Tired of tokenism: Delhi’s Commissioner for Women Swati Maliwal went on hunger strike

Victims of India’s other civil war

India is gripped by a “rape emergency”, a brutal conflict that is escalating

Finishing a day’s work towards the end of last November, Disha, a 27-year-old woman veterinarian, hopped on her scooter to return home. She stopped at a motorway toll booth, just south of the booming tech city of Hyderabad, and dismounted briefly. Returning to her bike, Disha noticed that one of the tyres had deflated. She called her sister to report the puncture and also to warn that a couple of men in a truck were eying her menacingly. She was scared. It was the last call she ever made.

We will never know exactly what happened next, but it goes something like this. Four men climbed down from the van offering to help her. She lowered her guard; they grabbed her and bundled her into the vehicle. One of them had earlier slashed her tyre. She was then driven to a remote spot off the Hyderabad-Bengalore highway, in the state of Telangana, where she was gang-raped and murdered. Her body was doused in petrol and set alight. The charred remains were found in an underpass.

When the details of this abominable crime emerged a couple of days later, the country went into convulsion. After the police announced that they had caught the four men accused of Disha’s rape and murder, a mob quickly laid siege to the police station where they were being held. Outrage and anguish only increased when, on the very same day, a 23-year-old woman rape victim on her way to a court hearing in Delhi was waylaid, doused in kerosene, and also set ablaze. The five perpetrators included two of those accused of her rape. She suffered 90 per cent burns and died later in hospital of cardiac arrest. 

Overtaken by the febrile, vengeful atmosphere, the police reacted by marching off the four suspects in Disha’s case and executing them. In the official account, the police had taken the quartet back to the scene of their crime, where the accused had then jumped them. The coppers fought them off, apparently, and bravely managed to shoot them all dead. Why the men were not handcuffed at all was never explained, nor why they were being ordered to collect further evidence at the scene of the crime in the pitch dark at five in the morning. It was, in essence, extrajudicial murder – known as an “encounter” killing in south Asia. 

No one in India denied the almost casual brutality of these events, nor the shame that they brought on the country. Yet they point to a deeper malaise within Indian society, a malaise that keeps on producing such tragedies. The West might fret over a “climate emergency”, but India is very firmly in the grip of a “rape emergency”, as it is commonly referred to, symptomatic of what amounts to a civil war between men and women in the country.

The rape, torture and murder of a young Delhi intern in 2012 was supposed to have been India’s #MeToo moment

Sectarian division, particularly between Muslim and Hindu, stoked by the present Hindu nationalist BJP government, remains India’s most obvious and corrosive faultline. But the rape emergency is just as pressing, only more hidden, and probably contributes even more towards the country’s perpetual under-achievement in the world. Furthermore, the civil war between men and women in India shows every sign of escalation.

Take the reaction to the events in Telangana. On the one hand there were many (probably a majority) who applauded the macho action of the police gunning down the four suspects. They were showered with petals by local residents: the mother of the young vet thanked them from her heart, as “my daughter’s soul must be at peace now”. Lots of men, from politicians to sports stars, took to social media to shout their approval. 

From one member of the BJP ruling party and a former minister: “I congratulate the Hyderabad police and government that allows police to act like police.” From a badminton star: “Great work #Hyderabad police … we salute u.” Other state police forces were equally ecstatic, boasting about how many bad guys they themselves had rubbed out in similar fashion. The former chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, invited other cops to “learn” from the excellent example of Telangana’s finest. Bizarrely, admiring comparisons were even made to Saudi Arabia. “Look how swiftly justice is delivered there,” mused one MP of the Islamic theocracy.

