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Delhi gang-rape: Time to instil the fear of law

January 09, 2013 11:39 IST

It is the 'tolerance' of eve-teasing and harassment of women that is the starting point of 'social rapes', points out Colonel Anil Athale (retd)

Deviating from one's chosen area of expertise is daunting but the outrage over the recent gang-rape in a moving bus in Delhi has forced this author to do just that. There are two reasons for this, one is the knee-jerk response of the so-called leadership, that will do greater harm than good, and second, as someone who lived in Delhi as an 'aam adami' for four years, one is well aware of the ordeal that women undergo while commuting in Delhi.

The heinous crime has raised several questions that need considered answers. Unfortunately, the media debate has generated more noise than light.

First and foremost it is a shame that Delhi is not just the national capital but also the rape capital of the country. The number of rape cases in Delhi is almost twice as many as those that take place in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai put together. This to an extent explains the rather tepid public response to the Delhi outrage. As a father of a daughter in Pune, one never experienced the kind of insecurity/fear that is so common in North India.

There is certainly a north-south divide on this issue. Delhi's geography, that shares borders with lawless Uttar Pradesh, has much to do with this predicament. On a long-term basis, unlike the rest of the country, north India, with the exception of Punjab and to an extent Haryana, has not had any meaningful social reform movement.

As a sociologist once put it, that in a place like Pune where women are free and safe, they stand on the shoulders of social reformers like Agarkar, Phule, Karve and Ambedkar. The reformists faced the ire of traditionalists in the 19th century. Same is the case in southern India, where social reform movements and women's empowerment have a history of over a hundred years.

Unfortunately, in most of north India, social reform has been supplanted by politics. Even if the reforms begin today (of which there seems no sign), it will take at least a century for the region to catch up.

There is a clear need to distinguish between rape and crimes against women into two separate categories. One is the crime that is committed by a deviant individual in isolation and is almost impossible to stop. This is a universal fact and even otherwise 'safe' parts of the country are no exception. The second is, crimes against women as a 'social' phenomenon, like gang-rape or collective eve-teasing. It is the second that is horrific and reflects poorly on a society.

To some extent these crimes take place mainly in urban settings where an individual feels he can flout social norms since cities provide 'anonymity' not available in a rural setting where everyone knows everyone and there are social consequences of deviant or criminal behaviour. To that extent Mohan Bhagwat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was right, although for the wrong reasons. Rural areas, especially ones that have feudal culture, is often the scene of similar crimes.

Of course, there are other reasons like loosening social control, loss of family values, ineffective policing, titillation by media, horrible role models of leadership, ineffective and slow criminal justice system corroded by corruption, for such behaviour.

Zero tolerance for eve-teasing

Those of us who were in our youth in the 1960s distinctly remember the 'Roadside Romeo's of yore. That epidemic was engendered by the Bollywood stereotype of a 'hero' troubling a girl (see old black and white movies of those days to confirm) who later falls in love with the tormentor and was a major catalyst for the rise of the 'Roadside Romeo' culture.

Eve-teasing or harassment of women is done openly, brazenly and generally by a gang. The apathetic onlookers do not intervene for fear of violence and the victim remains silent. This creates a climate of impunity which is an invitation for the end of the rule of law. It is the 'tolerance' of eve-teasing and harassment of women that is the starting point of 'social rapes'. If a detailed study is done of the rapist's past one will surely find a habitual eve-teaser. Once a person or a group gets away with this, he then graduates to molestation and ultimately rape.

More than any other city in India, in Delhi every single women who has had to travel by public transport has faced eve-teasing or molestation. Our largely 'crorepati' and dynastic MPs and political leaders have no idea of this. If ever they do travel in public transport, paying lip-service to being an 'aam aadmi', it is with a score of gun-toting bodyguards.

One reason this problem has remained unaddressed is this disconnect between the 'aam' and the 'khaas aadmi'. The Delhi outrage was prompted by this glaring contrast between well-protected VIPs and the hapless 'aam aadmi'.

Dealing with this issue is not rocket science. This author recalls that in many small towns of Maharashtra, the police regularly rounded up eve-teasers, tonsured their heads and paraded them through streets. Not being a legal eagle or former cop, one does not know under what law this was done. But suffice to say that it worked.

It is time the police adopt this tactic of public humiliation in metros as well, to catch and punish eve-teasers. As an innovation the police can well make the convict stand at a public square in his own locality with a placard round his neck proclaiming 'I am an eve-teaser'.

To catch eve-teasers, the police should form teams of women police who act as decoys with their male colleagues ready to nab the culprit. In violent areas, the members of such a team should be armed for in the 'katta'-(local firearm) infested areas, criminals do use weapons even against the police force.

This is not some fictional suggestion; in my hometown of Pune, a very gutsy IPS lady officer did this successfully. The point is it can be done and once a number of such cases criminals are caught and dealt with in such a summary manner, eve-teasers will be forever scared that the girl that they are trying to tease may well turn out to be a police officer! Nabbing eve-teasers and punishing them promptly will stop them from 'graduating' to rapists.

The police also need to adopt similar tactics in the high-end bars and restaurants where the Manu Sharmas and Vikas Yadavs (of the infamous Jessica Lal case) frequently do what the 'aam-aadmi' does in a DTC bus. How the police and judiciary cope with the 'Do you know who I am?' criminals will define whether India remains a land which upholds the rule of law or becomes a banana republic.

In earlier times and even today in many parts of our country, the public itself generally takes action against misbehaviour. As to why this laudable trait has vanished is a subject of research for social scientists. 

Crime and punishment

Some time ago, the media highlighted how Manu Sharma spent his time in prison, being allowed out frequently on parole to play cricket and attend parties. The crimes of rape or acid attacks scar the victim, physically and mentally, for life. Yet, far too often, the perpetrator is let off after two-three years, even less if he has a political godfather, gets married and leads a normal life.

Even if the judicial process is slow, the government has enough powers to strip a person of various citizenship privileges like the Aadhar card, passport and jobs. The police must keep records of such offenders and this must come up in every instance requiring police verification. Once the message goes home that this crime leads to ruination, it will have a deterrent effect.

For misbehaviour by the rich and powerful in public places, fines in millions of rupees must be imposed and the victims compensated. Everyone understands money.

It is also time the judiciary wakes up and places stringent conditions on parole for heinous crimes, else an indulgent chief minister may let the culprit enjoy life in prison as well. One is in agreement with eminent lawyer Ram Jethmalani that the death sentence is no solution. Instead let the criminal be sentenced for life with no parole or remission.

The saturation media coverage of crimes against women has spread an impression as if India is the numero uno nation in crimes against women. Nothing is further from the truth. Countries like the United States have far greater rate of crimes against women per million population than India can ever have! The smug comments by the Western media are best ignored.

The Indian criminal justice system is in a state of near-breakdown due to judicial delays. A minister in the central cabinet, speaking on television, equated speedy justice with trial by a kangaroo court. It is time to instil the fear of law if we are to survive as a civilised society. The howls of human rights NGOs need to be ignored on this issue.

Colonel Anil Athale (retd)