In 2012, the violent gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey shocked the consciousness of Indians and people across the world. The Nirbhaya case that this soon became known as, brought protesters to the streets in pandemonium against India’s legal system and its highly sexist culture. The case led to the conviction of the four men involved and created the Criminal Law Amendment Act (2013) which amended sexual offences in the Indian Penal Code.
Professor Karenjot Bhangoo Randhawa teaches Global Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches courses on International Conflict and Conflict Resolution and received her Ph.D. from the School of Conflict Analysis at George Mason University. She specializes in designing and delivering cross-cultural and conflict resolution trainings for a variety of public and private groups in the United States. Currently, she is researching the role of women’s organizations in human security in Delhi. I sat down to talk with Dr. Bhangoo Randhawa about her research concerning crimes of sexual violence and the human security problems for women in India. We begin our conversation talking about the Nirbhaya case.
Anashe: What are some of the normative notions of gendered violence in India and how has India historically handled rape cases?
Professor Bhangoo Randhawa: In my research, I found that in terms of normative culture there’s a strong patriarchal system and there’s an uneven socio-cultural imbalance with regards to power relations. Even though there have been movements throughout history for addressing this, this representation of women’s rights combined with gendered power-dynamics are represented through the judicial system and brings light to the problematic nature of how these dynamics are institutionalized. During criminal trials for cases of assault or violence, the representation of a woman’s character and whether she is good or bad is connected to this male desire. It’s the way society defines sexual relations that becomes a determining factor of whether rape is legal. So stemming from this legal interpretation, there is an intimidation of women, deterrence in reporting, and an uncomfortable legal environment where women feel more ostracized. These kinds of good moral classifications are harder to deal with in the legal realm.
A: What changed in India after the Nirbhaya case?
BR: One thing we saw through Nirbhaya case–which was not the first time this heinous crime had been committed–was a uniquely collective reaction and a more introspective dialogue in how these cases are handled in terms of legal mechanisms and governance that was seen as weakly implemented. There were questions of the police, to judicial mechanisms, and of institutional reforms that were needed, but also a question of the mindset of the victim. Conversations about Nirbhaya circulated: Why was she out at night, what were they doing together unmarried in the first place? So, the conversation was still heavily focused on her moral character versus looking at the actual assault that had taken place. Also, the processing and and registration of these cases changed. Prior to 2013, sexual harassment cases were dealt under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code under the category of outraging the modesty of women. Now, the law incorporates stronger language which expands the definition of rape and notes that an absence of physical struggle does not equal consent. It also holds police officers more accountable in terms of registration of the crime and mandates that healthcare workers provide free and immediate care. Additionally, police protocol has strengthened by insuring rights for women and a new definitions of crimes including stalking, passive violence, disrobing, and spying, which were not considered crimes before this case.
A: In light of recent legislation, such as the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women in Workplace Act, how has this legislation affected the response to gendered violence in India?
BR: One of the things I’ve seen is a lot of initiatives planned by civil society groups, in terms of bringing rickshaw drivers together in learning about different rights and issues related to the safety of women. There’s been a large portion of a subsequent initiation by workplaces and businesses to conduct gender sensitivity training. They are contracting a lot of NGOs to implement the training, business process outsourcing officers are required to insure female employees travel with verified security guards or male colleagues after-hours, more lighting put into areas that may be deemed less safe, ensuring that female employee is first to be picked up and last to be dropped off. Training for women themselves, self defense. But, still this brings back notion that “this is going to happen anyway,” so we still need to work on changing mindset.
A: What are men’s responses to these laws? How can we better educate them?
BR: We must take to an inward looking lens: How do we educate our men in our communities? How do we not cast this one stereotype of who might be a rapist? At the University of Delhi, one professor is working with students to help reach boys in some of the areas rapists were from to begin an early dialogue with boys on how to think about these issues. Initiatives like that are very promising to me. Because you have more cases being reported, there is a rationale that some men have that there are more false cases on the rise. And now, women are reporting more and perhaps taking revenge against a partner. This mentality dismisses the survivor immediately. This is also a narrative I’ve seen that’s equally prevalent to “there’s a lot of cases being reported because there are a lot cases.”