On the other hand, and after a little more reflection, many others, mostly women, condemned the police murders. Complaining that India risks turning into a banana republic, lawyers and activists pointed out that the very absence of due process and a functioning legal system evidenced by the police killings is exactly the reason why so many Indian men carry on raping, harassing, hitting and setting fire to women. These men believe they will almost never be prosecuted, and if they are, that they will almost never stand trial and that any punishment can be endlessly postponed. And, generally, they are right. Just look at the men who carried out the notorious gang-rape, torture and murder of the physiotherapy intern Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus in December 2012. 

India was voted the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman – edging out the blood-soaked warzones of Afghanistan and Syria

This was supposed to have been India’s #MeToo moment, when the country finally woke up to the dreadful reality of its violent rape culture. But as the seventh anniversary of Ms Singh’s death passed on 6 December, the four surviving members of the gang (another committed suicide, supposedly, in prison, and a minor had to be released) were still shuffling around the legal system, having originally been sentenced in 2013. Due to be hanged on January 22nd, the moment was postponed once again. Smoking four rapists in a field might make men feel better, but in fact it merely allowed India to dodge the much harder, more profound work of ending impunity and addressing the deeper societal pathologies that have produced the rape emergency in the first place.

One woman who fervently believes that these latest rapes and murders in Hyderabad and Delhi must be a turning-point is Swati Maliwal, the 35-year-old Delhi city Commissioner for Women. A few days after Disha’s murder, she started a Gandhi-style hunger strike, drinking water only, in protest against such violence. By the time I visited her lying on a raised dais in a large tent opposite the Mahatma’s memorial area at Raj Ghat, one of the city’s most revered sites, eight days into her fast the fiery former activist was already weak. Though she was well rugged up against Delhi’s freezing winter nights, her voice was a whisper. There was nothing weak, however, about her message, which has attracted hundreds of women, and men, from all over India in support. She is demanding change, and was prepared to die for it. After 13 days, she fell unconscious, was rushed to hospital and put on an intravenous drip.

Swati stopped eating, she told me, because she is “sick and tired of tokenism”. Every time a particularly barbaric rape hits the headlines, there is some bullish talk, maybe a tweak to a law, and then everything reverts to normal. And the normal is horrific. In just three years as commissioner for women she has handled 55,000 cases of rape and violence against women and overseen 33,000 court cases. 

Most shockingly of all, hundreds of legislators have been accused of rape or violence against women

In India as a whole, there are, according to official figures, about 100 rapes a day, and the real figure is likely to be much, much higher. So much of it goes unreported; only the high-profile cases, involving middle-class educated women like Disha, or Jyoti Singhon, ever make headlines. Most of the carnage happens out of sight in rural areas, involving poorer or lower caste girls and women. 

According to the health ministry’s own statistics, such is the stigma associated with sexual violence that 80 per cent of women who have endured it never tell anyone about their experience. In 2018 the world’s biggest democracy and seventh-richest economy had the deeply shameful distinction of being voted the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman by a panel of international experts for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, edging out the blood-soaked warzones of Afghanistan and Syria. Indian women, Swati says, live in a permanent state of fear. The rapes and murders in Hyderabad and Delhi were the final straw for her; “I could feel their blood on my hands. I’ve had enough.”

Yet in the face of this epidemic of violence against women, resources that administrators like Swati have to work with are pitiful. “Once a girl is raped,” says Swati, “the system starts raping her.” Lots of well-meaning laws have been passed, but they are seldom enforced and woefully under-resourced. For years, the key demand of reformers has been the introduction of fast-track courts, so that perpetrators can be tried and convicted within six months. These courts, as far as they exist, are impressive, with separate rooms so the victim does not have to mingle with the accused. Yet the country that has just announced its ambitions for a third moonshot in two years has managed to construct only 107 of them, across the entire country. Altogether, there is a backlog of 133,000 rape cases pending in the courts. Little wonder that many Indians embrace extra-judicial killing; they know that otherwise those suspected of rape are unlikely ever to face justice. 

