August 09, 2020
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Pass By On The Sidewalk, Without Looking

What happened to Jagruti was the result of our inaction, our perilous tolerance, what we’ve allowed to happen to generations of our women

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Pass By On The Sidewalk, Without Looking
Illustration by Sorit
Pass By On The Sidewalk, Without Looking

“Disconnect and self-destruct, one bullet at a time.”

—A Perfect Circle

She wanted to live, she said. After being gang-raped, tortured, beaten to a pulp, dismembered and gutted. After her mauled and mangled self was tossed out of a bus that tried to crush her, and passed by citizens who didn’t care to help. But Jagruti could not be crushed by her rapist-murderers, or that bus of horror, or the heartless passers-by. In groundbreaking contrast to victims who have, for centuries, been socialized to believe rape is “a fate worse than death” and suicide/ death is the only “honourable” option, Jagruti clearly stated she wanted to live. As others have also pointed out, it was Jagruti’s unique will to live that connected with the whole nation, inciting it to rally for her and cement its outrage into a demand for justice. 

What happened to Jagruti is particularly heartbreaking, but let's not forget our long and inglorious history of rape in general, and gang rapes in particular. Some have received public (at times even legislative) attention, including Mathura, Manorama, Bhanwari Devi, Suryanelli, or the woman kidnapped on the Gurdaspur bus barely days after Jagruti’s death. We know that countless other rapes occur anonymously every day with no public outcry, including the systematic brutalization of Dalit women and girls. Jagruti’s killing bought back memories of the Bhotmange mother and daughter who were gang-raped, killed and impaled with iron rods with a barbarism that received little coverage by national media, which quickly forgot that the punishment of the slaughterers was soon commuted. 

Today, because of the events of the past few months, no one can deny that a woman’s safety is severely at risk in India, and has been for a long time. What is equally long-standing and alarming is our general aptitude, as a nation, for detaching ourselves in multiple ways from this reality (recent uproars notwithstanding). Our country suffers from a political, cultural, and emotional disconnect of epidemic proportions, reflected not only in our laws and practices (which have received much attention lately), but our silences and inactions, our social norms and popular culture, our public sectors and our private attitudes. It is demonstrated by the perilous tolerance of gender-based violence pervading all strata— affluent urban families who silently condone sexual abuse, khap panchayats that can allow honor killings, public officials who refuse to investigate sexual assault, influential leaders who disbelieve rape victims (we remember Park Street) or blame them publicly (including Jagruti), or an entire nation that shows no significant outrage at the growth of girl-child trafficking as one of its most lucrative, inhuman, diabolically organized crimes. In our country— where every 8 minutes a child goes missing, every 22 minutes a woman is raped, and every hour there is a dowry death— crimes against women are more neglected than any other crime. It is chilling that the majority of our young boys and girls believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife (reported by UNICEF). 

Without doubt, the current focus on laws and law-enforcement is a positive outcome of Jagruti’s tragedy, but let’s not forget that our country has always showed an unsettling disconnect between what is legally permitted, and what is socially accepted and culturally projected. How else can we explain the persistence of child marriage— and the nationwide popularity of a TV series like Balika Vadhu that romanticized this regressive custom years after it was banned by law? Or the alarming rise in sex-selective abortions in most parts of our country, nearly 20 years after the PCPNDT Act was passed? Our Constitution may promise gender equality, but our dominant culture— including commercials that state that a dark-skinned girl will find neither a husband nor a job, and her father will wish he’d had a son instead— reinforce this dangerous gap between legislation and popular prejudice. And while we are relieved that a Sexual Harassment Bill has just been passed, does it mean our popular films will no longer project women as objects of desire (rather than subjects exercising autonomy), and stop glorifying heroes who relentlessly harass and stalk women?

Like the uncaring pedestrians who passed by Jagruti’s bloody body and beating heart, we all dissociate ourselves from reality and thus enable the continuance of many every-day atrocities, such as sexual harassment, child labor, or female foeticide. Our culture has an instinct to distance itself from the child on the street, the child working hazardously, the child who was raped, the child who was sold— as if she has no connection to our world. We have not prioritized raising greater human awareness to change social attitudes, as other nations have. Bangladesh’s success in protecting the girl-child, and improving its sex ratio, was hugely influenced by a simple family-planning campaign with a powerful, popular connect: “Chhele hok, meye hok, duti shontani jotheshto”— “Be it boy or girl, two are enough.” In contrast, the lack of effective outreach in our country frequently perpetuates the separation between law and conduct; often, there is no connection between what the public knows and what's happening in our legislatures. We have some progressive Acts now (e.g. the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act), but the absence of consistent awareness-building renders it impossible for the legislation to translate into greater safety for our girls and women, who are largely uninformed about the new laws and their own rights. 