A: Define what you mean by “collective resilience”. How does it contribute to effectively empowering and protecting women in India?
BR: Collective resilience has been used in physical sciences in relation to disaster relief, has to do with ability to bounce back from disaster or trauma. I see it as community’s response in face of this case and how the community has undergone a process before and after the crisis in shaping new definitions and re-shaping re-generation of social, political, and economic structures which has put the community on a path to develop a systematic analysis when they’re thinking about relationships within those communities and what else ultimately happens. There’s a trauma that takes place and reverebates, and how the community undergoes this process merges with this sort of collective response which has been used to protect women.
A: What is the disconnect between State policy and effective changes at grassroots level? Why does judicial reform only partially address women’s security?
BR: The disconnect has to do with a hesitancy on the part of police and judiciary legal mechanisms to accept the victim’s testimony and then to conduct a thorough investigation. There’s some casting of doubt of a victim’s testimony, bringing her honor into question and the initial reaction of this is related to grassroots level. It has to do with the ability of a woman to carry through and seek assistance and go through this victim shaming process. And so the type of deterrence mechanisms restates that original mechanism that a woman would never breach her honor in the first place. There are different mechanisms that relate to monitoring and processing and handling of cases, and links to the action a woman will take when something like this happens.
A: How have anti-rape laws been implemented at the local level? What are the problems with implementation at the local level? What, in your opinion, can be done to solve these problems? What do you suggest would be worthwhile to invest resources into in India?
BR: We talked a bit of how workplaces have stepped up and integrated training in workplaces about gender sensitization, the work of NGOs. There’s a lot of willingness for organizations to operate still in this activist role, but also by providing services and expanding the scope of services for women. Some of the problems with implementation often have to do with dependence on state agendas or perhaps asymmetrical power relationships where the donor agenda is different, and so doesn’t necessarily fulfill local needs. I think the government has immense power in how the money is distributed, ultimately making it difficult. Many NGOs cannot own offices for their employees, so use their homes. One of the things I found while mapping where services as is empty buildings with no office; so the operational challenges facing NGOs are prevalent.
In terms of solving problems and how we invest resources, there’s definitely a need for more practitioners who can articulate gender equality at the ground level. I think that there’s the increased need for NGOs who work to provide support for victims and being able to monitor effective police interventions. These new processes for evidence collection and some accountability and verification, third party monitoring would be helpful (between these points of evidence collection to when first information report is filed). Also, it is great that things are happening in vocational sectors but i think traditional religious and cultural communities can have a bigger role in regard to educate the principles of women rights. But how do you shift discriminatory attitudes towards women beyond? Promoting city wide exchanges and programming. I felt that people were doing great work in city, but it was in pockets. Sometimes other NGOs or groups didn’t know what was going on in other parts of the city. So grassroots channels are important and social media connection, a promotion of institutionalized multi-sector approaches that can bring together government and NGOs together to commit action plans to commit gender based violence. From the outsiders perspective, recognizing the local capacity and the great work that’s already being done, and how we can build the capacity of those individuals and organizations doing great work; which may be as simple as sharing our training, sending that kind of support that can be useful.
For synchronization of state policy and local implementation, I think more centralized information sharing about resources and initiatives that are taking place, joint action plans, collaborative bodies and more oversight in that regard. Some NGOs doing great work in Delhi are The Centre for Social Research, CREA, and a number of small NGOs.
A: In our Human Security and Religion course we talked about the importance of local cultural and religious leaders. Would you say there’s a role for these actors to improve the situation in India?
BR: This is linked to research that I want to do next. It’s looking at gender equality as its critically linked to legal forms and investment of women’s participation and looking at cultural contexts that give rise to pervasive inequality. Part of that is religion in terms of religious leaders being a part of that equation, but also thinking about religious freedom and issues that have deemed the barring of women from religious spaces as unconstitutional. The judgement supports progressive agenda by highlighting questions of tradition and the balance of values and strong citizen rights. For India, there is a need to create more deliberative spaces where you can think about civil society leaders such as those religious leaders. Not just to facilitate conversations, but also to identify legal reform initiatives and the intersectionality related to the promotion of rights and human security.