Preethi Nallu

Gandhi famously quipped that when a woman can walk without fear on a midnight street, India would have truly achieved independence.  

In the coming days, a young man now aged 20 years, one of the six convicted in the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh (renamed Nirbhaya) in December 2012, will walk free after three years in juvenile detention - with little rehabilitation and unsurprisingly impenitent. Hardly, how Gandhi would have envisaged his beloved country in 2015.

While Indian politicians feign histrionic national pride in response to foreign criticism - the last well-known case being the BBC documentary India’s Daughter - the country’s real shame lies in glaring realities for Indian women that have outlasted Gandhian ideals of freedom.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every 20 minutes a woman is raped in India. This amounts to 26,280 reported cases per year. But, the estimates of unreported rape cases are difficult to ascertain and vary greatly from state to state, where the reported number is sometimes inversely proportional to the actual number because of the inordinate levels of stigma and repression faced by victims. A 2013 global report by UN Women concluded that a mere 11 percent of rape victims press charges. India was one of the surveyed countries. Yet, the Indian government has not produced a single comprehensive report on the frequency of unreported rape cases across the country.

Instead, the same institutions that endorsed the prevalence of India’s ‘rape culture’ in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case have adopted a rather Orwellian tone in their reaction to media coverage of sexual violence – from restricting access and visas to journalists to banning films.  While the official ban of the BBC documentary proved futile –in fact leading to a surge in the number of people who watched the film inside the country through YouTube - it served as yet another illustration of the government’s double standards.  

From apathy to denial to soul-searching 

Chronic amnesia in the mainstream populace and cognitive dissonance of politicians in relation to rape prevented reforms in the Indian judicial, correctional and administrative systems for many decades. This state of denial has been compounded by governments’ approach to media coverage. Regardless of the party in power, typical reaction to all controversial discussion that is negative to the image of the country starts with restricting access and usually followed by deluded defense mechanisms and finally damage control through an official “inquiry led by a panel of experts.” From setting ablaze theaters showing Mira Nair’s film Fire that portrayed a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law in 1992 to the recent outrage over India’s Daughter, there is never a dearth of theatrics from all realms when sexuality and identity become public topics of conversation. When such criticism comes from ‘outsiders,’ leaders apply all the more color to their rhetoric and vigorously enact draconian ‘modesty’ laws, until the issue fades away.

Meanwhile, new incidents of rape continue to make headlines inside the country, only to be quickly relegated to the back pages with little follow up on the verdicts or the lives of those affected by the violence. 

But, while overall government decisions, especially a recent verdict that “rape cannot be committed in a marriage” prove flailing commitment towards addressing sexual violence, what has changed considerably in the Indian context is renewed, collective soul searching amongst the public with many more non-activists joining forces with those who have been relentlessly pursuing change for decades. 

Since the ‘Verma Report’

When the Indian Supreme Court commissioned the Verma Report in 2013 to conduct an in-depth investigation in reaction to public outcry over the Nirbhaya case, the country’s leaders could not prognosticate the outcome. A small team of leading solicitors, who  “did not want to fail the youth” protesting on the streets, compiled 8000 recommendations into a comprehensive document with legal remedies to tackle India’s rape crisis that Nirbhaya’s demise had brought to the fore. Through unrestrained criticism of governmental failure, misconduct amongst the gatekeepers of law and cumulative apathy of citizens, the Verma Report emboldened civil society movements that had been awaiting such high level endorsement. In turn, the document found support among millions of Indians who wanted to see expedited legal recourse and accountability for rape in one of the most bloated bureaucratic governments in the world.

The protests that followed Nirbhaya’s death marked the first time in many years that civil society organized on a non-political platform led largely by youth. The mind-boggling brutality to which the 23-year-old medical student was subjected triggered a gut wrenching response from Indian women and men across the country. The public was irate. From Hyderabad to Delhi, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in public spaces. The tear gas canisters deployed by the Indian security forces would temporarily dispel protests at India gate and Charminar, but the desire for change had firmly implanted itself in the minds of young Indians. From mobile applications that provide SOS alerts for women in different cities to rural women voicing grievances at municipal councils called Panchayats - a multitude of efforts continue to this day, without major media coverage. With over 430 million Indians between the ages of 15 and 34, the reality of India’s demographic boom is still visible on the streets and online. Nationwide efforts from grassroots initiatives to national movements have converged and catalyzed - in the virtual sphere through online advocacy, in the legal sphere through outlines for reform such as the Womanifesto, which is about to be implemented in Delhi, and in the social sphere through campaigns for women to reclaim the streets. 

