By Snigdha Nanda
December 16 is a remarkable day for India. The nation celebrates it as ‘Vijay Divas’ or ‘Day of Victory’ to mark its victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war in support of Bangladesh Mukti Bahini. This Indo-Pak war of 1971 has changed the geography and politics of south Asia creating a new country as East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh – a free nation.
Ironically, the Day of Victory has also got associated with an incident a year back that has changed, perhaps forever, the way cases of sexual assault are viewed in the country. December 16, 2012 was, by all accounts, a Black Day in the history of India. The brutal and fatal assault on a student in a running Delhi bus was a blot on the culture bound Indian society that takes great pride in respecting women.
Like other young people in the national capital, Nirbhaya (that’s how she is known as – the ‘fearless’) must have readied plans to welcome the New Year that was only two weeks away. But the barbarism by five drunken men inside a bus put paid to all her plans.
42 years back, India won a war on 16 December; a year back, some concerned citizens waged a war on another front: the safety of the fair gender.
The male dominated Indian society has never been comfortable allowing women to live their lives the way they want without any fear. Even the then Delhi CM Sheila Dixit commented that ‘Girls should know their limits and should not venture out after dark.’ President Pranab Mukherjee’s son and Lok Sabha MP Abhijit Mukherjee disgraced himself by dubbing the protesters demanding justice for the rape victim as ‘dented and painted’ women. The tasteless and sexist remarks prove how disconnected and apathetic Indian politicians are about serious issues of concern.
The girl the country now remembers as Nirbhaya’ stirred the hearts of concerned citizens. She became a symbol of courage or justice for countless girls and women. The outrage even crossed national borders and helped initiate women’s safety in international forums.
No doubt, the girl will be remembered on the first anniversary of her nightmarish expereinec. There will be debates and discussions. But what is the result of all those protests and discussions? What has changed in this one year? Is there any sign of such incidents coming down? The answer is a resounding ‘No’.
Statistics suggest that reports of abuse in India have actually increased. There were 501 cases of harassment and 64 rape allegations recorded with Delhi Police alone between December 16 2012 to January 4, 2013. Molestation allegations are reported to be four times higher by October 2013
The gang rape of a photo journalist in Mumbai, considered to be one of the safest metropolis for women in India, molestation of a law intern by a Supreme Court judge and sexual assault on a young woman journalist by her own editor are proof, if any proof was needed at all, that not much has changed despite the national outrage over Nirbhaya’s brutal gang rape and murder.
In view of the increasing number of incidents of sexual harassment and rape cases in India, many foreign countries have now warned their citizen, particularly women, to take precautions while planning a visit to India.
It is not about a group of horrifically misguided barbaric individuals, which is engaged in sexual assault or rape, but a culture with scant respect for women. This group includes both illiterate rowdies living in slums and elite and sophisticated intellectuals like retired JusticeAshok Kumar Ganguly and Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury’s role in playing down the incident has also puts into serious question the responsibility of influential women in addressing such issues.
These two persons charged with sexual harassment hold respected and responsible positions in society representing two pillars of society – judiciary and media. Former Supreme Court judge Ashok Kumar Ganguly is the chairperson of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission whereas Tarun Tejpal is known for his sting operations to expose the vile and the corrupt. But the masks have fallen off revealing the real face of these society watchdogs and protectors of the Rule of Law.
Nothing has changed for women in India in the last 12 months. The number of incidents of police refusing to register rape and sexual harassment cases has shown no signs of coming down while the pressure from the community to make peace with rapists continues. In one incident, the police acted on such a complaint only after a 17 year old rape victim committed suicide. This raises a question – ‘Have all those protests, outrages gone in vain?’
The Indian public is known for its short memory and even shorter outrage over such issues. Incidents like the Delhi gang rape may have given victims of sexual assault the courage to step forward and report such cases, but it has hardly changed the stagnant male chauvinistic mindset of this society. The roots of sexual violence in India gets support from the misogynist mindset of the society that ranks men much higher over women in all aspects of life.
December 16 created a free nation. The country that helped Bangladesh Mukti Bahini to achieve freedom from the brutality of another nation drastically fails in ensuring the safety and freedom to its own women.
Even a year after the incident, there is no one that a woman can rely on for safety and freedom. As the country commemorates Vijay Diwas, will it ever care to ensure freedom from sexual assault and harassment?