Delhi Conviction Won't End India's Rape Epidemic

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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India was convulsed by grief, outrage and shame Tuesday afterfive men accused in a brutal assault in December 2012 were found guilty of rape and cold-blooded murder.

As the eight-month trial came to an end, the country paid tribute one last time to the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who paid with her life for an evening out in the nation's capital last year. Brutalized on a moving bus by six assailants, among them a juvenile, and dumped unconscious on a deserted street, the woman fought for her life for almost two weeks before succumbing to her injuries.

The viciousness of the crime prompted mass demonstrations around the country and forced a wide-ranging and long overdue debate on sexual violence. A commission was instituted by the Indian government to reconsider laws on sexual crimes, and in March, the government passed a set of tougher laws on rape. But those new statutes won't apply to the five adult men accused in the case, one of whom took his own life in jail earlier this year.

Even so, the victim's grieving parents, who have dealt with the cataclysm with immense dignity, joined protesters outside the court, as well as leading figures in Indian public life, in asking for the death penalty for the four remaining accused when the court decides on their sentences Wednesday. By holding the accused guilty not just of rape but also of murder, Tuesday's judgment opened the way to this possibility.

Outraged by the habitual tardiness of the Indian justice system, the low rate of convictions in rape cases and by further outrages such as the gang-rape of a photojournalist in an abandoned mill in Mumbai last month, many Indians have come to believe that the imposition of the death penalty on the accused would set a long-needed precedent and act as a deterrent. Tempers had already begun to run high in India last month after the juvenile among the accused -- who was 17 at the time of the crime -- was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention, the maximum term allowed by the law but a punishment plainly at odds with the magnitude of the crime.

But as the columnist Praveen Swami observed in a recent piece on the website, there is no one-step solution to the problem of sexual violence in India:

Last year, 14,717 rape trials were concluded in the courts, and 3,563 perpetrators were convicted. That's 24.21 percent. That is precisely what our outrage is worth: 24.21 percent, the culmination of a decade-on-decade decline. It's likely got something to do with under-resourced police and a broken criminal justice system — but also makes clear laws don't mean justice. ...

The United States has seen a steady decline in rape since the late-1970s — possibly a consequence of a feminist-informed social consensus about consent, better policing of public spaces and improved prosecution. It's been a slow, nuts-and-bolts process, built on the understanding there's no magic bullet that can fix the problem of sexual violence.

If anything, the call for the death penalty in an open-and-shut case, in which immense pressure was exerted upon the police by both the news media and the government, may have distracted from the realities of the typical rape case in India. More usually, the rape victim fails to report the crime for fear of being stigmatized. If she decides to do so, she is likely to find police officers unwilling to register her case, or to bring to bear on the matter their own deeply ingrained prejudices about gender, sexuality and morality.

Violence is a pervasive human reality, but how it is explained or interpreted says a lot about how societies deal with it. Because of the news media spotlight, a certain empathy and dignity has (fortunately) been conferred upon the Delhi rape victim that is usually denied to women facing sexual assault in India, who in the most extreme instances are sometimes advised to marry their rapists. The sad truth is that harsh penalties aren't sufficient to overcome the cultural forces that make women second-class citizens in Indian society. In probably the most detailed portrait of the assailants and reconstruction of the events of the evening of Dec. 16, 2012, Jason Burke of the U.K.'s Guardian wrote:

J's case was exceptional, standing out from the mundane background hum of sexual violence in northern India. The attack was of almost unprecedented brutality, committed by complete strangers on a Sunday evening, on the streets of Delhi itself. J was out with a friend watching a film. She was not in a village, nor was she working in a nightclub. She was thus seen as representative in a way that other victims, rightly or wrongly, had never been. Very soon she had been dubbed "Delhi's daughter" in the media, and thus neatly slotted into one of the three legitimate categories allowed to women in India: mother, spouse or child.

One of the most wrenching ironies of the Delhi rape case was that the victim's father, in selling some of the family's land to pay for his daughter's education and allowing her to move away from home to pursue her dreams, had tried to empower her to deal with the kinds of violence and prejudice that snuffed out her life. The Wall Street Journal's India blog, India Real Time, published a moving interview with the victim's parents, one in which they are sometimes heard arguing as they strive to make sense of the tragedy. The father says:

We have to get the fear out of our minds. Rapes are happening. There's no point sitting with our hands folded. We have to find a solution. Who will do that? You have to search, I have to search, society has to search, the government has to search. Every problem has a solution somewhere.
People think 'Maybe we won't let our daughters study; we'll get them married.' But this is not a solution to the problem. This is running away from a problem. I won't say, 'Don't let the girls study.' Make your daughters tougher so they can face a problem. You saw what happened to our daughter. With all her strength, as long as she had life in her, she fought and tried to save herself.

The Delhi rape case has laid bare to Indians the darkness and violence within their society, prompted much soul-searching about the extent of their complicity with misogyny, spawned many strange theories about rape prevention and prosecution, challenged the justice system to confront its own biases and immeasurably besmirched the country's reputation. Death penalty or not, Wednesday's sentence should leave no illusions about how much work needs to be done to reform a world so badly out of joint.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Chandrahas Choudhury at

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Max Berley at