Yesterday Once More

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Illustration: Dwijith CV

By the time you finish reading this article, one woman would have been raped somewhere in India.

That is only half the story told.

The other half is that that rape survivor could be your mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, colleague or a friend.

Ask Avnindra Pratap Pandey, the companion of Jyoti aka Nirbhaya on that fateful night of 16 December 2012. Or the 36-year-old man from Khajuri Khas locality in northeast Delhi who avenged the rape of his minor daughter by first strangling the rapist and then burning his manhood with heated tongs on 31 October this year. Or even the family of the 27-year-old woman who was raped on 5 December while she was returning home in a taxi cab operated by Uber.

If guilt, shame and rage drove the father to take the extreme step, the government’s response following the Uber rape case was equally Pavlovian. It banned Uber’s operations in New Delhi. While the jury is still out on whether it constituted sufficient, reasonable or appropriate action, what can be said without exaggeration is that people such as Badri Singh, father of Nirbhaya, have had enough of the ineptitude and bankruptcy exhibited by successive governments, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-vaunted model of governance.

The lament of Nirbhaya’s family

Sundays are never the same for Badri Singh’s family. It was a Sunday on 16 December 2012 when Nirbhaya left her Uttam Nagar home never to return alive. “I still remember Nirbhaya cooked rajma (kidney beans) in the morning. She was an excellent cook and loved to cook for me; we used to look forward to spending time together,” Singh recalls.

Two years have passed but the family still awaits justice. Despair has taken the place of anger in Singh’s life. “I don’t feel angry anymore but I feel helpless. It has been almost two years now and the final judgment in the case is still pending. In the past six months, there is a status quo in the Supreme Court regarding this incident. Every night when I go to sleep I promise my daughter that justice would be done, but the next day nothing moves,” he says, breaking down. “I don’t cry in front of my family. I try to be strong. But whenever I realise that my promise made to my daughter remains unfulfilled, I feel helpless.”

His wife Asha Devi is inconsolable. “Every thing in the house reminds me of my daughter. Her photograph, her clothes, her memory, her smile, her ­affection… just everything keeps reminding me of my irrevocable loss,” she says.

“All of Delhi had come out on the roads. People from all walks of life shared our pain. We hoped that though it was a personal loss to us, at least things would change for the better, but then after two years nothing worth mentioning has changed,” Singh says, recalling an event that was held in December 2013 at the Constitution Club in New Delhi to mark the first anniversary of Nirbhaya’s gangrape and murder. Sushma Swaraj, now minister of external affairs, had attended the function, too. On the occasion, she had promised that if the BJP came to power, 16 December would be declared Nirbhaya Divas. “Now the bjp is in power but leave aside naming 16 December in the memory of my daughter, I have still not got an appointment with her though I have made many attempts for it,” he says.

It is not only the Central government that failed to deliver what it promised; Singh says most political parties wanted to cash in on the issue. When the funeral took place in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav visited Singh’s family and made certain promises. “He asked me what all help the family needs from the state government. Considering that what I have lost can never be compensated, I asked the chief minister to at least build a hospital in my village of Merawarakala in Ballia district because there are no medical facilities within 20 km of the village. As the Nirbhaya issue was the talk of the nation, the state government acquired a piece of land in the village and laid the foundation for the hospital. Two years on, only the boundary wall of the hospital has been constructed; no hospital is in sight,” Singh told Tehelka.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi authorities had approached the Singhs, too, and asked what they could do in Nirbhaya’s honour. “We asked them to build a science museum in the name of our daughter so that students can benefit from it, but as most political promises made during the time, this one too, has not seen the light of day,” he adds.

Talking about the Uber rape case, Singh says simply talking about fast-track courts and trials would not solve any purpose. “If they had hanged the perpetrators in Nirbhaya’s case, it could have worked as a deterrent. I am surprised that despite all the laws available, rape cases are not coming down,” he notes.

And his assertion is borne out by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. The number of rapes in the country rose by 35.2 percent from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,707 in 2013 with Delhi reporting the highest number of rape cases in 2013, confirming its reputation as India’s ‘rape capital’. In 15,556 cases reported in 2013, the rape survivors were aged between 18 and 30 years.

