Notorious Delhi Rape Case’s End Means Little for Women’s Safety

Rape is still a grim fact of life in India

By: Neeta Lal 

Last week, as India executed six of the four rapists (one was declared a minor; the second allegedly committed suicide) in the unspeakable 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, there was collective relief that the law had finally caught up with the perpetrators of the brutal crime. 

But while that may be true, rape persists in bedeviling the country in a culture where women continue to be diminished and devalued and far too often subjected to unacceptable levels of violence. Women feel that stricter laws haven’t really translated into greater safety for them – or me. 

“We’re still scared to step outside of our homes at night, and wary of a shadow lurking on the streets,” Ruhi Agarwal, a college student, told me. “Returning home alone after a night of partying is considered ‘adventurous’ by our parents. We’ve not been able to reclaim public spaces which is what all these mass movements have been about.” 

Poor public infrastructure and deficient policing have done nothing to instill confidence among women workers. It comes to roost in my own life. Where I live in the National Capital Region of New Delhi, public lighting is abysmal, with vast and desolate stretches remaining unlit for kilometers. The Metro’s reach is patchy, and last-mile connectivity below par. At local police stations women cops are rarely present. 

Recently, when a neighbor’s daughter was molested, the police were uncooperative and unwilling to file a complaint. Neither I nor my 20-year-old daughter dares step out of the house at night, let alone thinking about socializing or going to pubs or restaurants unaccompanied after 8 pm. 

Nothing exemplifies this – and the lack of progress than “Nirbhaya,” or “fearless,” as the murdered and raped paramedic student came to be known, who was subjected to a gruesome assault in a moving bus in South Delhi. She died in a hospital in Singapore a fortnight later of terrible injuries caused when the six used a jack handle to penetrate her, doing massive damage to her genitals, uturus and abdomen. 

Even for a country like India, seemingly inured to sexual violence against women, the case was horrific enough to rattle its conscience. It also became a watershed for sentencing to death, for the first time ever in Indian legal history, criminals guilty of rape. 

However, despite the case’s high-profile nature, it dragged on for nearly seven long years, witnessing dramatic twists and turns as the guilty exploited legal loopholes to delay their execution on the pretext of some excuse or the other. Consequently, the execution date was put off three times between January and March. 

Finally, there’s closure. What the case did was to prompt Indian lawmakers to stiffen rape laws. In March 2013, the old rape law was amended to include death for repeat rape offenders. The tougher Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 also makes acid attack, sexual harassment and voyeurism/stalking punishable offenses, and has broadened the definition of rape to include sexual assaults other than vaginal penetration. It has also raised the age of consent for women to 18 and introduced a new section called IPC Section 376A.

But despite stiffer laws, weak policing and investigations haven’t really helped to deter rape. In fact, rapes across India have continued to rise alarmingly, exposing the inefficiency of the system and government initiatives. Last November, the charred body of a 27-year-old woman veterinarian was found on the outskirts of the southern city of Hyderabad. In 2018, six men gang-raped and murdered an eight-year-old child in Kathua in the northern state of Kashmir. Last year, a high-profile politician in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, was sentenced to life imprisonment for raping a 17-year-old.   

Surveys prove that Indian women are just as vulnerable as before and their daily lives are still ruled by fear. According to statistics, a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. Such is the skepticism, that following the Nirbhaya execution on March 20, Twitter was abuzz with Indian women commenting that little had changed. “Good morning Delhi women. Do we all feel safer?” wrote one user sarcastically. 

Women activists too are skeptical about how effective stricter laws have been in controlling crimes against women. “Nirbhaya’s case did push the government to overhaul laws against sexual offenses and take stricter measures for the safety of women. But has much changed on the ground? The short answer – No!” says Leela Deshpande, a woman rights advocate.

Low conviction rates in rape cases across the country haven’t helped. As of 2016, the conviction rate for rape was shockingly low (25.5 percent) compared to all other cognizable crimes. There was a marginal uptick – from 24.2 percent in 2012 to 29.4 percent in 2015 -- but in 2016 it plummeted back to 25.5 percent. According to the NCRB, only one in four rape cases resulted in conviction in 2016, the lowest since 2012.

Worse, the charge-sheeting rate in rape cases has dropped to 86.6 percent in 2017 from 95.4 percent in 2013, according to the National Crime Reports Bureau statistics. Despite fast-track courts, there are still 133,000 pending rape cases. These statistics confirm the inherent flaws in sentencing: that it is subjective and depends on the judge hearing the case. 

The Center set up the Nirbhaya Fund in 2018 to provide for the safety and security of women. But of the US$500 million it had allocated to various states from this corpus till November 2019, only 20 percent has been utilized. 

Given this backdrop, many feel that perhaps the only heartening thing to come out of debilitating tragedies such as Nirbhaya’s is the greater awareness it has generated about gender-based violence and the pressure it has on the government to be more responsive.  

Sustainable solutions, though, lie elsewhere. According to the advocate Leela 

Deshpande, to improve the deterrence of rapes, we don’t need more executions but an improvement in conviction rates. 

“Tightening the nuts and bolts of the criminal justice delivery system is what will send out a strong message. The real fear of getting caught, and not the remote possibility of execution, is what will help drive fear into the heart of potential rapists, not laws on paper.”  

Neeta Lal, a Delhi-based editor and journalist and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel, tweets at @neeta_com.