Not at war, but not at peace

Several decades without war has made India’s rape crisis appear less urgent, particularly in the international sphere. Therein lies the irony. With countries like Congo still reeling from the use of sexual violence as a military tactic to obliterate entire communities, India is often viewed as a relatively progressive state in terms of political and personal freedoms. Yet millions of Indian women feel subjugated to a daily conflict where their minds and bodies are the battlefields.

A mosaic of sub-cultures, the status of women on the sub-continent ranges from inheritance rights in matriarchal societies and an increasing number of female political leaders to recurring cases of female infanticide and dowry deaths. These schizophrenic perceptions towards women and their role in society have created a powder keg of gender-based violence. These same contradictions also make the topic more susceptible to gross over-generalizations.

Jyoti’s story and the ensuing “Nirbhaya effect” that led to a tectonic shift in India’s battle against sexual violence must not be forgotten. As the third year anniversary of her death approaches, in-depth coverage of the topic that explores beyond news cycles is more important than ever.

The Collective Conscience 

Homegrown rights movements like Jagori investigate the roots of sexual violence and its tributaries – from rapid rural-urban migration to persistent inequity between social and economic classes, and cultural developments in different segments of Indian society that have evolved in parallel and are now violently colliding due to uncontrolled globalization. 

Most who are familiar with the spirited women’s rights movements that have existed since pre-independence India would not call the Nirbhaya effect ‘unprecedented.’ Given that the reach of sexual violence in India permeates class, economy, demography and age, the other side of the coin is that women’s empowerment has also breached these boundaries. The collective conscience of the country was on high alert after Jyoti’s death. But it had merely re-awakened. Such mobilization was not a first, and such claims take due credit away from those who have been effecting change well before national and international attention on the issue.

The wisdom of these decades-old movements and individual activists is necessary to understanding the very term ‘collective consciousness’.

What exactly does awakening the collective conscience entail, and how does one change prevalent attitudes that overlook or even condone a rape culture? 

While consciousness of the need to address women as equals is spreading in certain segments of Indian society, a much larger part remains out of reach. For this majority demographic, an awakening will require dismantling the collective ‘un-consciousness.’ This term, coined by Carl Jung in the 1910s, suggests that the structure of the collective psyche is shaped by experience, symbolism, and thereby preconceived notions. While his approach was deemed controversial and unscientific by psycho-therapists at the time, it provides a strong indication of what is required to change the collective perception of entire communities.

Media and maintaining momentum 

The Indian government’s hollow rhetoric jeopardizes the growth of movements that re-galvanized amidst the national response to the heinous gang rape and murder. So do bodies of work like the BBC documentary, by portraying sexual violence in India through a myopic lens where men are elevated to predators and women reduced to prey in need of protection. 

Inside India, the hoopla of the documentary appeared to bear negligible swing either way. The viewpoints vary but most are unsurprised by such debacles. Ask an upper middle class Indian residing in one of the gentrified parts of South Delhi and the prompt answer is that a ban on the film is a regressive measure that violates freedom of speech. Many opine that Indians should resolve their own issues without external, superficial judgments. Ask a villager in Rajasthan about the film and they would have never heard of it. Ask the same families what they want for their daughters, and “safety and honor” is their immediate response, and of course “education, provided the circumstances permit it.” Ask the panchayats and the response is that a lot has happened in the last two years with women-led political movements. Few reports present these perspectives together as a spectrum, where the boundaries are often blurred. 

Nonetheless, India’s Daughter contributes one (albeit limiting) explanation of the events and the perpetrator’s motivations and hence should not be curtailed. Such bodies of work must be both supported and challenged by diverse reportage from national and international outlets and human rights agencies. The greatest harm would be no reports at all. 