According to the Delhi Police, 616 cases of rape and 1,336 cases of molestation were registered between 1 January 2014 and 30 April, which is a 36 percent increase over the corresponding period in 2013.

“Enough promises have been made. Every day is an ordeal for us. I don’t know how long I will live but before I die I want to fulfil my promise made to my daughter on 24 December 2012, which was the last time we saw her conscious. (Nirbhaya passed away five days later.) I vividly remember that I looked in her eyes and all she wanted was for the perpetrators of the crimes to be punished. I promised her, yes very soon.”

Lost opportunity For all the rage generated in the aftermath of the 16 December 2012 gangrape, nothing much has changed on the ground
Lost opportunity For all the rage generated in the aftermath of the 16 December 2012 gangrape, nothing much has changed on the ground, Photo: Tehelka Archives

Singh says he has written a letter to Prime Minister Modi seeking an audience with him. “It is more than 15 days since I wrote the letter and submitted it to the Prime Minister’s Office but I am yet to receive a response.”

Singh’s disappointment is all the more painful because of the hope Modi had sought to kindle among the scores of ordinary Indians when, in his inaugural Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, he had said: “Brothers and sisters, when we hear about the incidents of rape, we hang our heads in shame. People come out with different arguments, someone indulges in psychoanalysis, but brothers and sisters, today, from this platform, I want to ask those parents, I want to ask every parent that you have a daughter of 10 or 12 years age, you are always on the alert, every now and then you keep on asking where are you going, when would you come back, inform immediately after you reach. Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have any parents ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are? After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our son as to what he is doing and where he is going? If every parent decides to impose as many restrictions on the sons as have been imposed on our daughters, try to do this with your sons, try to ask such questions of them. (SIC)”

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Taken For A Ride

The Delhi Radio Taxi Scheme, 2006, lays down terms and conditions for licensing of taxi services and applies to all cabs plying customers. Some of its key provisions are:

• The vehicle must be equipped with a mobile radio fitted in the front panel for communication between the driver and the main control room of the licensee

• Vehicles must be fitted with GPS/GPRS-based tracking devices, which must be in constant communication with the central control unit while the vehicles are on duty

• The photograph of the driver, licence particulars and details of the licensee will have to be displayed on the dashboard of the vehicle

• The transport helpline number should be prominently displayed inside and outside the cab as prescribed

• The driver must be of good character without any criminal record

• The radio taxi licensee shall be responsible for the quality of the drivers, their police verification, employer control and supervision of drivers, employee behaviour etc. The employers shall also ensure that the drivers are totally safe, reliable and trustworthy

Companies such as Uber, Ola, Taxi for Sure and Taxi Pixie are not registered under either the Delhi Radio Taxi Scheme, 2006, or the Economy Radio Taxi Scheme, 2010, and are operating without any such permit. These companies call themselves software providers (aggregators) and claim that they are not cab operators, and have thus circumvented the Central Motor Vehicles Act and all rules framed thereunder. In its judgment, the Supreme Court had directed that all cabs in New Delhi should run on CNG. However, companies such as Uber, Ola, Taxi for Sure and Taxi Pixie have been operating on diesel/petrol.

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Candidate Modi played the piper to an ‘angry’ Indian during the course of an interview to a private television channel. He wondered aloud, “After the massive revolution spurred by Nirbhaya, they (the erstwhile UPA government) allocated
Rs 1,000 crore to (the) Nirbhaya (Fund), for the country’s women, and didn’t spend a single penny all year. They only made a mention of it in the Budget. In the interim budget too, they announced a sum of  Rs 1,000 crore to the Nirbhaya Fund, when they hadn’t spent a single penny over the past one-and-a-half years. Is this not neech politics? Is this not a neech act? (SIC)”

Yet, six months into office, Prime Minister Modi’s government has not fared any better than its predecessor. The fate of the much-anticipated Nirbhaya Centres to be set up in 600-odd districts countrywide as temporary shelters for rape survivors is not known. A common, nationwide helpline number for women in distress has not seen the light of day so far. Also, the prime minister has not taken the nation into confidence on how his government intends to use the Nirbhaya Fund, which was increased by another Rs 1,000 crore in this year’s Union Budget.

