India debates naming new law after gang-rape victim
A call to name a new law targeting sexual violence in India after an anonymous woman who died last weekend following a gang rape has provoked a fierce debate in the country, where new details of the violent assault continue to provoke shock and outrage.
The suggestion that the 23-year-old physiotherapy student be named – made by Shashi Tharoor, a junior government minister – has found support among many of those who have been campaigning over the last three weeks for tougher police action against those accused of sexual assault and a sustained call to change Indian society’s views on women.
“It would mean her memory would live on,” said Sangeeta Kumar, a 31-year-old teacher who has been protesting in Delhi.
Others said the move, which goes against a supreme court order prohibiting naming a rape victim, placed symbolism above substance.
“It is an unnecessary distraction. We should be focussing on important issues such as sentencing, the economic rehabilitation of families who suffer and so on. We did not protect her dignity and life when she was alive. Who knows if she would have wanted such a thing. It’s an absolute no-no,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research and a member of India’s National Commission for Empowerment of Women.
Indian media reported the victim’s family saying they would be honoured if a package of new legislation was named after her.
Conservative cultural attitudes in India mean rape victims are often stigmatised. Some, particularly in rural communities, are forced to marry their attackers to gain social acceptance.
“It’s not easy to survive social shame in India,” Kumari told the Guardian.
After misjudging popular sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Indian government has acted to head off public anger.
A fast-track court was inaugurated in the capital Delhi on Wednesday, as the first of five that will be set up to deal rapidly with rape cases.
The six accused in the gang-rape case will be formally charged , on Thursday but are not expected to appear in court.
India suffers from a lack of judges and cases frequently take years to come to trial.
The country’s supreme court will decide on Thursday on a proposal to suspend Indian lawmakers from office when facing sexual assault charges against women.
Six state-level parliamentarians are facing rape prosecutions and two national parliamentarians are facing other charges of crimes against women, said Jagdeep S Chhokar, from the Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent thinktank that tracks political candidate’s criminal records.
In the past five years, political parties across India nominated 260 candidates awaiting trial on charges of crimes against women, he said.
On Tuesday, the government set up a taskforce to monitor women’s safety in Delhi and review whether police have been properly protecting women.
The first batch of 40 Delhi police officers also started a three-day training course in rape investigation, which includes what advisors call a “gender-sensitisation” component.
More than 18,000 suggestions from the public have been received by the judge heading one of the committees set up to overhaul rape laws. One move currently under consideration is to publish the names, pictures and addresses of convicted sex offenders on police websites.
Police are awaiting findings on a bone test conducted on one of the suspects to confirm whether he is a juvenile or an adult, which could affect the charges against him. He is currently in special secure accommodation, while the five other accused are in Delhi’s high-security Tihar jail.
The Indian Bar Association last week decided against defending the six suspects because of the nature of the crime, although the court is expected to appoint lawyers to defend them.
Indian media have reported that forensic evidence indicates the victim of the attack, who died on Saturday at a hospital in Singapore, struggled violently, repeatedly biting her assailants.
“She was a very, very, very cheerful little girl, and she was peace loving, and she was never embroiled in any controversies like this. I don’t know why this happened to her,” her uncle told the Associated Press.
“If the government can’t punish them, give the rapists to the people. The people will settle the scores with them,” he said.