In 2015, media reports on rape in India declined significantly compared to the charged coverage of 2013. The challenge now is maintaining several years of momentum and consistent coverage of the issue – both of which are pivotal for tangible changes in the system and society. 

A large part of this effort is gaining access to the psyche of the guilty. It is not often that Indian men come forward with detailed confessions of the inner workings of their minds when committing rape. But these admissions are an important starting point in the conversation about misogyny and violence against women and the myriad interlinked causes.

For example, when girls are constantly told that wearing revealing clothing and going out late at night endangers them, this recurring imagery instills fear in women and justification for sexually violent behavior in males. When such messages are repeated over generations, ‘inappropriate’ clothing becomes the normative definition of a ‘loose woman’ within a community, eventually making its way into the larger society. 

Creating lasting change will require challenging and deconstructing traditional notions in the minds of boys and girls during their formative years, and constructing new perceptions that become an integral part of their early memories and ultimately their collective consciousness as a group.

This type of gender-related education is taking place in urban slums and even rural villages in India. I had the opportunity to visit a rehabilitation center run by educator and Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. At this all-boys center called Bal Ashram, the teacher was holding a ‘social science’ lesson. Alongside teaching why child labour is the result of socio-economic divides, he also posed gender-related questions to stimulate a pattern in their thought processes: “How are girls ‘different’ from boys? Does this make them less equal? What does the law say about women’s rights at home and on the street? What are the roots of law? Culture? Justice? Fairness?

The conversation provoked interesting and varying answers amidst the boys who ranged in age from six to seventeen. 

I never encountered such a thorough deconstruction of gender roles as a student in Hyderabad in the 1990s. In this small village classroom in 2015, I could see that significant progress has been made in the last decade. By inculcating the concepts of gender equality in the malleable minds of six-year-olds, the teacher was creating imprints that would hopefully have a lifelong impact.

This is why many gender rights advocates who are pressing for greater freedoms for women are also opposed to capital punishment as the default remedy. The Justice Verma Report strongly advised against the death penalty, stating that it would not act as a deterrent to rape. The panel also called for “rehabilitation and reformation” in jails and juvenile homes. A majority of gender rights activists support both recommendations. Hanging until death is not going to spur the collective consciousness of a nation, nor will it aid in understanding the collective unconsciousness that shapes violent behavior. 

Three years later, we have much work ahead of us. 

Men at large are not the problem. So, a fight directed against a whole gender will not yield a solution. Rehabilitation is needed, not just within the confines of prison cells, but also within mainstream society: for young and old, men and women, in villages and in cities.

It is important to note that Jyoti represents the “new aspirations” of young Indian women in their unyielding thirst for opportunities, whether working at a call center or studying medicine. This zeal has not subsided despite the daily difficulties that women face in the male-dominated world outside their homes.

Jyoti did both with ferocity and confidence and with support from her parents.

Jyoti’s parents, despite their extremely conservative background, wanted to support her in realizing her dream career. This manner of individual thinking in Indian societies, where the collective psyche does not always dictate a family’s decisions, must be harnessed and rewarded by local leaders and the government.

Finally, it is important for journalists to realize the potency of the gender rights movement in India, where advocates have re-iterated time and again: we are not just India’s daughters, we are also the mothers of our men, whether they are perpetrators or victims. We fight this fight together, not as “us vs. them” but for the sake of saving our collective humanity. We do not need to be rescued by a global campaign that refers to us with a subordinating title. Neither would we endorse views that deepen the divide between sexes. We need recognition – not as daughters, not as mothers, not as minorities with a reserved quota – but as a half of the population of a country, about 615 million of us, born with equal rights in the world’s largest purported democratic experiment.

Image c/o the author

Preethi Nallu is an Associate Editor at Warscapes. She is a multimedia journalist and writer, originally from Hyderabad, India. Born in Iran, raised in India, she spent her university years at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing  degrees in journalism and political science. Since graduating, she has lived and worked in Southeast Asia, Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Currently based in Rome, she combines text, visual and audio formats to produce in-depth narratives for mainstream media and UN agencies. Twitter at @Preethi_Nallu.​