Then there are other questions that the government and its agencies, including the Delhi Police, need to answer. How was a habitual offender such as Shiv Kumar Yadav (he was booked on rape and assault charges in 2011 in Delhi) not behind bars facing trial? Why did Uber not act on a complaint against Yadav after a passenger by the name of Nidhi Shah caught him leering at her on 26 November, just 10 days before the Uber rape case? (Tehelka made contact with Nidhi Shah but she declined to speak.)

Neither the National Commission for Women (NCW) nor the Ministry of Women and Child Development was willing to speak to Tehelka. While the office of  NCW chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam conveyed its regret, neither the office of Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi nor Director (Media and Communication) Nanu Bhasin cared to respond to requests for an interview with the minister.

In the wake of the latest rape case, all the intentions and policy pronouncements, however welcome, seem like candles in a hurricane. Is there no imminent denouement to this Sisyphean narrative of innocent lives torn apart, piece by irreplaceable piece, with no justice or closure, leave alone a solution, at the end of the brutality?

Nothing has changed

What the Uber rape case shows is that post-Nirbhaya, nothing has changed. Just 24 months ago, politicians of all hues had sought to convey their outrage and angst, made solemn promises of overhauling the criminal justice system, of putting in place a redressal mechanism that actually worked and of effecting a lasting change in viciously patriarchal mindsets. Yet, another woman has been raped. This time, the driver of the upscale taxi service did not have a valid licence, is a serial sex offender and after committing the crime, threatened the victim with just the kind of physical brutality that Nirbhaya had succumbed to.

Serial offender Uber driver and rape accused Shiv Yadav being taken into custody
Serial offender Uber driver and rape accused Shiv Yadav being taken into custody

After Nirbhaya became a generic term for long-overdue redressal of violent crimes against women, the most cynical of Indians was forced to acknowledge that one tiny spark of hope that kept flickering and burning, which seemed to convince them that the status quo could be reversed, after all; that the aftermath of the Nirbhaya’s gangrape seemed set to effect a seminal churning in the death-still oceans of India’s malignant police force, coagulated judicial mechanism and cancer-of-corruption-ridden bureaucracy. Today, the illusion lies shattered. And, predictably, the mopping up and putting away of the flotsam and jetsam of India’s wrecked social ziggurat is already underway.

A deep sense of frustration

In June 2013, President Pranab Mukherjee laid the foundation stone for Nirbhaya Bhavan, the new headquarters of the NCW. President Mukherjee’s deep sense of frustration was evident in the following words: “The barbaric act perpetrated on women is not just a matter of law and force, but also of society’s apathetic attitude. Whenever a woman is subjected to violence, people around show their apathy and aloofness. It is depravity of human nature. The recent cases of violence on women indicate that we have lost our civilisational values and a society which cannot provide respect, dignity and security to its women is not worth being called a civilised society.”

Some of the remarks made by personalities such as President Mukherjee’s son Abhijit, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and his party colleague Abu Azmi and, more recently, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have only made matters worse. Yadav said that boys commit mistakes and they should not be hanged for rape. Azmi, in turn, offered a unique solution to stop rapes: “Any woman who goes out with a man with or without her consent should be hanged.” Immediately after the Nirbhaya gangrape, Abhijit Mukherjee had stunned protesters who had assembled near India Gate and Raisina Hill by saying that the agitation was being led by “highly dented and painted” women. Jaitley drew flak for saying that “one small rape” had tarnished India’s image as a tourist destination.

The list is long, ‘illustrious’ and gender-neutral. Sheila Dikshit, a former Kerala governor and a former Delhi chief minister, had warned that “one should not be adventurous being a woman”. She was speaking after a journalist was murdered while returning home from work late at night. Mamta Sharma, a former NCW chairperson, had said, “Women should be careful about the way they dress because such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West. This is eroding our culture and causing such crimes (rapes) to happen.”

Incidentally, sexual violence against women, in all its forms and manifestations, knows no borders. For every Nirbhaya, there is a Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan or a Reyhanah Jabbari in Iran who cry out for attention. While Mukhtar Mai was gangraped, for the sins of her brother, on the orders of a village council in 2002, Reyhanah Jabbari was sent to the gallows in October this year for murdering her alleged rapist.

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