In India, once again, brutal rape cases have become a public outrage. The timing was inconvenient for Modi, who was visiting Sweden, Britain and Germany. Expatriate Indians – and others – protested in Europe, and not wanting to look weak on sexualised crime, Modi convened the cabinet as soon as he got back to Delhi and passed an executive order according to which rapists are to be sentenced to death if their victims are girls of less than 12 years age. The ordinance includes demands for tough sentencing in other rape cases as well as for fast prosecution.
To a large extent, Modi has achieved his goal. After the cabinet decision, western media fast reduced their coverage of sexualised violence in India. For several reasons, however, it is unlikely that much will change for Indian girls and women.
First of all, sexualised violence mostly occurs within families or close-knit communities. Such cases are typically hushed up. This is true of sexualised abuse of children in particular. Tougher sentencing is likely to compound that problem, and that is especially true in societies with a strong sense of tradition. In such settings, adult men tend to be taken at their word, while little children are considered to be too young to deserve much credibility, and even adult women often struggle to be believed. India’s institutions of law enforcement – from the local police station to high-level courts – lack the psychologists and medical experts they would need to deal with such challenges appropriately. Anthony Khatchaturian has assessed these things diligently on one of India’s excellent websites.
India, moreover, is marked by rigorous stratification. The members of higher castes are not privileged by law. Due to social conventions, they often enjoy impunity nonetheless. At the same time, members of the lowest cast and minorities are discriminated against. Again and again, they suffer violence at the hands of people who consider themselves superior. In this context, sexualised violence has always served as a means of oppression.
The depressing truth is that the police often fail to even register a first information report (FIR), if victims or their family members dare to demand that the case be taken up by the authorities. Written law may be on the victims' side, but law-enforcement officers often are not. Mob violence is an issue too. People have reason to worry whether the police will be able to protect them even if the officers are willing to do so. In India, deeply entrenched social hierarchies often prevail over the rule of law.
Compounding these problems, the current government is exacerbating social divisions. The ruling party BJP has a Hindu-nationalist ideology, and the prime minister is one of its more radical proponents. According to this worldview, minorities must comply with the traditional norms of the Hindu majority. Anyone who disagrees with this agenda, is likely to be cast as an enemy of the people. Open-minded Hindus are at risk too, of course, especially if they point out that the more aggressive proponents of Hindu supremacy actually deviate from important principles of their faith, such as tolerance, non-violence and respect for life for example.
Fanatical Hindu supremacists are sometimes very brutal. According to Amnesty International, “an alarming number of alleged hate crimes – including assault, rape and murder – were reported against people from marginalised groups, especially Dalits and Muslims” last year . The international non-governmental organisation has even set up a special website to document this dreadful trend.
The most appalling recent case of rape in India was quite obviously a hate crime. Several Hindu men kidnapped an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. They held her captive in a temple, where they raped, tortured and eventually killed her. The intention was probably to intimidate her migrant herding community and drive it away from a predominantly Hindu area. When the police arrested the suspects, protests erupted. Local BJP dignitaries did not support the police; they endorsed the Hindu mob.
Modi stayed silent on the matter – as he usually does. He has a long track-record of not condemning hate crimes committed by Hindu supremacists. His stance obviously encourages the fanatics. When his silence became untenable in view of protests and media attention in April, he made his cabinet vote in favour of the death penalty. Instead, he should have finally spoken out against hate crimes.
The assessment of Human Rights Watch is correct: Modi’s focus on capital punishment is “cruel populism”. What really needs to happen is better law enforcement to protect the rights of all Indians, including the minorities.