The 23-year-old woman paramedic who was gangraped in a moving bus and then dumped almost naked on a street in Delhi may or may not survive the ordeal in the Intensive Care Unit of Safdarjung Hospital. In Mumbai, meanwhile, another young woman is fighting for survival after being knifed by a man in broad daylight. It was a case of mistaken identity; the man wanted to attack his wife with the knife he carried with him to the bus stop from where she frequently boarded her bus. Instead, he attacked a stranger who was wearing a scarf and facing the other way.
Though Delhi retains its tag of ‘India’s rape capital’, Mumbai is fast losing its reputation as a city that is significantly safer for women. Trends in other big cities are also dismaying. Crimes against women are on the rise in all metros.
An analysis of figures laid out in the Lok Sabha on 18 December by the Ministry of Home Affairs shows a sharp increase in rapes and every other conceivable crime against women in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Over a three-year span starting 2009, rapes rose in these cities by between 12 and nearly 90 per cent (see accompanying graph, ‘Sex Crime Capital’). But these statistics are an inaccurate reflection of reality since a significant proportion of rapes go unreported. The actual number of rapes is likely to be higher, though the increase in recorded cases could be distorted either way—up or down—by fluctuating trends in reporting, which itself are influenced by several factors. Notably, only one in every four rape cases in India leads to conviction of the accused, and that too after a prolonged judicial process. The agony of victims, often extended by systemic insensitivity, cannot be overstated.
The rise in cases of sexual harassment is even sharper. Such cases recorded in Mumbai have risen dramatically in recent years. Those in the news have included an acid attack on a physiotherapist in Worli, the rape of an expatriate in Bandra, and the harassment of a girl in Dombivli. These are not stray incidents. They are part of a pattern of worsening public behaviour overall.
Today, Shanti Jadhav, a call centre employee in Mumbai, says that she prefers to stay back at office after a night shift than try getting home. “The money is good and my family needs it,” she says, “Till about two years ago, I would go back home with my colleagues, but I stopped doing it after I realised that some males in the car would be drunk. One day, a colleague kissed my back and feigned ignorance. I figured that a night spent in office would be safer.”
Though Maharashtra’s Home Minister RR Patil has proved himself incapable of making Mumbai safe for women, the government shows no sign of relieving him of his charge. He has held the post for more than a decade.
Hearing lewd comments, even enduring lecherous male contact, are a matter of routine for women in India’s biggest cities. In Delhi and Mumbai, the irony is the heightened security presence on the streets, both cities being prime targets of terror attacks. Extra men in uniform has done nothing for the safety of women in public places.
An even bigger complaint against the police is their lack of competence in handling such cases. Shoddy investigations often make it easy for culprits to get bail and walk away at the end of a trial. In many cases of acquittal, the State has been seen to make only half-hearted attempts to petition a higher court for review.
Political attitudes matter. Take this case in Mumbai about seven years ago: on New Year’s Eve, two girls were molested by a group of boys outside a Juhu hotel. Caught on camera, the incident caused an uproar, but MNS Chief Raj Thackeray said that the perpetrators of the crime were all Marathi boys and thus could not have done something so heinous. They all got bail.
While politicians and the police in Mumbai conveniently dub the large-scale influx of outsiders as the prime reason for these increasing crimes, locals are involved in more cases than they admit.
In other cities, there are other political factors at play. In August this year, an unknown outfit, the Jharkhand Mukti Sangh, put up posters in Ranchi threatening acid attacks on girls and women who dare wear jeans or salwar kameez without a dupatta. The police dismissed it as a prank, but it certainly changed things for Ranchi’s women.
Women have long been blamed for their allegedly ‘provocative’ dress sense (or behaviour), and attitudes on this count remain primitive in far too many places. So much so that there have even been instances of high court judges raising questions about the suitability of a woman’s clothing.
In rural India, local politics often remains worse than just patriarchal. Khap panchayats and Taliban-style fatwas issued by religious groups have meant a hellish life for many of India’s rural women. A panchayat in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh recently banned love marriages, unescorted visits to the market by women, and even the use of mobile phones by women under 40.
Few politicians have ever led an effective campaign against gender violence or taken measures that could tackle the scourge. This, despite their awareness that violence against women is rife in vast parts of India, with poor and lower-caste women the most vulnerable.
Not that there have been no legislative attempts at all in the country. There is the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, for example, which aims at stricter penalties for crimes against women (including acid attacks and sexual assaults). It was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 4 December this year, but is yet to be passed.
At the moment, it is hard to argue that politicians at the Centre do not sense the national outcry against the horrific state of affairs. In New Delhi, the bus gangrape has had MPs screaming themselves hoarse, demanding stiff action against the culprits. Many have also asked for the current set of laws against gender crimes to be revised.
Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj has demanded the death penalty for rapists in a country where doing away with capital punishment is under debate. Chairperson of the National Women’s Commission Mamta Sharma seems to concur, at least partly: “Only life imprisonment or death penalty can deter rapists.” The main counter argument to this, offered in Parliament by Girija Vyas of the Congress, is that the culprit would then rather kill the victim than just rape her.
Civil society activists, meanwhile, have been trying to appeal to the Judiciary for its intervention.
Earlier this year, Mumbai was shocked by a public stabbing case. A woman was stabbed repeatedly on a street by a man without anyone daring to inter-vene. Adman and theatre personality Alyque Padamsee and Supreme Court advocate Jamshed Mistry approached the Bombay High Court on the issue of women’s safety, and were asked by the court to file a PIL on the matter.
Last year, the court had suggested that the State make molestation a non-bailable offence under Section 354 of the IPC. The Justice Dharmadhikari Committee had also recommended the same. The government has not moved on the suggestion.
Mumbai’s Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Himanshu Roy is of the opinion that judicial and police action will not help if people at large resist change. Speaking to the media, Roy said that the country needs a sustained national campaign to fight the menace.