In 21st century India, where many women have broken through the glass ceiling, there are shocking reminders that the more things change for them, the more they remain the same. Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee member Dharamvir Goyal’s appalling stand of blaming women themselves for provoking the assaults they face is a case in point. It is indeed ironic that despite passing progressive bills, few politicians take a public stand against gender-based violence. When politicians begin to raise doubts about the antecedents of rape victims in public or escape responsibility by blaming the opposition for inciting such crimes, it emboldens the rapists. Justice is rarely done in the face of such attitudes. This warped mindset of cultivating patriarchal beliefs, which always raise fingers at woman’s character when she becomes a victim of rape, has as such resulted in only one in ten women ever reporting rape to the police. Sadly, it is not uncommon to find police officers also subscribing to such a regressive belief system. This explains why only one in four accused is convicted. Also the pendency of rape cases in trial courts has increased from 78 per cent to 83 per cent. This victim blaming approach explains why crimes against women continue to be on the rise. It was indeed insensitive of Mr Goyal to trivialise the issue and give it a political colour.
Shocking instances of rape continue to hit the headlines along with the tendency of police and administrators to blame the victim. Yet, the Haryana, government stubbornly refuses to acknowledge them. Tragically, instead of dealing with the problem as a law and order issue, the sudden spurt in crimes against women in the state is being converted into a political blame game. With elections just two years away, the Congress party has seized upon these ghastly incidents to try and corner the opposition as a ploy to seek justification for such crimes. Rather than take responsibility for these incidents, the Congress-led UPA chose to cover up its failure to prevent such outrages. Responding to the slow pace of nabbing perpetrators, the state unit of Congress took recourse to describe the rapes as a “political conspiracy” to discredit the Haryana Government on top of that, the state administration has tried to blame media for sensationalising the rape cases. The Haryana government’s failure to take immediate remedial measures to stop recurrence of such serious crimes against women and bring the culprits to book depicts the sad state of governance in our country. Notwithstanding Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s assurance for speedy justice to the women of Haryana the reaction of the state government to media reports and its refusal to look at the real situation is unfortunate and condemnable in the strongest terms.
What gives further cause for dismay is that Mr Goyal’s comment comes close on the heels of opposition leader and INLD Chief Om Prakash Chautala’s endorsement of the Khap Panchayat’s outrageous diktat that boys and girls should be married by the time they are 16. Khap panchayats are known for their draconian decrees in the name of protecting women. That Mr Chautala was compelled to support the khap panchayat suggestions citing a Mughal era practice finds its genesis in the politics of vote bank.
It is no secret that khaps in Haryana have played havoc with the lives of many young people. The tacit approval of political parties as well as the failure of the administration to curb khap-sanctioned crimes is what gives them a fresh lease of life. The khap panchayats of Haryana have new come out with a bizarre suggestion that doing away with the marriagable age limit and early marriages will reduce the incidence of rape. Coming from khaps who are known to run parallel courts in the name of offering justice to rural folks this suggestion is grounded in ignorance.
The wonder solution of early marriage to prevent such incidents from recurring recommended by khap panchayat and endorsed by the former Haryana CM smacks of a feudalistic psyche that wants to take control of women’s lives. Instead of calling for the strengthening of laws to protect women and punish the rapists, the khaps want to take the country backwards by lowering the marriagable age. Rather than strengthening her protection, our khaps want to confine her in home.
Child marriage as a remedy for rape is ridiculous. This has no scientific proof. Indeed, child marriage is a crime against society. The minimum age for marriage has been arrived at after studying various factors. Victims and perpetrators of rape belong to all age groups. Besides, there is no evidence to prove that married women are not raped or that married men do not commit the heinous crime. The khap panchayat’s proposal has no rationale and is tantamount to blatant in infringement of basic human rights.
In fact, a day after former Haryana CM Mr Chautala endorsed khap panchayat’s suggestion, four UN agencies, UNICEF, UNFPA, UN women and UN Information Centre urged India to take “incremental action” to fight the scourge of child marriages in the country. UNICEF India Chief Louis Georges Arsenault only recently said that child marriage was a threat to a girl’s childhood and a loss for the nation. Reports point out that close to half the girls in India are married before 18 years of age. More than 40 per cent of the world’s child marriages happen in India. Thus child marriage is no solution to mending spate of rapes. In fact, marrying when neither partner is mature could even add to the problem.
Unfortunately, there has been no strong reaction from the political fraternity. The retro grade measures of khap panchayats are at best met with a stoic silence by parties across the political spectrum. Politicians in Haryana also steer clear of these local power elites for fear of disturbing their own electoral fortunes. Outfits like khaps seem to believe that no force, not even the Supreme Court can question their authority. While such attitude could be due to lack of education the tacit support extended to them by self-seeking politicians further bolsters their obscurantist practices. What is more deplorable is that our young and educated parliamentarians also support the authority of khaps. Someone should educate these self-styled chauvinists about the ills of child marriage and material mortality rates.
Given the sweeping gender bias and insensitivity, a victimised women is more often than not reluctant to approach society, police or the legal system knowing that it will further expose her to ignominy and trauma. If we keep on ascribing blame on women for such crimes, it will make easy for the perpetrators to get away. And crimes would continue to happen.
With Haryana rape tally now touching 17, police and political authorities need to start treating rape as a heinous crime and put in place some serious deterrents. Reforming police and judicial procedures will go a long way towards assuring justice to victims detering further crimes against women. It is high time exemplary punishment was awarded to rapists for ensuring speedy Justice. There is also need to do away with dual system of justice prevailing in the state.
We all as a society have a role to play if crimes against women happen too often. For this, we need proper legislation, implementation of laws, empowerment of women and change in social attitudes towards women. But the real solution lies in not turning the victim into a criminal because she deserves a fair trial.
By Sunita Vakil