Towards a Decisive Victory in the Historic Battle for Women’s Rights
ML Update Editorial
The 23-year-old Delhi gang-rape victim finally succumbed to her injuries on 29 December morning after battling on bravely for 13 days. The unknown young woman will go down in history as one of India’s most memorable martyrs for the cause of justice and freedom for India’s women – freedom without the fear of violence and fetters of patriarchal domination.
If the government had thought that by transferring the 23-year-old victim of gang-rape to Singapore it would succeed in defusing the people’s anger and diluting their action and resolve, it could not have been more mistaken. The news of the courageous fighter finally succumbing to her injuries in a Singapore hospital triggered a renewed countrywide wave of collective anger and mass mourning.
The government that betrayed shameful insensitivity to the brutal incident and the agitation that erupted in its wake is now desperate to score political points. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, who never showed the courage and sensitivity to reach out to the protesters, were at the airport to receive the victim’s body. The funeral was held in the shadow of high level state security away from the reach of the public. And the Delhi government has now come out with the announcement of a compensation of Rs 15 lakh and a job for a family member of the victim.
But the scar inflicted by the brutal gang-rape can surely not be healed with token gestures or pious platitudes. Rape is the most violent and sordid expression of a deep-seated prejudice and structural discrimination against women that defines mainstream society and culture in India today. That a Congress MP, who also happens to be the son of the incumbent President of India, could make such a vicious comment about women participating in the ongoing anti-rape agitation and then get away with an empty apology with the party refusing to take any action against him, comes as a shocking pointer to the misogynist mindset of the ruling elite. And the Indian state, the judiciary included, has little will to combat this mindset – on the contrary, more often than not, it behaves as a custodian of this mindset. No wonder then that India has such a high incidence of custodial rapes.
It should be remembered that the two key milestones of the anti-rape agitation in the last three decades were both related to custodial rape. The well-known Mathura rape case which galvanised women’s organisations in the first frontal battle on the issue of rape was a shocking instance of a custodial rape condoned by the apex court. In fact it was the acquittal of the accused constables by the Supreme Court overturning the High Court verdict that triggered the first powerful wave of anti-rape protests in the country in 1979 and led to some stringent provisions in the anti-rape law by 1983.
The second powerful wave came in July 2004 in the wake of the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles regiment of the Indian Army. The women of Manipur drew the attention of the whole world with their bold protest, and this, together with the historic hunger strike of Irom Sharmila Chanu, has placed the call for the repeal of the draconian AFSPA firmly on the agenda of the democratic movement of the country. Indeed, the democratic movement has been increasingly aware of the fact that state and state-sponsored violence, from Kashmir to Gujarat to Chhattisgarh and beyond, has unfailingly been marked by the targeting of women for horrific sexual violence.
The ongoing agitation which has already galvanised the people on such an encouragingly big scale marks the third major milestone in the epic battle against violence against women in India. It is important to grasp and stress the linkages of the current phase with the previous phases in the history of the women’s movement because the government is bent upon reducing it to a passing event to be buried under the bureaucratic framework of investigative committees and token legislative changes. Changes in rape laws and other laws dealing with women’s rights, and more importantly with the mechanism of implementation and the justice delivery system, are of urgent importance and the government must be forced to adopt an inclusive and transparent democratic process in proper consultation with women’s organisations to bring about much-needed and much-awaited changes in this direction. The issue of change in rape laws can certainly not be left at the mercy of a Parliament which has been busy holding back for the last two decades a legislation for one-third reservation for women in legislative bodies.
But the impetus generated by the December upsurge in Delhi and across the country cannot and must not be allowed to be lost in a battle exclusively concerned with legal provisions for justice to rape victims. For the first time in modern India, the issue of patriarchal violence against women has occupied the centre stage of the democratic movement with great force. In 2013, we must carry forward this great momentum towards a decisive defeat of all the patriarchal ideas and forces which fetter women’s freedom and violates their dignity and democratic rights. Victory to the power of the protesting people that has begun to make its presence felt on the streets of India!