At the same time, it’s disconcerting that even those required by profession to know the law, such as the police or the judiciary, frequently fail to connect with or even acknowledge the trauma of victims of violence. In a Public Hearing I participated in as Jury, the police repeatedly referred to child survivors of forced sex trafficking as “girls of bad character.” I was equally horrified to read the file of a 6-year-old victim of sexual abuse, whose case was grossly mishandled at every step: by the police officer, who called it a “domestic dispute” and failed to report it; by the doctor who didn’t complete the examination, claiming the child was “refusing to cooperate”; and by the magistrate, who asked the child, “Do you want Papa to go to jail?” The case was closed. The father has regular access to the child, who continues to be in danger. 

We keep asking for more female officers, but significantly, all three functionaries discussed above were women, not men. This emotional disconnect, this systemic lack of compassion, is all-pervasive. And when some of our police do prioritize gender-based violence, they are neither incentivized nor appreciated for good work— often, the contrary. When an exceptional police officer solved a high-profile rape case last year, she was summarily ‘transferred’. While we are rightfully scrutinizing police officers for under-reporting sexual assault, let’s not overlook that they are reprimanded by superiors for any increase in the number of such reports— because it “looks bad” on paper. This proclivity to “save face” by disengaging from and thus denying ground reality operates at even higher levels: recently, a Chief Minister refused to let the state’s crime records be released to the NCRB.

Because of Jagruti, rape is finally in focus as a national crisis (and for the first time, thousands of men joined women in protest). The Verma Committee Report is an impressive call to action, but the Government Ordinance in response manifests, once again, a fundamental disconnect from our most urgent problems. It disregards the Committee’s focus on a woman’s bodily integrity and autonomy, by permitting “marital rape” (and yet criminalizing consensual closeness among young people). And despite the brutalization of countless Kashmiri women, our armed forces continue to enjoy impunity for sexual crimes. The Verma Committee emphasized the State’s responsibility to deliver substantive (not merely Constitutional) justice; the Ordinance, by classifying rape and other crimes against women as isolated incidences rather than a general problem, denies State accountability as well as any obligation to provide survivor care and rehabilitation. It’s too early to know if the less than 10% increase in the 2013 "Gender Budget” (as opposed to the “10-fold” recommended by some women’s organizations), including the Nirbhaya Fund, will lead to greater safety for women, but we must, on principle and in practice, focus not only on allocations but also on accountability.

It took 10 years from the rape of 16-year-old Mathura for Indian laws to change; rape convictions dropped as soon as the outrage died down. We don’t have 10 years to put an end to our nationwide tolerance for violence against women and girls. We so easily forget that in our country, little girls like Babli Ghosh or Shanno Khan are beaten to death by their school-teachers. A 6-year-old girl in Mathura can be thrown into a fire for stepping on “upper-caste” land. Teenagers like Asha Saini are clobbered to death for choosing love over “honor.” And even as many were celebrating Valentine’s Day, 3 little girls, ages 5, 9 and 11, were raped, killed and thrown into a well in Bhandara. 

Jagruti left a legacy, written in enormous pain and courage, for every girl in India. I’m glad we are protesting on the streets. That we are reviewing our laws to ensure equality, and swearing to prioritize women in our Budget. I’m glad we are demanding justice and asking that the State take responsibility, which it must. But equally, we must as a nation look ourselves in the eye and assume accountability for what happened to Jagruti, for what we have been allowing, for generations, to happen to our women and children. Each of us is answerable for our country’s dangerous denials, our own violent inactions, our inhuman indifference, and our brutal silences, for all have consequences. If we disconnect as a nation, we choose to self-destruct.

An actor, writer, and child-rights activist, Nandana Sen is Ambassador for Operation Smile, Cause Ambassador for RAHI, and UNICEF's National Celebrity for Child Protection. She divides her time between Bombay, London, and New York.

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