Why Women Hold Their Peace

Rapes and sexual harassment will continue to go unreported as long as there is no recourse for justice.

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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“Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.” Ludwig Borne


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The recent atrocity in one of our major metropolitan cities has only served to conjure up a certain sense of déjà vu. The disconcerting factor is that it is happening with a frightening degree of regularity and is generally greeted with ephemeral expressions of outrage only to recede from public consciousness with the passage of time. But the scars these atrocities leave behind are permanent.

The truth is that our society is appallingly insensitive to the security needs of women. And the illusion is that the people in charge of our institutions are sufficiently motivated to alter the status quo.  A striking example was that of Baby Afreen who was condemned to die because of her gender – by her own progenitor. Recall the ritual outrage that we were all subjected to on all the news channels. Is it any surprise that a society which fails to protect a baby because of her gender should be facing regular atrocities against women?

The other illusion – and a dangerous one – is that these atrocities do take place because of insufficient statutory provisions. Channel after channel presented debates where the overwhelming sentiment was that if we had a provision for the death penalty for rapists, these incidents would be curtailed. Arnab Goswami was at the forefront with this hypothesis. He had a collection of panelists who were overwhelmingly rooting for the death penalty. Lawyer Vrinda Grover put forward a very cogent case against giving vent to our basal instincts, but was shouted down by Goswami. Grover’s case was straightforward – before we root for more stringent punishment provisions,we need to convince ourselves that the existing provisions have been applied and found wanting.

According to Arnab Goswami, people like us are bleeding hearts. I strongly object to this guttural evaluation of a complex problem. The fact remains that there are some very stringent provisions for rape under our Indian Penal Code where an offender could even be sentenced for life. Justice Verma’s recommendations if applied could make the provisions even tougher.

The sad corollary is that it is not the absence of provisions in our statute but their application which is leading to criminals having a heyday. And that applies to crime in general.

The criminal justice system is riddled with variables which make it very difficult for suitable retribution to be meted out to offenders. It is these impediments we have to address to make any realistic progress.

We all know that the police investigative system and the prosecutorial systems are heavily politicised. That about 30% of our legislators face charges of felony is a shocking statistic to anyone – except the Indian politicians who in a rare show of unity have decided to neutralise the apex court’s attempts to address it. We all know that the criminal justice system has broken down when we languish with single digit percentage conviction rates. It is about time we had a realistic debate on whether the adversarial system of justice we inherited from the British is suited to our needs – or whether we would be better off with the French inquisitorial system where the conviction rate is over 90% and miscarriages of justice are virtually unknown. Let us not be beguiled by the spurious argument that death penalty for rape is the only solution or even the best solution.

None of these points came to the fore in any of the debates I watched on Times Now, CNN IBNNDTV 24X7 and Headlines Today. For a change,I found Arnab Goswami extremely disappointing and his interview with Raj Thackeray was – I believe – the ultimate lowpoint. He allowed this bullying politician to make insulting political and minatory insinuations. Gone was his bravado, and we witnessed some highly inflammatory diatribes which should never have been aired. I have always maintained that Arnab is selective when it comes to his attempt to hector politicians. He has to the best of my knowledge never tried that with Raj Thackeray and another politician now residing at Rajpath who happens to be the proud father of an MP who describes protesting women as “painted and dented”. It was not out of place for us to expect this Rajpath resident to address the nation after this calamity. We are yet to hear from him.

I was particularly perturbed when I perused through a column by the young NDTV journalist, Sunetra Chaudhary in yesterday’s DNA. She went on to describe a particular incident which took place more than 15 years ago when she had approached a politician late in the night for a comment. The particular politician’s assistant had the audacity to make a suggestion that only women practitioners of the forbidden profession worked late in the night. Sunetra is still living with this humiliation with no avenue for effective redressal.

Sunetra is about my adopted daughter’s age and I must admit to a feeling of intense outrage. Not over what she had revealed, but what she had not. The name of the politician or the assistant was not made public. That, of course, is Sunetra’s prerogative – but the logical deduction would be that she refrained from naming them to avoid any possibility of retaliation. And it is fair to assume that many other women live through such insults and do not share them.

I am reminded of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy in 1991. Thomas, a nominee for the US Supreme Court, was confronted with allegations of the lewdest nature by his former intern – Hill. Thomas’ supporters cried foul, stating that Hill had never made these allegations public for years. The fact that emerged was that a large percentage of women who face harassment of this nature chose to keep quiet as they are unsure of a sympathetic reception, which is exactly what happened here. Thomas was confirmed as a judge despite these allegations by arch-Conservatives who dominated Senate at the time.

It is this sense of insecurity that women feel in seeking full expression of their personality that demeans not just them but all of us -victims, perpetrators and the mute/insensitive observers most of us have become. Had this not been the case, a person like Mani Shankar Aiyar who had the temerity to call widowed Sheila Dixit a “gangster’s moll” (in Sunday, which was edited by Vir Sanghvi) way back in the early 90s should have been banished from the political scene. And Naresh Agarwal would have been the subject of public opprobrium after what he said, rather than enjoy the perks and privileges of being a senior politician.

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