Amrita Basu on women’s safety in India

"Indian Women" by Joshua Song — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commmons —

​Amrita Basu is the Paino Professor of Political Science and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies at Amherst College. She has written extensively on social movements and women’s activism in India. Her books include Two Faces of Protest: Contrasting Modes of Women's Activism in India and Violent Conjunctures in Democratic India. She has also edited several books (including Women's Movements in the Global Era.) She received a distinguished teaching award in 2008. She received her B.A. from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from Columbia University. On February 10, 2017, she spoke with Erica Rawles CMC '17.

Media reports paint a rather grim and frightening picture of sexual violence against women in India. How does India compare with other developing countries in terms of sexual violence against women?

While I have not looked at very recent figures on this, one widely quoted study from 2010 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that the instance of rape in India was 1.8 for 100,000 people, compared with 27.3 in the United States, 28.8 in the U.K., 63.5 in Sweden, and 120 in South Africa. At least according to this data, the problem in India is less severe than in many other countries. In fact, there are some people, like the scholar Poulomi Raychaudhuri, who argue that highlighting India’s rape crisis is somewhat Eurocentric. Apart from this, comparisons between countries are hard to make. The data is not reliable because definitions of rape are inconsistent. Countries have very different ways of reporting and recording rape. For example, some countries criminalize marital rape, while oathers do not. 

In a 2013 article, Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote that the numbers of recorded rapes in India are underestimated. But even if the figure is multiplied by five or 10 times, it would still show that the number of rapes in India is lower than in the United States, the U.K., Sweden, South Africa and so on. Hence, the comparative data suggest that the problem is not worse in India; and yet obviously the problem is very, very serious, especially if one looks at variations within India. In New Delhi for example, which is often considered the rape capital of the world, the incidence of rape are much higher than in other cities in India. 

I’m curious to hear more about the idea that the current focus of rape in India is a Eurocentric view. Why do you think it is that other countries are focused on the problem of rape in India specifically, as opposed to other countries with worse statistics of violence against women? 

The horrific Delhi gang rape of Jyoti Pandey publicized the issue because the rape was so horrific and because there was so much protest against the rape. While there has been a high incidence of rape in many countries there haven’t been the same type of attention-grabbing cases of rape in the U.S. and the U.K. The media in India historically didn’t pay much attention to the issue of rape and now they’ve begun to and that’s a good thing. 

According to recent reports, incidents of rape have increased in India. They have even increased since 2013 when the government passed a law that provides for much stricter penalties for those convicted of rape. That raises an interesting question as to whether the incidence of rape has actually increased significantly or whether people are just reporting it more now, or some combination of the two. It may be that we are able to identify rape more now than in the past.

After the brutal attack and gang rape of Jyoti Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2012, protests and demonstrations were held around the world to protest violence against women and the current laws against rape in India. What role do you see social movements, specifically women-led social movements, playing in bringing about lasting change?

I published an article on this in Al Jazeera with a colleague of mine, Krupa Shandilya. We say that the Indian women’s movement has had a long history of organizing around violence against women. Since the early 1970s, the movement has been organizing against so-called “dowry deaths,” where a husband and in-laws murder a new bride on the grounds that her dowry was insufficient, thus enabling the husband to remarry and collect another dowry. A lot of feminist activism has also centered on the question of custodial rape, women who are raped while in police custody. The women’s movement has been active around many other forms of violence against women, like the abuse of amniocentesis to engage in female feticide. So there is a whole range of issues concerning violence against women that feminists have been organizing around. 

Feminists have been very creative and wide-ranging in their tactics. They have organized direct action tactics on the streets. They’ve used street theater, created counseling cells, shelters and legal aid facilities for women. The women’s movement has been very effective in publicizing the issue and addressing and opposing violence against women in both urban and rural areas. That said, feminists were not the primary organizers of the protests that took place when Jyoti Pandey was raped. It was a broader civil society mobilization. There were many men who were active in this movement as well as many women who would not describe themselves as feminists. Feminists played an important role as well, but I wouldn’t say that they took the lead in organizing this movement. 

Why did this rape, more than any other, result in such a massive public outcry and social mobilization? It’s partly because of the horrific nature of the incident and partly because there was such public indifference when the rape took place. There was a point at which Jyoti Pandey and her companion were raped and thrown out of a bus and there were cars driving by that didn’t stop or do anything to help them. Also, the fact that New Delhi is the nation’s capital drew a lot of attention too. 

The attention this particular rape case got may also have been class related. The men who participated in this gang rape were poor men, migrants from the rural areas who were slum dwellers. So this may have been fueled by a distrust or disdain for poor migrant communities. 

How did the government act in response to these protests? Has the government adopted practical measures to improve women’s safety? 

