Bollywood helps perpetuate the sexual objectification of women. Image: iStock

Four hangings as splints for a fracturing land. In a country where caste inequity is the norm, where mythology is becoming history, politically inconvenient histories are being pathologized, “anti-national” students are whipped with police batons, minorities are demonized, rights selectively denied – all viscerally approved by majoritarianism – it’s as if these hangings will provide catharsis.

India, along with countries comprising more than half the world’s population, permits the death penalty for “rarest of rare” – also referred to as “heinous” – crimes. Rapes are hardly un-heinous, rape-murder even less so. The hangings, after following due judicial and presidential-pardon processes, were scheduled for January, then February, then early March, then March 20. A few days before the final date, the rapist-murderers announced – it doesn’t get more surreal than this – that they were approaching the international court at The Hague. Indians wondered about the lawyers advising such convicts; they continued to wait.

Until Friday morning.

The four were convicted in the 2012 “Nirbhaya” case. There were six to begin with; one being a minor (below 18 years of age) was let off after three years in a correctional institution, and one committed suicide in jail.

On the night of December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old woman named Jyoti Singh and her male companion took a ride in a near-empty private Delhi bus. In a crime that horrified the world, the young woman was gang-raped, vaginally brutalized with an iron rod, and then killed.

An influential Indian newspaper renamed her “Nirbhaya” – fearless – and other media followed suit. But any victim could point to the folly: fear is felt foremost and forever. Lack of fear isn’t to be deified in sexual assault; it adds onus upon the assaulted to fight physically to her utmost to prove non-consent.

Despite continuous media coverage, this case took more than seven years to wend its way through the justice system; the average is much higher. Conviction rates are abysmal: In a country where 39 rapes reported every hour, one in four accused is convicted.

Governments change; none visibly improve the judicial system. Such sloth condones the rise of the criminal-politician: The number of people who have been charged with crimes yet who have nevertheless been elected to India’s Parliament has nearly doubled since 2004.

And this political negligence extends to the police. A police cover-up of an eight-year-old’s gang-rape and murder saw a far-right group protesting subsequent arrests. There are only 151 police officers per 100,000 Indians; the United Nations recommends a ratio of 241 police officials for every 100,000 citizens. The math in that gap – a visible and non-partisan police presence might reduce rapes – is also ignored by India’s elected politicians.

Predictably, there was a 31% spurt in rape-murder cases in 2018 over 2017. Frighteningly too, 25,000 child-pornography uploads in five months were reported. Rape “content” is being spawned, in real time, featuring real-life, unreported child victims.

Forty percent of female children, and 25% of boys, are sexually abused in India, half at home or by adults whom they trust (cutting across caste and class lines). Strong laws are graveyards of good intentions given the abysmal state of both the police and the judiciary; unsurprisingly, under-reporting of rape (adult and child) is estimated at 65%, more among middle and upper classes.

Bottom line: rich pickings for rapists.

As India is internationally scorned as the “rape capital” of the world, politicians play to the galleries. They call for lynchings, castrations. When alleged gang-rapists are shot dead pretrial, they congratulate the police. 

Most of the major political parties have been in power by now: at central and state levels, in the lead or in alliances. They know – they know very well – that the frame around just punishment, especially capital punishment, is collapsing. They know they are responsible. They know they are doing nothing nor do they intend to, to work on the solutions – all of which are surprisingly simple. Instead, see how they pretend to care for women’s safety. 

Politicians as indirect perpetrators. This writer realized how little they care for child victims and grieving families when she researched death-penalty accountability. Political pardons had been granted to, among others, a long-dead person, and a repeat rapist who along with a jail guard raped and murdered the jailor’s daughter. Plus, the time taken by governments to move a mercy-petition file can take up to a decade.

People opposed to the death penalty may note: No law can ensure public safety if it’s not applied fairly, firmly, and fast.

If the lack of law and order abets rapists, India’s hyper-patriarchal society is an accessory. It is always about the brute power that the muscularity of money can buy, and casual misogyny is rampant.

The macho-male bastion of Hindi (Bollywood) films also convinces itself that rapes occur only in their own silos; that sexual assaults can never be a result of society’s passive abetment. Routine, therefore, the sexual objectification of female bodies for male viewing pleasure – the woman is the “item” in the “item-song” – while dialogues and lyrics don’t discourage the prurient to think about sexual aggression and violence as tools of power.

Catharsis? For India’s women, for rape victims, it’s the horror of continuum.


Pinki Virani

Pinki Virani is an award-winning author of five books. She has assisted on the establishment of Indian law on passive euthanasia and protection from child sexual abuse, and the strengthening of rape law.