The infamous gang rape and killing of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in Delhi on December 16, 2012 put India’s treatment of violence towards women in a global spotlight. As Leslee Udwin’s 2015 documentary India’s Daughter shows, men and women took to the streets of India demanding a change.
After two and half years, the world has stopped paying attention to India’s violence. Indian censors banned India’s Daughter, proving once again, their shame and rejection of their own flaws.
But have the egregious rape cases stopped?
As a 23-year-old born in Calcutta and adopted when I was three months old, and who was sexually assaulted as a teenager in America, I often think about how easily Singh’s gruesome fate could have been mine. April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and an appropriate time to revisit the epidemic of sexual assault against women in the world’s second-most populated country and largest democracy.
Six days after the brutal rape of Singh in 2012, all eyes were on India. The central government appointed two Justices and a former Solicitor-General to complete a report on crimes against women and how to combat them, and they urged the nation to send in their suggestions. With nearly 80,000 responses, the committee submitted their report in 29 days, which resulted in the latest amendment, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. The lower house of the Parliament of India, Lok Sabha, passed the act on March 19, 2013 before it was passed by the upper house, Rajya Sabha, on March 21, 2013.
The act changed the age of consent from 16 to 18 years of age, raised the minimum sentence for rape from seven to ten years in jail, and widened the definition of rape to include oral and anal rape and rape by insertion of objects and parts of the body into the vagina and anus. It also included new forms of violence such as stalking, voyeurism, and disrobing a woman in public. However, it failed to eradicate one of the most patriarchal laws in the country: marital rape. Indian courts continued to keep the exception in Section 375 of the archaic Indian Penal Code of 1860, which states “Sexual intercourse by a man with his wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape.”
Awareness of the oppression of women in India has been gaining momentum over the last several decades. When two policemen in Maharashtra raped a 16-year-old orphan, Mathura, on March 26, 1972, nationwide protests began—yet the accused officers were set free. Women’s groups such as the Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW) began to challenge the law and the handling of rape cases, particularly raising the question, how can rape in India be an expression of power when it is clearly an act of violence?
Margaret Alston, author of Women, Political Struggle and Gender Equality in South Asia, notes the momentum of the fight for women’s rights in 1983, when Indian women gained hope from the ideas of the Women’s Centre in Mumbai. “What we want for women is nothing less and nothing more than what should be the birthright of every human being—freedom, equality, and the right to determine their own lives. The Indian woman has made her own declaration of independence. We participate in the struggle to make that independence a reality.”
Fast-forward 20 years to national protests for Jyoti Singh, and still not much has changed. According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, there were 244,270 crimes against women reported in 2012, while 2011 consisted of 228,650 reports to the police. The NCRB also noted Delhi had 706 rapes reported in 2012, making it the city with the highest number or rapes and underlining its standing as India’s rape capital.
Once the Parliament of India passed the Criminal Law Act in March 2013, the rest of the world moved on to the news of the moment and quickly forgot about the situation in India. However, as the year progressed, the odious rapes and gang rapes continued. Within two weeks, a 5-year-old had been raped in New Delhi by a 22-year-old who locked up the child in his room for 40 hours and brutally assaulted her. One week later on April 17, 2013, a 4-year-old girl died from cardiac arrest after being kidnapped and raped by a 35-year-old man in Ghansaur. A brutal gang rape and murder of a 20-year-old college student in Barasat occurred on June 7, 2013. At least eight men raped the woman before brutally murdering her and throwing her body into a field.
The depravity within this culture continued full force for the remainder of the year. On August 22, 2013, a 22-year-old photojournalist on assignment in Mumbai was gang raped by five men who took pictures during the rape and threated to release them if she reported the crime. An ambulance driver then raped a 10-year-old girl on December 23, 2013 in Chhattisgarh. As the one-year anniversary of Jyoti Singh’s death crept upon India, a 16-year-old girl committed suicide by setting herself on fire in Calcutta after being gang raped twice. After being gang raped for the first time in October, the teenager was raped for a second time by the same six men the following day after reporting her assault with her father.
Brinda Karat, a former member of Parliament, commented on these gruesome crimes: “It’s a year since this terrible case in Delhi outraged the country and forced the government to make public commitments about preventative, protective and legal measures to punish [perpetrators] when these cases occur. But this case shows there is protection for the criminals. Her life could have been saved.” According to the NCRB, 2013 resulted in 33,707 reported rapes compared to 2012’s 24,923 reported rapes.
The following year fared grim at best as the brutality towards women played on. The year 2014 began with the gang rape of a 20-year-old girl in Birbhum by up to 15 men. The rape served as a punishment ordered by Salishi Sabha, a kangaroo court, for her alleged extramarital relationship. India’s information minister, Manish Tewari, noted in Delhi after the gang rape, “In a democratic country, based upon the rule of law, no vigilantism can be permitted.”
Women of the lower echelon of society continue to face the most violence in the country. The notorious May 2014 gang rape case of two cousins, ages 14 and 15, found hanging in a mango tree in Baduan, Uttar Pradesh exposed India’s shame once again. However, this time the victims of rape were not photojournalists or an aspiring doctors, they were part of the Dalít caste, formally known as the untouchables, the lowest caste. According to the NCRB, four Dalít women are raped, two Dalíts are murdered, and two Dalít homes are torched every day.
The ghastly atrocities continued to affect both the women and children of India with another gang rape of a 10-year-old girl in Meerut in June 2014. The same month, a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nihal Chand, was accused of raping a 20-year-old married woman. Political leaders demanded Chand’s resignation and condemned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congress leader and member of the Indian National Congress party, commented on the rape accusations, “Our Prime Minister talks about zero tolerance and then this happens, they just lie every time. The BJP should decide if they will sack Nihal Chand or not, but what I feel is that they should follow what they had promised the people. They should answer if they have zero tolerance for crime against women, then why is he still there in the ministry.”
Punishments for the convicted rapists have varied. Some have resulted in death penalties such as for three men who raped the photojournalist and three men in the Delhi gang rape case. However, other convicts receive the minimum sentence for a gang rape, which is 20 years in prison, such as the 13 men who gang raped the 20-year-old woman in Birbhum.
In March 2015, Leslee Udwin released the formidable documentary on the 30 days following Jyoti Singh’s rape in India. Udwin commented on her motivation to make the film, India’s Daughter, “A cry of ‘enough is enough’. Unprecedented numbers of ordinary men and women, day after day, faced a ferocious government crackdown that included tear gas, baton charges and water cannons. They were protesting for my rights and the rights of all women. That gives me optimism. I can’t recall another country having done that in my lifetime.”
Udwin gave India a chance to correct its wrongs on its treatment of women over the past couple years, but it chose to ban the film, instead. Sadly, the awareness and attention the national and international media has allotted to India’s rape epidemic is not enough to prompt true progress. With the statistics of rape reports increasing, one might assume the problem lessened over time, but the reality remains the same. And so the culture must change. In the documentary India’s Daughter, the bus driver says, “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.”
Regardless of the heinous rapes that continue to take place, there still remains great hope for the country of India. Change doesn’t happen overnight and these patriarchal, societal norms that have been instilled for centuries require a revolution in the younger generations. When examining the protests after Singh’s gang rape, the ordinary men and women of India who refused to accept this despicable behavior are the true heroes, and India needs to look to them for progress.