While the police might occasionally rub out a few bad apples to earn brownie points from badminton stars, the rest of the time they aren’t doing much either. Rape is not a priority. Swati estimates that in Delhi, India’s rape capital, so few officers are assigned that some of them are investigating up to 600 cases each. Only 7 per cent of India’s police forces are women, and almost none of them senior officers, which may have something to do with the priority-setting. 

Notoriously, the federal government takes little interest too; the silence over the December rapes and murders was deafening. This time there was barely even any tokenism on offer; MPs, and the media with them, seemed almost gleeful to move on to the row about the BJP’s new citizenship bill, denying Muslims the same rights to refuge in India as other confessionalists. 

Fear of rape, argues Swati, is the permanent state of mind of women in this country

There is a reason for this. Only 15 per cent of the federal parliament’s legislators are women. Most shockingly of all, many legislators are themselves rapists, or have abused women. The Association for Democratic Reforms, a think tank, carried out an extensive study last year which found that between them India’s parties, at a local and national level, had given tickets to 327 candidates with charges of violence against women pending against them from previous years. Forty-seven MPs or local assemblymen had been accused of rape in the survey. 

One former BJP MP, Kuldeep Sengar, was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for the gang rape, together with ten others, of a 17-year-old who approached him for a job. She was kidnapped for a week. Campaigners might hail the sentence, but the authorities were only prodded into action after the victim attempted to set herself on fire outside the house of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state to protest against police indifference to her case. Rape, apparently, is definitely not an impediment to a political career. But the crime will never be taken seriously as long as politicians have a direct vested interest in covering it up.

Swati argues that the systemic changes that she is demanding — swifter court processes, more police, more CCTV in public places — can eventually alter behaviours such that rape might be defeated. I hope, fervently, that she is right, but I fear that this is only half the story. For rape in India is symptomatic of the striking imbalances between the power of boys and men in Indian society, and the relative powerlessness of girls and women. Rapists and abusers learn their trade at home from an early age, and their behaviour is all too often sanctioned by societal norms. 

The official report quoted above gives a picture of rampant domestic violence. Every third women in India has encountered some violence at home since the age of 15, and most of the violence being meted out comes from husbands. Young girls are also preyed on by other relations; one victim, from a high-caste family, told me that her uncle, a senior army general, had started abusing her from the age of about ten. 

Yet, remarkably, the same survey also reported that only 14 per cent of those women who had experienced violence sought to stop it or report it. In short, there is still such a stigma attached to sexual violence that most women suffer in silence, unaware of their rights, legal or otherwise, within their own home or marriage. They are just too afraid to speak up.

“Fear of rape”, argues Swati, “is the permanent state of mind of women in this country; it’s conditioned into us from the moment we are born and it’s impossible to escape. I am constantly thinking about my safety, and you can say that for almost every woman in India. Imagine where India would be if that time could be put towards the progress of our country.”

Indeed. Whereas the proportion of women joining the workforces worldwide has been climbing relentlessly over the past 15 years, in India it has actually fallen, from 35 per cent to 26 per cent. Extraordinarily, women are less likely to work in India than in any other big country except Saudi Arabia. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is undoubtedly to do with safety fears, at work and from living in India’s rapidly expanding urban environments. 

Who would be a single female riding a bus in Delhi? For single women in particular, cities like Delhi, and to a lesser extent Hyderabad, are just too dangerous. Consequently, even if they are just as qualified as men, women will simply not apply for certain jobs, resulting in huge gender imbalances. The booming IT sector, for instance, has put on 56m jobs since 2005, but 80% of those are jobs for the boys. 

This is not only a tragedy for Indian women, but for India as whole. In a famous study cited by the IMF, it is estimated that if the country were to rebalance its workforce to employ an equal number of women, the country would be 27 per cent richer, perhaps more. That most spurious of questions about the fate of the twenty-first century — India or China? — would finally be settled. Rape in India is not only a human rights and criminal justice problem, it is also an economic one. Perhaps one day a government will grasp this point, and that might finally provoke some real change.

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