Brutal Gang Rape Shocks India

The gang rape of a young medical student in South Delhi has shocked the nation and ignited outrage across the country. The 23-year-old woman was assaulted on a bus by a group of young men who stripped and left her and a male friend to die on the road.

At the time of writing, the woman, whose name has been kept private, was struggling for her life in a Delhi hospital, with doctors saying that her vital organs had been permanently damaged. Four of the six men who attacked her have been arrested and two remain at large. The bus driver was also arrested after he refused to participate in a lineup to identify the suspects.

The men allegedly attacked the young woman for being out alone at night with a male companion. When he attempted to intervene, they beat him with an iron rod. He was initially hospitalized but has since been released.

As is well documented, figures of heinous crimes against women in India are among the worst in the world, whether dowry deaths, rape, honor killings, female infanticide and feticide. There are also numerous incidents of molestation, teasing, domestic violence and sexual harassment in the work place.

However, India doesn't even make it onto the list of top countries where women are raped. That is partly because Indian women are the victims of deep-seated social prejudices, in a society that sees men as superior and virile.

Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes on the tally sheets, not just in India but across the world. Even in the United States, where feminism has led to dramatically increased awareness of women's rights, only about a third of rapes are believed ever reported. In India, women's rights organizations report, the minuscule numbers of women who do report that they have been assaulted often discover that the police won't record the assaults. Rape statistics in India are thus basically meaningless.

One stark reality of such regressive attitudes is that the sex ratio in India has dipped sharply in many states and especially so in deeply patriarchal northern states such as Rajasthan and Haryana. Across the country, the easy availability of amniocentesis and ultrasound has resulted in an overall ratio of 850 girls born against 1,000 boys.

Following the Delhi incident, there have been calls that rapists be hanged. Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi called the crime a "shame for all of us who are responsible for security of our cities," and demanded that the country's Home Minister and Delhi Chief Minister deliver strict punishment for the guilty and better protection for women in the capital. Women parliamentarians staged protests inside the Parliament to raise the issue of safety of women in the national capital.

The issue of violence against women in India, however, has ignited a debate about the justice system's systemic failure to address the unchecked and alarming increase of crime in general. The attacks on women are not about a few men losing their mental balance. Critics accuse authorities and custodians of law themselves as being culpable.

At least 20 men accused of raping women have run in Indian elections in the last five years, according to a report published recently by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an India-based think tank.

India's highly corrupted system fails to deliver justice in the normal course, critics say, unless a particular instance is highlighted on national TV, as has happened in the unfortunate rape of the girl in India's national capital.

A culture of impunity exists in the country, with lawbreakers believing they can get away with wrongdoing, as with the accused rapists running for office. At the very top, politicians twist situations in their favor with the police and judiciary active accomplices, creating a subculture of thugs and rogues, who think nothing about breaking the law. The criminal antecedents of majority of India's political leadership are a major cause for concern.

Such a paradigm engenders an army of violence-prone crooks, mostly young men in their teens or 20s that indulge in burglaries, chain snatching, stealing cars, laptops and cell phones. Some graduate from petty to major crimes, including rape. The repeat offenders go about their business seemingly confident in the knowledge that punishment is unlikely.

Even if they are caught, they often quickly secure bail and carry on activities that sponsor indulgent lifestyles and more money. It is no surprise that the main perpetrator of the attack on the girl in Delhi was known as having a long record of looting and robbery.

In another recent highly publicized rape of a young foreign national in Mumbai, the rapist was out on bail for attempted robbery. Why were there no institutional checks to ensure that they were under some sort of surveillance?

Too many law abiding citizens in India do not differentiate between crooks and cops who don't care. Many police men turn partners in the crime, demanding their share of the illegal booty and for allowing mafias and local gangs to flourish.

Serious crime such as murders, attacks on senior citizens and even rape are ignored, not investigated and many times not even registered by the police, anxious to portray good performance on paper to seniors and healthy statistics to the larger public via the media.

Invariably, the first reaction of the police is to shoo away a complainant rather than lodge a report. The perverts who raped the girl in Delhi were sure that they would never be caught. If the incident had happened in a rural hinterland away from the glare of TV channels, their thinking would have been right.

There is no dearth of laws in India, but nobody cares about enforcement due to ineffective policing and overburdened judiciary. Although there are statutes and fines against littering, noise pollution, even urinating in public, none are enforced although when there is concerted action, it shows. For example, the Delhi Police campaign against drunken driving has yielded results.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)