India Gate on those cold wintry nights wanted to hang the rapists themselves. Forget about the courts; it takes too much time. By the time a case is settled, there is no justice done to the victims. Our political leaders are themselves shielded in a secured cocoon and nothing can happen to them. They are, thus, indifferent to our sufferings.
This attitude is being reflected in the way people are carrying out protests, which is detrimental to our democratic institutions but ironically, not necessarily to our democracy as a whole which I will point out in the next section.
The spontaneous protests that took place against corruption and against the crimes against women witnessed the participation of large sections of the middle class that were at a receiving end of the inefficient, corrupt and dictatorial state machinery- something that was new in India. The poorer sections- from farmers to workers in the unorganized sector- mostly remained away from it, which seems to show that democracy in India has been able to look after the welfare of the under privileged sections of the society. It is a complete misnomer- the Indian state has done more harm to the poorer sections than to the middle class. However, the middle class, being more enlightened about these issues of injustice and corruption understand how some government officials and politicians cheat the general population. But the middle class has a lot to lose if it falls under the wrath of the powerful state. So, it does not protest on issues that do not concern itself- like electricity, water, lack of education, sanitation in slums, medical trials by foreign companies on poor Indian citizens and so on.
At the same time, the poorer sections are blissfully unaware of the injustice perpetuated against them by the politicians, government officials and private corporations. Lack of education and basic amenities make them satisfied with whatever meager assistance they get from people in power. So, during the next elections, when you see people queuing up for getting blankets from a particular ‘neta’, do not be surprised if that person is voted to power. His electorate is so poor and gullible that it never realizes that for the next five years, he will care very little for them and would want them to stay in their same condition so that no one can question his acts of omission and commission in power. During these two movements- anti corruption and anti rape- very little participation was seen from those classes of people.
It is this economic class divide that strengthens our democracy but weakens our democratic institutions. Politicians know very well that as long as this class divide remains and as long as the economically disadvantaged sections are more in number than the class which can question their acts, they can keep on being indifferent to the entire scenario and even pass a few insensitive comments that seem to highlight the ‘regressive’ mindset of a backward society(according to the middle classes) which in fact is the society of the impoverished who have little or no education and therefore continue to nurture values which may no longer be relevant in today’s ‘modern’ world. (I have used modern as is viewed by most middle class people)
The middle class must, therefore, take the economically weaker sections of the society into confidence, if it really wants to be an instrument of change. Instead of just disregarding the legitimate demands of farmers and slum dwellers for better housing, sanitation and employment, it should bring these issues on a common platform with the issues of corruption and crimes against women. Otherwise, as more people lose faith in the government and its institutions over its inability to deliver justice, the more democracy will be at work- election of leaders claiming to represent the ‘aam aadmi’. The middle class can question the political class but it does not have the numbers to affect a political change that can be done in the realms of electoral politics. Only the economically disadvantaged sections of the society can vote out a particular breed of politicians who prey on society’s resources- as they far outnumber the financially well-off people in any constituency.
Another reason that can be attributed to the rising crimes against women is the economic progress of only a handful of sections of the society, thus widening the class divide that I talked of earlier. Rapid economic development has resulted in a new breed of youth who have acquired wealth and are spending on consumer goods earlier seen as western lifestyle goods, which are now readily available in India as the economy opens up to extensive international trade. At the same time, there is a class of youth who are educated but unemployed.
The confluence of these two sections of society with the media acting as a catalyst by showing New Age Indians leading extravagant lifestyles with a high dose of open sexual relationships which in fact is enjoyed by only a handful of the Indian elites has resulted in a serious friction in society. Most youth, even in today’s India, are brought up on traditional Indian values that view women with dignity as long as they do not express love or affection for someone openly in public. Traditional Indian societies further viewed a woman as someone who should look after the household. However, this is not a viewpoint exclusive to India. It was prevalent as much as in the West a century back as it is today in India.
This may have an economic context. Earlier, in the West, when real incomes were low, it was economically necessary for women to look after their households, while the men went out in search of livelihood. Producing more children supplemented the family income as children could be pushed into work at an early age. Thus, women were more like children producing and rearing machines. However, as real incomes rose and demand for skilled labor increased, it became necessary to educate children so that they acquire the skill to increase their income. Thus, producing more children now no longer became economically beneficial. Instead, it became a burden to educate many children. Women now had fewer children to rear and more time to spend on other activities. In fact, working women now supplemented the family income. This argument or reasoning may not be actually correct. However, it can help to explain why more women participate in the public domain in the West which also experienced rapid economic progress in the past two centuries.
Arguing on similar lines, it is highly imperative that the benefits of economic improvement be distributed among the poorer sections of the society, as it is this section where most women are still trapped in the confines of their homes and where the views against women working in public space are the most stringent. As economic necessity pushes more women into the public sphere, India’s youth will be able to accept more working women. (By youth, I mean both rural and urban Indian youths- the ‘youths’ present at India Gate during the protests were only a handful of India’s young population)
To conclude, I would like to say only one thing: tackle the growing crimes against women from different fronts. Just arguing on a few points would present a biased view of society. The problem is complex; but breaking it down into a set of factors and dealing with them simultaneously would lead to a solution in the near future. Although Indian society is undergoing a period of rapid transition resulting in few unwanted transitional problems, such as the conflicting views on dignity and modesty of women, it is equally important that we realize that any solution to such a complicated problem will take time to evolve.