The initial response of the government after the incident, when the protests were taking place, was awful. The prime minister’s statement expressed little opposition to the rape itself, and more concern about maintaining law and order and urging the protesters not to damage property or engage in violence. There were a number of government officials and party members who made comments that implied Pandey brought it on herself by being out in public at night. . But soon after that, the government appointed a commission which was chaired by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, J.S. Verma. The commission’s report was far reaching in its critique of existing law and demonstrated of the enormity of the problem. 

The government then adopted many of the proposals of the Verma commission and they became the basis of the new law. Some of the commission’s recommendations were diluted by the time they got to parliament. For example, feminists had wanted the law to recognize marital rape, which the law did not. Feminists also unsuccessfully argued that the armed forces should not be exempt from accusations of rape. This is a huge problem because in certain parts of India, like Northeast India and Kashmir, members of the armed forces have engaged in rape. However, a member of the armed forces who perpetrates sexual violence cannot be prosecuted under this law. 

While the law has these deficiencies, it was significant in providing a much more expansive understanding of rape. It also provides for a prima facie presumption of nonconsensual sex when a woman affirms there was not consent. In the past, one of the problems was that the judges had a lot of discretion in deciding what rape was and was not. Under the new law, the minimum sentence for aggravated rape rose to 10 years and seven years for non-aggravated rape. 

The law also criminalized sexual harassment, which was been belittled in the past. Sexual harassment was often referred to as “eve-teasing,” which is a way of minimizing the problem. There was an emphasis on other forms of criminality, like the sex trafficking of young women, and forced prostitution, which hadn’t been recognized by the law before. In addition, there fast-track courts were created, so these cases would move through the courts more quickly. In the past they had languished in the courts for years. With all of that said, only one in four rape cases results in a conviction. According to some data, the number of reported rapes in 2016 was 36,651, which is up by 39 percent from the year before the gang rape. As I said earlier, it could be that people are reporting more; but it could also be that the law just hasn’t done enough to address the problem of rape and that the legal changes were inadequate.

Do you think that the government’s response with these changes to the law resulted directly from these protests and the pressure put on the government to enact change?

I do given the timing. The forming of the committee followed on the heels of the protests. Often these government committees don’t include activists, but this one included feminist activists who were very involved in these issues and had been demanding changes for a long time. This is the best example of a government commission actually consulting with activists and drawing on their expertise. 

The recent mass molestation of women on New Year’s Eve in Bangalore seems to show a problem with the way laws are enforced by police as well as a pushed patriarchal narrative that can be seen in the remarks of the Home Minister of Karnataka state, G. Parameshwara, following the harassment. What do you think is the best long-term solution for the government to take regarding women’s safety? Does it have to do with harsher punishments, stricter laws, or cultural reformation?

You’re absolutely right. The reports of sexual assault that took place on New Year’s Eve in Bangalore were horrific and the home minister’s remarks were deeply offensive, basically blaming women for the problem. In this instance, there was some video recording of what happened, so there was evidence to show how serious the assault was. 

One of the problems is the ineffectiveness of the police. Many policemen are unsympathetic, if not downright hostile to women who are sexually assaulted. There’s another problem here:. Hindu nationalist organizations have some very puritanical ideas about women’s sexuality. There was an incident that took place in South India, in the city of Mangalore. It was organized by one of these far right Hindu nationalist groups, the Sri Ram Sena, in which they went into a pub in January of 2009, and attacked women who were there drinking and dancing, claiming that women were violating traditional Indian values. Two of the women were hospitalized. The leader of this organization then announced a plan to target couples who were found dating on February 14, Valentine’s Day. Hindu nationalists have been campaigning for many years against couples who celebrate Valentine’s Day and against shops that sell Valentine’s Day merchandise. 

The good news is that all of this has served as a catalyst to renewed protests by feminists. There were lots of women who came out and protested when this attack took place on the Mangalore pub. The women organized the Chaddi Campaign, which involved taking women’s pink underwear and sending it to the leader of this organization as an act of protest. They took what is considered feminine and made it a symbol of feminist protest. . Of course, in Bangalore after this recent NY eve incident, there were also protests. 

With respect to whether harsh penalties work, after Jyoti Pandey was gang raped, there were some activists who demanded chemical castration or capital punishment for rapists. Feminists opposed that and said that these harsh penalties are not going to be effective and I agree. Having laws with a serious possibility of conviction is really important, but state violence is never the solution. So what is the solution? More police officers who take complaints seriously, and more women police officers. Further revisions of the law: the law doesn’t recognize many forms of violence, like sexual violence within the family.  

