Just after 2 am IST on Saturday morning, the 23-year old woman who had been brutally raped in a moving bus in South Delhi two weeks ago died in a Singapore hospital. According to most reports, she had been on life support through most of that time, and had undergone at least three major operations, including one to remove her small intestine, which had become gangrenous due to her wounds. In response, an outpouring of grief and anger has spilled out on to the streets of India's capital and many of its other towns and cities. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a statement, has said: “It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channel these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action. The need of the hour is a dispassionate debate and inquiry into the critical changes that are required in societal attitudes. The government is examining, on priority basis, the penal provisions that exist for such crimes and measures to enhance the safety and security of women.”
Dr Singh is right in that social reform, so long off the agenda in India, must be made a priority. The anger that this horrific incident has rightly provoked must not be allowed to dissipate in a search for retribution, however understandable. The effort should be instead to minimise such incidents, which are depressingly common — as India has agonised over the fate of the girl in Delhi, several other crimes of a similar nature, if not as brutal, have been reported from all over the country. Meanwhile, voices have been raised calling for making the punishment for rape much harsher, and for including the death penalty. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has also hinted that this might be one of the options being considered by the three-member committee headed by former Chief Justice J S Verma that was set up after the Delhi rape to investigate possible changes to India’s criminal code. But the introduction of the death penalty, most experts say, would be a mistake — historically, it has led many rapists to murder, for fear that a survivor’s testimony could send them to the gallows.
Instead of increasing the severity of the maximum punishment, a more effective answer is ensuring a greater certainty of punishment, and in a timely fashion. At the moment, only a quarter or so of rape cases result in a final conviction. Even those that do drag on for six or seven years on the average. Over 40,000 are slowly making their way through the judicial process right now. Clearly the government and the Supreme Court must fix this, in order to provide a more effective deterrent. In addition, sensitisation of the police, and greater control from higher up over the follow-up by local officers on sexual assault FIRs are essential. Legal reform is needed, too, to ensure that insertion of an object, as was alleged to have been done to the Delhi woman, is made part of the law against rape.
Yet the most important measure is to push for greater access to a liberal understanding of women's rights and Indians’ civic duties to each other, through sustained state outreach and through the educational systems. Several regrettable recent statements by India’s politicians do not reflect the opinions of the political class alone, but are a faithful representation of the regressive viewpoints held by many Indians. This must change. It cannot happen overnight, as some on the streets might want — but it is the only guarantee that such a dreadful crime is not repeated.