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Can the Delhi Verdicts Change India’s Treatment of Women?

The Delhi gang-rape verdict is forcing India to think about a deep social ill.

Can the Delhi Verdicts Change India’s Treatment of Women?
Credit: REUTERS — Adnan Abidi

Asha Devi was a devastated woman on August 31 when a Juvenile Justice Court gave a lighter sentence of three years to one of the accused in her daughter’s brutal gang-rape case. On hearing the verdict, she broke down. Then, upon hearing the guilty verdict on Tuesday, the mother of the Delhi gang-rape victim became emotional and cried in relief.

The fast-track court hearing the rape case has found all four accused guilty of a criminal conspiracy to gang rape, murder and commit unnatural sexual acts on the young woman who died two weeks after she was brutally assaulted on a bus last December. Sentencing will take place on Friday.

A group of young activists gathered outside the Saket court in the national capital, demanding the death sentence for all of the accused. Shouting slogans and carrying placards demanding “death for all”, they enacted scenes of death on a gallows.

The Delhi gang-rape case sparked widespread protest across the country earlier this year, and shook the establishment. Never before has the nation witnessed this kind of intense debate about sexual violence and the conditions for women in society. Despite the lapse of nine months the case has yet to fade from public memory. It still evokes passion and anger.

What angered people most was the sheer brutality of the case and the nature of the crime that took place in the heart of the nation’s capital, which is considered better governed than other cities in India. The court found that six men lured a young couple onto a moving bus on the night of December 16. They not only raped the young paramedic student but also barbarically brutalized her. The male friend was also attacked and suffered grievous injuries. The accused threw the couple out of the moving bus and left them to die on the street. Tuesday’s verdict revived the intense collective anger that still lingers nine months after the incident.

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“It’s a relief for those who protested against the crime. It’s a judgment we will cherish forever. I am happy all four have been convicted,” Kavita, a student of Kamla Nehru College in Delhi, told The Diplomat. “The rape case has been an eye opener for everybody. Kudos to the judge who gave the verdict,”

Similar feelings have been expressed by Aanchal Vohra, an IT professional in Delhi who spent three days earlier this year protesting against the rape.

“It will bring change and next time if someone thinks of violating a woman the judgment will serve as a reminder of the consequences that await him if he commits the crime,” Vohra added. “I know that rape cases won’t stop suddenly but the verdict is a strong message to society.”

However, not all agree. In an interview, defense lawyer A.P. Singh said the verdict was “a wrong judgment delivered under intense public and political pressure.” He adds that he “would appeal to the High Court against the judgment. The case has not been tried by the court, but by the media and the verdict reflects that.”

Meanwhile, the mother of the rape victim says she is “happy with the judgment.” Speaking with The Diplomat after the ruling on Tuesday she said, “I hope that all four accused get death. I was really disappointed with the Juvenile Court judgment but the verdict today has brought relief to my family.”

Could the verdict by the fast-track court set a precedent? Could it bring about some kind of positive change in society? Some of the women's activists are skeptical about its long-term impact.

“The verdict is a moment to pause and reflect. In this case the judgment came very fast and the prosecution conducted itself well and in a fair manner,” Kavita Krishnan, protest organizer and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), told The Diplomat. “But what about the vast majority of cases in the country that police fail to register?”

She added, “In the majority of rape cases the situation is adverse. The standard of prosecution is very unfair. The victim is up against hostile police, a culture of rape and the court. I want the verdict in the Delhi rape case not to become an exception but a norm.”

Vandana Grover, a prominent women’s rights activist, shares Krishnan’s sentiment. “What is important is systematic change – a change in the way system functions in dealing with cases related to women,” Grover said. “Besides, there also needs to be a change in the attitudes of men. Such a change has to start with the family.”

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After the Delhi rape case, the debate on women’s rights, violence against them and their place in society, has come to the center stage. Despite the passage of time, the discourse has not faded from popular consciousness.

Speaking with The Diplomat, the father of the victim, Badri Prasad, said that “Society is more aware now about the issues affecting women.” Although he has lost his daughter, he added, “She has awakened the conscience of the nation. For her, real justice would be not only the hanging of the culprits but also the arrival of a new society where women live without fear.”

Asha Devi echoes the same feeling. “Every individual will have to change their mindset. Society needs to undergo a churning. Mere change in the law is not enough.”

One thing that has changed in the last nine months is that more people are coming forward to report the rape cases. Reuters reports that “police in New Delhi believe a rise in rape reports is partly due to an increased willingness by victims to come forward. There were 1,036 cases of rape reported in the capital this year to August 15, against 433 over the same period last year, according to police data.”

Tuesday’s verdict has given people new confidence, sending the message that they can make a difference and change the way the system functions. The primary need now is to sustain the movement without losing focus.

A society can be judged by its treatment of women. India should set an example for others in the world by redefining itself. It will take time, but it has to be done if the country wants to be truly developed and prosperous and taken seriously within the community of nations.