The other deeper, cultural problem is that still women who report rape feel stigmatized and vulnerable, especially if they’re poor, rural women. A woman who files charges of rape, even with good laws in place, is taking an enormous risk. One point that some feminists have rightly made is that there needs to be more public discussion and awareness of sex and sexuality, including within the educational system. Discussions about sex and sexuality are still repressed. Feminists groups have organized a campaign called “Bell Bajao,” meaning ring the doorbell, asking people when they hear a neighbor beating his wife, or when they encounter sexual violence on the street, to ring the bell and draw attention to it, rather than ignore it. While new laws are important, so too are these attempts to change public awareness and perception. 

What lies behind sexual violence in India? Can you explain a little bit about the connection between India’s skewed gender ratio and women’s safety? 

In India there is a highly skewed sex ratio because of the pattern of neglect of female children. There are higher mortality rates for women than for men, and a preference for boys rather than girls. Girls don’t receive the same attention, food, medical care or love that boys do. Traditionally within the Indian family, women would eat only after men and eat only what was left over, the less nutritious food. There is also this horrendous practice of using amniocentesis to determine the sex of the fetus and to abort the fetus if it is female. Although there has been a slight improvement in sex ratios in India over the past year, there is still a huge imbalance. 

There has been some discussion among economists about how much that might contribute to sexual violence. There is this phenomenon that some economists from MIT and Columbia have called the “bare branches” phenomenon. The claim is that as a result of female feticide and discrimination against women, there are fewer women than men in the population. As a result, men find difficulty in finding a female companion, which leads them to engage in violence. I’m not sure how much that theory holds because China also has a surplus of males in the population and there isn’t the same problem of rape as India. Even if India’s problem of sexual violence doesn’t stem from imbalanced sex ratios, the sex ratio is indicative of sex discrimination and the inferior position of women in Indian society from early childhood on. There is a lack of adequate education for women compared to men and a lack of opportunity for gainful employment for women. All of those things contribute to the problem of sexual violence.

How does the fear of violence inhibit women’s opportunities for educational and professional success?

If you look at women’s roles in politics in urban India, what’s striking is that there are a number of women at the apex of power – women who have been prime ministers and heads of political parties. Yet, women are very underrepresented in most political institutions – in parliament and in political parties. So it’s interesting that many of the women who reach the apex of power are the wives and daughters of male politicians. The family offers them a certain safety, although not completely. For example, Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress Party, was the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi and the wife of Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister who was assassinated. She has been slandered in public. But still there is something about coming from a legacy or political family that provides a little bit of protection. For most women, running for political office is risky because there is always the danger of sexual violence, but also the fear of being slandered and shamed, or subject to rumors about a women’s “loose” character, which is often the way in which women are demeaned. I haven’t studied whether one could actually correlate low levels of political representation with sexual violence. But certainly the fear of violence and violence broadly defined, contribute. There would be some similarities between that and the pursuit of many forms of employment as well: worries about traveling at night, physical safety and so on.

What are the prospects of improved safety for women in India? 

Much greater awareness is needed. The good news is that there is more newspaper coverage and media attention given to these issues. I just saw a Bollywood film, called Pink, exactly on this question of rape and sexual violence. Amitabh Bachchan is an adored, prominent Indian actor who stars in it. This film, and are others like it, that is made for mass audiences. 

The role of the women’s movement is crucial. The women’s movement has been re-galvanized around this issue in the aftermath of this gang rape in 2012. Many feminist NGOs are now working with the government on the issue, which is also very positive. On the more worrisome side, there is a persistent, deep-rooted gender inequality, which is overlaid by class and caste inequality in India. Some of these inequalities are only exacerbated by globalization. 

Globalization has exacerbated economic, social and cultural differences between an elite that has done very well, and the lower middle classes and poor, who have not. Those disparities are especially evident in urban areas because the rich and the poor are living side by side. It produces a great deal of class envy and resentment. Some of this gets directed toward women. We can go back to the Jyoti Pandey instance. Here is a woman who was a physiotherapist student, going out to the movie theater, traveling on a bus with a man, and this generated a great deal of resentment among those men who feel they haven’t benefited from globalization. Even though Jyoti Pandey herself was not wealthy, she was slightly wealthier than the men who raped her. The problem of misogyny is exacerbated by these growing differences in cultural capital. 

There is huge tension between the Hindi speaking group and the English speaking intelligentsia. To go back to Hindu nationalists, they’ve exacerbated this problem because some of their appeals are anti-western and they’ve gone after westernized women, claiming that these women shouldn’t be out in public. It’s not just traditional forces; it’s the ways in which certain political groups have appealed to so-called tradition in order to undermine women’s autonomy.

There’s a need for the state to do far more to address, not only the problem of violence against women, but also fundamental questions of women’s health, well-being, employment, education and literacy, all of the things that contribute to violence against women.

Erica Rawles CMC '17Student Journalist
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