The fateful night of December 16, 2012, when a group of six men brutally gang-raped a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, thrashed her male friend in a moving bus in New Delhi and left them to die, changed the entire narrative of sexual violence in India. People from every nook and corner of the nation came out on the streets to outrage, global communities acknowledged the travesty and demanded justice. Justice Verma Committee was constituted as a result of the heinous “Nirbhaya Gang-rape Case” to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law to provide “quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women.” And yet, here we are seven years later, the whole nation is still waiting for the four remaining convicts of the gang rape and murder case -Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Kumar Singh and Vinay Sharma - to be executed despite the Supreme Court announcing death penalty to the rapists in 2017.
The parents of the woman who died, Asha Devi and Badrinath, organise Nirbhaya Chetna Diwas every year on this date unfailingly to demand justice for their daughter. For the last seven years, their days have passed rounding up the courts and their lawyers' offices, and yet, absolute justice is far from being delivered.
The convicts, on the other hand, are using their legal remedies of review, curative and mercy petitions judiciously to delay the verdict by every day, month, year possible. The limit of despicable excuses was reached when recently, one of the convicts, Akshay Kumar Singh, in his review petition, stated that he must not be given a death sentence because Delhi's polluted air and contaminated water are anyway killing us all. The extent that the advocates of the convicts have gone to shield them from the ultimate verdict is not just formidable but also condemnable.
While Asha Devi filed the petition to expedite the case last year, one would be shocked to hear that since the judge hearing the case got transferred, a petition to be heard and a new judge to be appointed took a whole year and it is only now that the case in Delhi's Patiala Court has sprung back to action. How do you hope for justice when a criminal case of this statute lacks judicial amenities? Over time, when the voices calm down as they have in this case (flickering only so sparsely as any judicial update in a case), the government, judiciary and the state administration also sit back and relax until it is in their favour to respond to cases of sexual violence.
Rise in rape cases
In the last 17 years, the National Crime Records Bureau shows rape is the fastest growing crime in the country. Between 2001 and 2017, 4,15,786 rape cases resulting in 67 women being raped every day. In fact, the last two years, pertinent voices of rape survivors came across - they fought through the power structures of the government to report cases of sexual violence against members of the ruling government itself. What we have seen as a result of it is every attempt being made to curtail those voices - survivors' family members being killed, threats or survivors themselves being set ablaze by the accused out on bail like in the recent Unnao rape case. Every case is a study in itself mapping the impact speaking up about rape and sexual assault has had on the survivors.
“The issue of sexual violence against women should trouble every Indian citizen. It is not just a women's issue anymore. Secondly, this issue is not present on the national agenda of any political party. The justice system is also not functioning to curtail crimes against women because the conviction rate is only 26 per cent,” says Mariam Dhwale, general secretary of All India Democratic Women's Association.
Political parties lacking the will and social commitment
Ranjana Kumari, head of Centre for Social Research, who has been fighting for justice for Nirbhaya since it happened spoke at Nirbhaya Chetna Diwas about the political parties lacking the will to act against sexual violence against women. “We have the law, legislature and the police who have all the mandate to investigate in a criminal case but what happens is when the rape survivor goes to testify in the court, the accused, who were out on bail two days prior to the incident, burn her down on the day she was on her way to the court. These are those cases that are wrenching our hearts day in and day out,” she says referring to the Unnao case.
She further holds political parties accountable for not making women of the country feel safer. “Our society hasn't changed and will not change until the people in power change. The political parties show no will to bring an effective change in society as they sit unaffected and unharmed the calamity of sexual violence in our country. If Nirbhaya hasn't got justice, they don't care. The convicts are still in jail, they don't care. They are moved only when elections are closer to date, it is only then that they talk about women's safety.”
While Asha Devi filed the petition to expedite the case last year, one would be shocked to hear that since the judge hearing the case got transferred, a petition to be heard and a new judge to be appointed took a whole year and it is only now that the case in Delhi's Patiala Court has sprung back to action. How do you hope for justice when a criminal case of this statute lacks judicial amenities?
Annie Raja, women's rights activist and Communist Party of India (CPI) leader, also questions the response of the ruling government to cases of crimes against women. “We saw last year that in Kathua, an eight-year-old girl was brutally raped and murdered inside a temple but after that, three BJP ministers participated in rallies in support of the accused and waving the national flag while at it. There is no strong action taken against them and they are still members of the party. Even when Sakshi Maharaj won the election, he went straight to the jail to thank rape convict Kuldip Singh Sengar for his victory. Are we as citizens of the country supposed to put the onus of our safety in the hands of the men shielding the rapists?”
Citizens of India demand justice in a legal manner, but when the judiciary along with the government fails us, it is only then that encounters like in the Telangana rape and murder case where the police silenced the raging crowds and took the crown of glory for themselves in an extra-judicial manner get celebrated. They say justice hurried is justice buried but then justice delayed is also justice denied. Much like in the Nirbhaya gang-rape case.