(This piece was first published in DNA online.)
Yet again, we find ourselves in the midst of a tale of barbaric gang-rape and murder. Two Dalit teenage girls in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, on their way to the open fields at night (because of the lack of bathrooms), are repeatedly raped and murdered, hanged from a mango tree. The lackadaisical police response follows, along with the predictable political inertia. Media outrage eventually ensures speeches, appeals for enquiry and demands for an investigation. India has yet another touchstone in its narrative against violence against women and gender inequality.
The Badaun gang-rape explicitly portrays all that is rotten in India. It reveals the pernicious savagery women face as a daily reality. It highlights the peripheral position of individuals belonging to the lower castes. It gives a glimpse into societies where families are held under suspicion for hanging their daughters to protect communal honour. And most significantly, it emphasises the augmented status of men, which allows them to commit the most heinous of crimes and often effortlessly get away. (Ironically, as Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh recently said “Boys will be boys, they make mistakes… will you hang them for rape?”)
Solving entrenched social problems in any country takes decades, if not centuries. The recognition of parochial and cruel norms beneath the garb of tradition, the need for a national liberal outlook, the response of the leadership, the repeated necessity to create awareness against issues, the society’s push for reforms within itself, and more importantly, the urgency to acknowledge and accept the ‘other’ in all its manifestations across the country, form a part of this discourse. It takes extensive education, awareness, outrage and compassion to sensitise people. The unfortunate fact is that societal problems do not change overnight.
The Badaun gang-rape also re-emphasises the need for a dramatic shift in India’s policy-making and political landscape. This, unlike any social change, can actually happen within the span of a few years and requires an approach that delves into problem solving and analysis. There are two things that become imperative here. First, the need to improve the infrastructure and invest in making the people accept the change. Second, making serious attempts to reform institutions.
The simple fact remains that the lack of toilets and poor sanitation facilities is one of the major reasons women face sexual assault and abuse across the country. According to reports, 95% of cases of rape and molestation, in villages such as Rasoolabad in UP’s Kanpur district, were reported when the victims had gone out of their homes to relieve themselves, for the lack of toilet facilities in their homes. 54.28% of Indian households simply do not have toilet facilities.
While the government has made promises of creating adequate sanitary infrastructure in the country, there is a simultaneous need to invest in creating a behavioural change towards this infrastructure. The challenge then is figuring out how to inculcate the importance of using toilets, and having them constructed within the confines of one’s home and yards. Families, ready to kill their women for transgressing honour codes, need to be convinced of the importance of basic sanitation facilities for them. They need to be made aware of the health benefits and long-term impact of sanitation. This requires more than just budget allocation and spending. It requires pragmatic policy making that aims to create infrastructure and acknowledges the need for a simultaneous societal shift, and works towards both to ensure that such infrastructure is accepted.
The second is the need for institutional reforms, namely police reforms. In the Badaun rape case in particular, the reaction of the police, and the nature of the investigation reveals the decay of the institution. The family of the victims approached the local police for help and was unable to file a First Information Report (FIR). It was here that they learnt that the girls had been found, hanging from a tree. This incident underlines the dire need for reforms within the police, its structure and competency. In Uttar Pradesh alone, there are 49,290 posts of head constables, and only 8, 859 are actually in service. The strength of the UP police should be at 2.96 lakh, whereas in reality it is only 1.28 lakh, portraying a shortage of 43% in the force. Despite the expansive dimensions of UP, the figures show only 74 policemen per lakh of population.
This is not just the story of UP. Police forces across India are understaffed, poorly trained and ill equipped. The ratio of police to per lakh population of India is only 138, half of what it should ideally be. To add to this, the procedures for handling cases related to women are convoluted and lethargic, with crumbling medical facilities and insufficient women personnel. All this has a direct bearing on the quality of policing, evident in poor investigation, weak intelligence, low convictions, corruption, bureaucracy, inadequate public service and fall of law and order.
The Special juvenile Police Unit (SJPU), the only unit in the police forces that handles cases related to children, is underfunded and understaffed. The responsibilities of the SJPU are additional, with no extra pay. India needs to implement the police reforms as laid out by the Supreme Court in 2006. The new government recently unleashed its 10 point agenda for India’s turnaround. While this mentioned multiple initiatives, it failed to include police reforms, crucial for implementing law and order across the country.
The initial reaction towards this case by the Uttar Pradesh government was one of nonchalance and apathy. In a state where similar atrocities committed at Muzaffarnagar a few months ago have been rewarded ostensibly by the electorate, what message does it send to the politicians? The public is equally to blame for the political behaviour and lacunae. Does it demand more from its politicians? Does it punish governments that show apathy towards such happenings?
A country that wants change must seek simultaneous economic, political and societal change. High GDP growth, development indicators and citizen wellbeing is tangible in a robust infrastructure that considers pragmatic policymaking and invests in behavioural change. Institutions are upheld only if they are relevant and well capacitated. The new Union government has come in with high hopes and a clean slate. It is trying to balance its own agenda and the aspirations of the country. In this honeymoon period, it can set a very strong agenda from the beginning of its tenure. Unfortunately, so far, we have not even heard a statement from the new PM with respect to the Badaun rape case, let alone a visit to the village. This would be an opportunity missed, and at some level, it betrays those who voted for the acche din.
This piece was first published in DNA online.