For many months, one has had a lingering feeling that India is on the brink of some-kind-of long-lasting change. Last week’s street protests, rallies, candle light vigils and mostly silent demonstrations are testament of that change. The crowds may well have collected because of the gruesome sexual assault of an anonymous girl. But they were united by their contempt against establishment, their resentment against the State and disgust for all things governmental. These crowds, which drove the forces to don their iron shields, were led by students, supported by the average working class folk and many others who felt they had had enough. Those gathered had convened under no one’s leadership, held no organizational banners and derived no external support. They were equipped by their sense of conviction, their belief that change, whatever it might be, is essential and a voice they know to be powerful.
One question repeatedly being asked is – what was it about this particular incident that triggered this national outrage? The easy answer is that the attack was most heinous, the assault ghastly and the use of iron rods so bone chilling that one was compelled to go up in arms. But what can’t be overlooked is that this incident occurred in the midst of the societal churn in India. Over the last few years, the man on the street has realised the power of collective action and will use that strength to compel change. The recent outcry is an extension of that. It’s a tipping point, just as the Jessica Lal case was some years ago. At that time the reversal of the acquittal into a conviction compelled changes in our criminal justice system. In similar manner, the current public outcry has compelled a review of the policing practices in India, which includes the process of registration, investigation and prosecution of crimes. The recent incident has also pointed to the flaws in the judicial system and has succeeded in compelling authorities to constitute a special committee to examine enhanced punishment for sexual assaults, an inquiry commission to review how the safety and security of women in the NCR may be improved and has led to the inauguration of 5 fast-track courts to deal specifically with crimes relating to sexual offences.
All positive developments triggered by an unfortunate incident. Now what’s critical is to ensure that we don’t forget the learning’s from this incident or get complacent after these initial announcements. Unfortunately, too many times in the past we have eased the pressure after the initial frenzy. Recall, the grisly Nithari serial murder and rape cases of 2005-2006 and the public outcry they had created. In similar manner, the Central Government appointed a high-level committee to go into the police lapses during the reporting and investigations of the missing children. The committee found that the police had failed in their duty in investigating the complaints of the parents of the missing children and acted in a grossly negligent manner. The case was eventually transferred to the CBI, but it was not until the Supreme Court pulled-up the investigating agency that proper charge-sheets were filed. Eventually a special court convicted the prime accused, but on appeal one of them was acquitted.
As a defender of the rule of law one is not suggesting that the due process of law shouldn’t be followed. On the contrary, one can’t forget the basic legal tenet – innocent until proved guilty. But the point being raised is that of the 19 cases registered, charge-sheet was filed in 16 cases and till date the accused have been convicted only in 5 cases.
Add to the above the statistics disclosed by the National Crime Record Bureau – 24,206 rape cases were registered in 2011, a 25% increase from 2006 and 3/4th of those accused are still at large. In fact, the bureau reports that the conviction has decreased from 46% in 1971 to 26% in 2012 even though the percentage of rape cases has increased by around 112% over the last two decades! And these stats are only for the reported cases.
With such background, the opportunity presented by this recent incident should not be allowed to pass. Now is when we need to make sure that the specially constituted courts are adequately staffed both with judges and support staff and are better equipped with research facilities etc.. Judicial vacancies need to be filed, judicial services need to be made rewarding to the dispensators of justice and only then can we expect higher convictions and the certainty of punishment, which is a stronger deterrent even over severity of punishment. If the government is really committed to reforms and better governance, than it should demonstrate its commitment to judicial reforms by increasing the budget allocation on judicial spending from the dismal percentage it currently allocates. Similar reforms are required in policing and police stations should no longer be expected to fiscally sustain themselves. Enough has already been said about changes required in societal norms and the need to shed our inherently patriarchic and misogynist traditions.
The special judge hearing the Nithari rape and killings cases in a conviction sentence coincidentally issued last week quoting an American writer said “the dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them.” It is therefore incumbent upon us to ensure, through sustained action, that justice is finally done for that anonymous Delhi girl and the numerous other anonymous victims who have hitherto maintained silence. It is not always in the history of a nation that one gets to participate in the process of change. We are fortunate to find ourselves in the middle of the churn. It is therefore our duty to ensure that all this rhetoric gets converted into action and the fight of the dead girl is kept alive, now and till actual changes come about. I am optimistic and willing to do my part – I hope, so are you?
Satvik Varma is an advocate based in New Delhi & an Aspen India Leadership Fellow.
Published in The Financial Express on 7th January, 2013