27 June, 2014
The calls were not getting answered, not a single one of them. The friend was recounting the tale of a female friend held hostage by some people in her own house with horror. I was calling the Senior Superintendent of Police and other officers, district administration, the local police station. Every passing minute was sending shivers down my spine, he continued.
Worst was the response of the police station where full rings went with nobody answering them. What for these police stations are if they cannot respond to such emergencies? The story, in short, was eerily similar to countless other stories of bodies of women being turned into the site of ‘honour’ and battles for the same. The younger brother of the woman in this case had married a girl out of love and then the couple eloped for safety. The case did not involve any caste conflicts, ironically, as both of them belonged to the same caste. It was the girl’s decision to choose her life partner on her own that had irked the family members, self-designated custodians of the girl in any patriarchal society. It was this they wanted to avenge and had, therefore, landed on the woman’s house in the dead of the night and held her hostage.
They had also confiscated her phones for stopping her from seeking any help. She was asked to tell where the couple was and threatened with rape and getting paraded naked if she did not. She, in fact, did not know. Yet, she asked for her phone on the excuse that a friend might know the couple’s location and she will ask her. That is how the friend I was talking to came to know about the incident. She, in turn, tried to contact every possible person who could help starting with the local police.
As I said before, the police did not answer the calls even once leaving her flummoxed. Then she started contacting her friends in media and women’s movement who could, finally, reach the police and make them act. The hostage situation was broken next morning after hours long ordeal for the woman. . Thankfully, she was rescued before getting violated despite being kept in illegal confinement. That too, it broke because the woman was well connected and her friend could reach people in positions of helping What would happen to an ordinary woman with no such contacts is anybody’s guess.
This happened in a country which saw a national outpouring of anger against violence against women after brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a young girl in Delhi last December. The popular protests had shaken the government of the day into action and it came up with new laws against rape and promised heightened security for women across India. That the changes were cosmetic gets betrayed by stories after stories of violence against women being committed in the country. Uttar Pradesh, most populous province of the country has been in news for spate of gang rapes and murders. Madhya Pradesh which has not been in news despite performing worse is officially acknowledged rape capital of the country. Even places which were considered safer for women in the past have seen a rise in incidents of sexual violence. Mumbai, for instance, witnessed a passenger attacking a female bus conductor and tearing her clothes in broad daylight.
The new law, evidently, has not worked on the ground. It will not for laws, however good, need institutions to work and if institution are defunct and/or deviant they are bound to fail. What law can save a woman if the police would not do as much as taking a distress call? What law would save someone from getting raped if she is held hostage for hours in her own house? What law would save a girl wanting to marry out of her own choice if the police cannot offer as much as protection to her? The country has seen cases of Khap Panchayats (caste councils) killing couple having police protection and then threatening the judge who sentenced those responsible. Interestingly, the local police did not beef up the security cover for the judge despite her repeated pleas as they were hand in gloves with the murderers.
Introducing newer, harsher laws is not going to curb sexual violence in India. Only thing that can is radical restructuring of the criminal justice system by making it responsive and responsible. Having dedicated teams to respond to emergencies might be a beginning but until and unless impartial investigations ending in speedy convictions become the norm, nothing will change on the ground.
Till then, we can make do police stations which do not respond to distress calls.
Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong