More than eight months after the gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman in India’s capital, the first of the verdicts was announced at the weekend. Yet the anger at the extremely light sentence has remained relatively muted. Coupled with the acceptance of unprecedented levels of brutality and a sense of inevitability regarding corruption, questions can be asked whether India’s tryst with middle-class activism is a thing of the past.
The unease in India is over the verdict – this past weekend – of a Delhi juvenile court that found the juvenile guilty of rape and murder and sentenced him to three years at a reform centre. Of the three years, the boy has already spent eight months in a remand, which will be counted as time served. People in India expressed consternation that though the boy reportedly was the most brutal of the six people who assaulted the girl, who died from her injuries two weeks later in a Singapore hospital, he is the one who will in all probability get away with the lightest sentence.
This anger and criticism of the verdict has been made also by people in responsible positions. The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Najeeb Jung said he was disappointed with the verdict and that rape laws for juveniles need to be revisited. Jung is constitutionally responsible for the law and security in the capital, which is considered ‘half a state’ in terms of powers that have been granted to the elected government in Delhi.
However, looking at Indian TV reports and Internet headlines, the general sense was that India was vertically divided. The anger at the rape verdict seemed to ebb as another sex-related crime, the one involving Hindi religious leader Asaram Bapu, grabbed the headlines and sought public attention.
However, the question that surfaced in the wake of the December 16 multiple rape of the deceased Delhi woman still remains valid: Was it time for India to reduce the cut-off age of juveniles from 18 to 16? For child rights activists, any debate to reduce the legally defined age of juveniles should be nipped in the bud because it is against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Activists argue that though New Delhi signed the Convention in 1992, it raised the juvenile age to 18 as part of its obligation only in 2000. This was a hard fought victory and child rights activists do not want to let it go, despite the public clamour.
The debate surfaced again in the wake of the recent incident of another gang rape in an abandoned textile mill in Mumbai. The controversy came to the fore because relatives of one of the accused claimed that the arrested person be treated as a minor because he is not yet 18. The demand for taking a fresh look at India’s juvenile laws was also raised in Parliament during the current Session, barely months after India amended laws relating to sexual violence. Enacted in March, the amended law and ensures stringent punishment for crimes against women by widening definition of rape.
The power of India’s middle class activism has raised issues to the world stage in recent years – first in April and June 2011 on the issue of corruption, and a gain last December after the rape of the young woman in Delhi. And while the weekend’s verdict has sparked a lot of anger, the backlash has been relatively tame compared to the past.
This has brought to fore the limited role of political movements outside the party structure and the fact that in India’s electoral politics still continues to revolve around either major parties or the coalitions they head. This is India’s election year, with the parliamentary pollsto be held by May. Eyes will remain riveted on political action initiated by non-party players and how political parties channel the public anger to their benefit.