India Insight

Delhi rape case: Verma committee report dredges up old stereotypes

January 24, 2013

Like many journalists who follow Indian affairs, I have been digging through the 657 pages of the Verma committee report on rape in India and attitudes toward women in that country. You can read about its main conclusion in our wire story, namely:

India needs to implement existing laws, not introduce tougher punishment such as the death penalty, to prevent rape, a government panel set up to review legislation said on Wednesday, following a brutal gang rape that shook the nation. Panel head, justice J.S. Verma, rejected outright the idea of the death penalty for rape cases, a demand from some protesters and politicians in the days after the 23-year-old physiotherapy student was attacked on a moving bus.

There’s lots more to examine in the report, which was commissioned after the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi aboard a moving bus. I’ll try to highlight on this blog in coming days. The committee cited plenty of case law in its report, and it came across one opinion that it said “seems to have stereotyped Indian and Western women in a somewhat unorthodox way.” That’s putting it kindly. Here is an excerpt that highlights a decidedly retrograde view toward women — particularly in the West. It’s from a 1983 Supreme Court case,  Bharvada Gohinbhai Hirjibhai v. State of Gujarat, in which a civil servant appealed his conviction of the rape of a 10-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl.

The court spends time discussing the nature of corroborating a rape victim’s account of what happened as a means to strengthen the case against the accused rapist. Here is what the presiding judge wrote regarding the concept of corroboration and women. It’s a long excerpt, but undoubtedly enlightening. I wonder how much the general view has changed in 30 years. I’ll have to rely on you to answer the question… (underlining is mine)

In the Indian setting, refusal to act on the testimony of a victim of sexual assault in the absence of corroboration as a rule, is adding insult to injury. Why should the evidence of the girl or the woman who complains of rape or sexual molestation be viewed with the aid of spectacles fitted with lenses tinged with doubt, disbelief or suspicion? To do so is to justify the charge of male chauvinism in a male dominated society. We must analyze the argument in support of the need for corroboration and subject it to relentless and remorseless cross-examination. And we must do so with a logical, and not an opiniated [sic], eye in the light of probabilities with our feet firmly planted on the soil of India and with our eyes focussed on the Indian horizon.
We must not be swept off the feet by the approach made in the Western World which has its own social milieu, its own social mores, its own permissive values, and its own code of life. Corroboration may be considered essential to establish a sexual offence in the backdrop of the social ecology of the Western World. It is wholly unnecessary to import the said concept on a turn-key basis and to transplate [sic] it on the Indian soil regardless of the altogether different atmosphere, attitudes, mores, responses of the Indian Society, and its profile. The identities of the two worlds are different. The solution of problems cannot therefore be identical. It is conceivable in the Western Society that a female may level false accusation as regards sexual molestation against a male for several reasons such as:
(1) The female may be a ‘gold digger’ and may well have an economic motive to extract money by
holding out the gun of prosecution or public exposure.
(2) She may be suffering from psychological neurosis and may seek an escape from the neurotic prison by phantasizing or imagining a situation where she is desired, wanted, and chased by males.
(3) She may want to wreak vengeance on the male for real or imaginary wrongs. She may have a grudge against a particular male, or males in general, and may have the design to square the account.
(4) She may have been induced to do so in consideration of economic rewards, by a person interested in placing the accused in a compromising or embarrassing position, on account of personal or political vendetta.
(5) She may do so to gain notoriety or publicity or to appease her own ego or to satisfy her feeling of self-importance in the context of her inferiority complex.
(6) She may do so on account of jealousy.
(7) She may do so to win sympathy of others.
(8) She may do so upon being repulsed. [ie, rejected]
10. By and large these factors are not relevant to India, and the Indian conditions. Without the fear of making too wide a statement, or of overstating the case, it can be said that rarely will a girl or a woman in India make false allegations of sexual assualt [sic] on account of any such factor as has been just enlisted. The statement is generally true in the context of the urban as also rural Society. It is also by and large true in the context of the sophisticated, not so sophisticated, and unsophisticated society. Only very rarely can one conceivably come across an exception or two and that too possibly from amongst the urban elites. Because:
(1) A girl or a woman in the tradition bound non-permissive Society of India would be extremely reluctant even to admit that any incident which is likely to reflect on her chastity had ever occurred.
(2) She would be conscious of the danger of being ostracised by the Society or being looked down by the Society including by her own family members, relatives, friends and neighbours.
(3) She would have to brave the whole world.
(4) She would face the risk of losing the love and respect of her own husband and near relatives, and of her matrimonial home and happiness being shattered.
(5) If she is unmarried, she would apprehend that it would be difficult to secure an alliance. With a suitable match from a respectable or an acceptable family.
(6) It would almost inevitably and almost invariably result in mental torture and suffering to herself.
(7) The fear of being taunted by others will always haunt her.
(8) She would feel extremely embarrassed in relating the incident to others being over powered by a feeling of shame on account of the upbringing in a tradition bound society where by and large sex is taboo.
(9) The natural inclination would be to avoid giving publicity to the incident lest the family name and family honour is brought into controversy.
(10) The parents of an unmarried girl as also the husband and members of the husband’s family of a married woman would also more often than not, want to avoid publicity on account of the fear of social stigma on the family name and family honour.
(11) The fear of the victim herself being considered to be promiscuous or in some way responsible for the incident regardless of her innocence.
(12) The reluctance to face interrogation by the investigating agency, to face the court, to face the cross examination by Counsel for the culprit, and the risk of being disbelieved, acts as a deterrent”.

 (Richa Singh, 24, who works for an online travel portal, poses next to a mannequin at a market in New Delhi, Jan. 13, 2013. Reuters photographer Mansi Thapliyal took Singh’s picture for a photo series called “Voices of Indian Women,” published as part of Reuters’ coverage of the Delhi rape case.)

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