University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: News

Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, scholar and documentarian

3/29/2013  8:00 am

The December 2012 brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi has focused international attention on India’s legal system, especially laws pertaining to the protection of women. The victim in the December attack died of her injuries. Four men accused in the gang rape are on trial (a fifth alleged attacker was found dead in his jail cell; another accused attacker is a juvenile). In the past few weeks, several more gang rapes have been reported in the media in India.

Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature and of religion, made a documentary in 2010 about a new law in India designed to address domestic violence. Titled “Post498A: Shades of Domestic Violence,” the film explored some specific aspects of gendered violence in Mehta’s home country. She spoke with News Bureau news editor Dusty Rhodes about the status of women in India, and another new law toughening penalties on a broader range of sexual assaults.

News reports of recent cases of gang rape in India include victims as young as 12 years old. Are gang rapes more common in India than elsewhere?

image of professor rini mehtaThe statistics on rape in general are problematic because of the issues related to rates of reporting in different parts of the world. India has been rising in the list of countries with dismal records of public safety, and the number of reported sexual assaults has also gone up. However, the results that you get from a Google search are related to the recent public and media outrage following the Dec. 16, 2012, incident. The victim, a college student, was attacked and assaulted in a bus that she boarded to go home after watching a movie. She was severely beaten and left for dead on the streets; she eventually succumbed to her injuries on Dec. 29. As soon as the news broke, something unusual happened. The incident somehow struck a nerve in vast sections of middle-class young men and women, and protests erupted all over the country, on the streets and over social media. The bill that was approved by the Parliament in March was to some extent a direct outcome of this December incident.

What explains this phenomenon? Was this an unusual case?

What triggers public outrage is difficult to say, but the protests that erupted and grew in a sustained manner following this crime were fueled by a new sense of community – social media being instrumental in the process. The pattern was similar to that of the Arab Spring, and I believe this comparison has already been made. This young woman, a middle-class college student living in a city, was one of hundreds of millions of middle-class young people of post-global India who have a different set of expectations regarding their lifestyle from their parents. The response of the politicians and activists, predictable to some extent, was drowned out by the furor of angry young people who kept coming back to the protest sites, kept marching on the streets, often braving beatings and other police action. Now that the government is strengthening the laws on rape, this vocal young majority feels somewhat validated. However, the media have continued to report “gang rapes” in different parts of the country as the protests and the parliamentary actions were still going on.

Why does India have such a high number of rapes?  Is there something in the cultural tradition that dictates a particular attitude toward women?  Is this sexual violence related to the dowry system or domestic violence?

Gender equality is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. However, modernity and development, either via British colonialism or via India’s nation-building efforts, have remained confined to a select minority of the population which, given India’s total population, is still a staggering number. Gender equality is something that India is still striving for, along with basic personal sustenance and security. The high numbers for sexual assaults and cases of domestic violence are part of the same picture.

How do India’s sexual assault and domestic violence laws compare to the law in other nations?

They are pretty comparable in their recognition of the severity of the crime; the government has deemed both as “non-bailable” offenses, for example. But there is already discussion and apprehension about the extent to which the new rape law will actually work, because domestic violence has certainly not waned in the last two decades following the introduction of Article 498A. It is almost impossible to get redress using 498A without the assistance from or involvement of a powerful nongovernmental organization.

So, is the Parliament’s recent bill not enough? What else does Parliament need to do to address this problem?

The Parliament has taken a positive step in approving this bill; it was long overdue. But both reforms and agitations that are larger and wider in scope are needed. For example, it is not enough for the vocal educated middle class to agitate for just its own security and safety; that will be impossible for a democratic government to deliver in an increasingly unequal society. Think of the “normality” of the evening that led to the horrible death of the 23-year-old student: She went to watch a film (“Life of Pi,” as reported in the news) and all she did was board a bus to get home. No one should think of taking a bus in the evening as “taking a risk.”

But in reality, the series of events begun on that fateful evening continued for four long months – from the extreme violence she endured, the delay in police and emergency response, the shifting of blame and responsibility among various agencies of the state and finally the apparent “suicide” of one of the men accused on March 13 in his prison cell. It is all part of the same dysfunctional system every Indian citizen loves to hate. The disjuncture between the “normal” of the young victim’s life and what has long been accepted as a “normal” response from the state is simply staggering.

Both the movie theater and her home were relatively safe islands, like the college she attended or the library where she studied or the mall where she shopped. These places are all compatible with the rest of the globalized world. The hope is for some level of integration to happen in the future between these islands and the ocean that surrounds them. The agitations and reforms have to be about more than just safe navigation routes among these islands. The government as well as the young middle-class majority must come to terms with the fact that there will be no personal safety and security without social justice, for all.