The Cases Behind the Curtain

Last week, four Indian men were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi. The woman was raped and killed after she and her friend boarded a charter bus on their way home from a movie theater. The woman eventually died from internal injuries, and her story was quickly picked up by news agencies around the globe. This was one of the most publicized of the almost 25,000 rape cases reported in India every year. The dark legacy of this incident has sparked waves of unrest in India and around the world. The woman, whose name has not been revealed, is often referred to as Nirbhaya, or “fearless one,” and has become a symbol for movements against sexual violence in India, where attitudes toward sexual harassment have long been dismissive and rape and sexual violence is frighteningly common. In the days and weeks immediately following the incident, thousands of protesters clashed with police and government officials, taking to the streets and demanding action to promote gender justice. Reactions to the death sentence have been mixed, with vocal individuals on both ends of the spectrum. As the New York Times described, when the decision to hang the perpetrators was made public, people “burst into applause.” Another onlooker thought the sentencing was too humane: “After death they will get freedom. They should be tortured […] for the rest of their lives.” The Hindustan Times claimed that the rapists “Showed no mercy” and deservedly “got no mercy.” Others weren’t so sure. Some human and women’s rights groups that staunchly supported social change in the aftermath of Nirbhaya’s murder have questioned how effective the hanging of four men, despicable as they might be, will be in preventing future sexual harassment. The online rights network Avaaz issued the statement: “Executing these men won’t bring back the woman they raped or reverse India’s rape crisis. The only way to stop rape before it starts is with a massive public education campaign.” Another newspaper, The Hindu, claimed that the verdict would only give the Indian people a “false sense of retribution.” A judge in charge of the decision, Yogesh Khanna, claimed that the case was of the “rarest of the rare” category, which justifies the extreme measure of the death sentence. While Nirbhaya’s rape may have been especially violent, rape and sexual violence of this kind is hardly rare. Indians reported almost 25,000 cases of rape or sexual abuse last year alone, and that doesn’t factor in the countless women fearful of admitting that they’ve been sexually assaulted in such a socially conservative culture. Furthermore, the death sentence won’t have the intended effect of disincentivising rape. According to the All India Progressive Women’s Association, “there [are] acquittals in 20 out of 23 rape cases. Potential rapists can see how remote their chances of conviction are.” Though the notoriously bureaucratic, corrupt, and male-dominated Indian government can promise to dedicate increased attention towards sexual assault cases, real success and progress likely won’t be in the cards for a while. Yes, the sentencing of these four men will remove four rapists from our world, but what about the thousands that remain, and the young individuals who have the potential to become rapists in the future? If anything, as The Hindu said, the courts have missed a hugely public opportunity to turn the discussion away from punishment and towards constructive dialogue about changing society and the way that it regards rape, sexual assault, and women. As Mallika Kaur of the Gulf News describes in her reaction, this incident has become more of a public spectacle than an impetus for healthy discussion in classrooms, at dinner tables, and in community spaces. One might ask why this case was rushed through a court so rapidly, while thousands of other cases each year are allowed to languish in judicial purgatory. The truth is that it has become more about the media spectacle of trying and executing these individual rapists than the much larger issue of sexual violence itself. The crowds rioting for the death penalty have pulled attention away from gender justice groups calling for justice in all cases. It’s great that this incident attracted attention to a much-neglected issue, but it’s important that India does not forget the thousands of cases that are lost in the periphery while they seek justice for a single incident. Victims of rape, not just in India but all over the world, are harassed, blamed, ignored, and silenced. Yes, this particular trial was expedited and efficient. Yes, the men who committed an indescribably terrible crime will die. Yes, the world has focused its eye, at least for a time, on gender justice in India. But what will happen once worldwide attention moves on? What will happen to those women whose cases aren’t publicized in newspapers across the globe? When will justice be dealt for these women, their advocates, and women as a whole?