Delhi gang rape triggers mass protests across India

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 231 February-March 2013

On 16 December 2012, a 23-year-old female medical student was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi and died on 29 December as a result of the appalling injuries she received. As the news of the brutal rape became public, there was widespread outrage in New Delhi and elsewhere. On 21 December a huge public protest took place at India Gate, a prominent landmark in the city. Protesters marched also to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the Indian president. There were clashes with the police in Jantar Mantar and other Delhi locations. The police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, water cannon and lathi (sticks), injuring and arresting many of them.

The police alleged that the initially peaceful protest had been hijacked by anti-social elements. The Home Minister equated the protesters with Maoists. During one protest, a policeman collapsed and died despite receiving help from some of the protesters. The police promptly blamed his death on the demonstrators, and brought murder charges against eight of them, trying to use the incident to discredit the movement.

Afraid of the protests spiralling out of control over the Christmas and New Year period, the Delhi police closed off many metro stations in Delhi for over a week and restricted travel around the India Gate area. A law prohibiting gatherings of more than four people was also imposed. When it became known the rape victim had died, there was another round of protests in spite of the police blocking many of the areas. Protests also took place in other major Indian cities including Calcutta, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

In response to the widespread outrage, tougher legislation against rapists was brought into parliament and, amongst other measures, a helpline for women was set up – although activists complained it did not work most of the time.

Such widespread protests over a rape issue are unprecedented in India. Most of the Delhi protests were spontaneous; some were planned through social media like Facebook. For many this was the first time they were out on the streets protesting, since the middle class and students in India are generally apathetic about politics. Most were arguing for increased safety for women and a greater police presence on the streets. Many were demanding the death penalty or castration for the accused, presenting the incident as a law and order problem and calling for strengthening the arm of the state rather than raising awareness of the patriarchal attitudes that allow such rapes to happen in the first place.

Though the protesters were mostly students, members and sympathisers of the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP and figures like the former army chief of staff joined in, trying to make political capital against the ruling Congress Party. Many politicians and public figures made reactionary statements. Some called female activists ‘tainted and painted’, others presented Western lifestyles as opposed to traditional Indian values as a cause of the rape or advised women not to go out at night or to wear revealing dresses. Yet more blamed increased migration and poor, low caste people as the problem.

Figures show that a rape is reported on average every 18 hours in Delhi. The very low conviction rate in rape cases and the intrusive police questioning which makes women reluctant to report assaults in the first place, mean the real figure is much higher. To that extent a better implementation of existing laws could be useful.

However, the issues behind rape are deeper than this. Many of the perpetrators are arms of the state such as the police or army and the victims are people in areas like Kashmir, North East or alleged Maoist tribal peoples. One example is the Soni Sori case where a tribal human rights activist was sexually assaulted by police in Chattisgarh. Mostly these assaults go unreported and unpunished. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, this is also the case with rapes of Dalit or lower caste women in villages.

The mass media and Bollywood are all culpable in commodifying women and making sexual harassment, euphemistically termed ‘eve teasing’, socially acceptable. Traditional feudal attitudes, which consider a woman as under the ‘protection’ of her father or husband or son, are also responsible. Challenging women’s oppression will be central to building a revolutionary movement in India.

Joy Bose