As the nation celebrates the guilty verdict handed out to the four accused in the notorious 16 December Delhi gang rape case, as congratulatory messages for the fast-track court that pronounced the decision do the rounds in television and social media circuits, it is worth taking a hard look at what the verdict’s wider significance could be. While we await the punitive sentence and read the 240-page judgement to scrape out wisdom, there’s much to learn for an India on the edge of reason, grappling with sexual immaturity and unprecedented level of violence against women. Firstly, rape culture is no longer allowed for, and even the most entrenched forms of patriarchy that exist in rural heartlands of the country, would not be able to institutionalise gender-specific brutalities of any kind that are deemed rape or sexual assault under the eyes of law. Moreover, since awareness on rape and its legal implications has now spread like wild fire, thanks to the Delhi gang rape incident and its aftermath, sexual violence against women from now onwards would attract the ire of law, both penal and judicial, thereby making it a near certainty that the convicted would be given the harshest of penalties. The four accused in the 16 December case have been found guilty on almost every charge – rape, gang rape, kidnapping, murder, criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence – and even though the court is likely to consider it a ‘rarest of the rare’ case, the fact remains that such incidents are actually pretty common. Particularly telling is the fact that recent gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai happened despite the raging debates in the public sphere on violence against women, thus amply proving that only punitive measures will not be enough to curb the culture of sexual predation that has plagued our country for a long time now.
Furthermore, with the law finally catching up with the perpetrators of sexual crimes, forensic evidence and witness statements will be increasingly difficult to tamper with, and clues from the crime scene investigation will become incontrovertible proofs to track and punish criminals. Already, Delhi police have garnered words of praise from the fast-track court for their commendable performance, developing model investigation techniques worthy of emulation. Nevertheless, recent surveys claiming that India is one of the most unsafe places for women in the world and that one out of four Asian men have committed, either marital or extramarital, rape, testify to the humongous amount of work still needed to effectively address the problem. Hence, the culture of sexual entitlement – the belief that men are entitled to sex regardless of consent – which is admittedly at the root of all-pervasive gender violence, needs to be changed, with liberal education and an ethical-moral schooling and a public discourse on gender equity assuming a never-more-important role to address the pressing issue. Despite the stringent anti-rape law now in place, it wouldn’t be adequate to cover the range of problems that emanate from a skewed gender ratio and entrenched prejudices against women in general. Moreover, even if the 16 December rapists get capital punishment as a result of the court sentence (except for the juvenile convict who was sentenced to three years of rigorous imprisonment), the nation’s ‘collective conscience’ should stop short of baying for blood of the criminals, and instead focus on socioculturally educating and economically accommodating the teeming multitude of poor, immigrant workers, who often take to a life of crime because of inadequate opportunities coming their way. Whatever be the sentence, 16 December gang rape, the wave of protests that it launched and the speedy trial that the case witnessed, is bound to become emblematic of both what is wrong and right with India at large.