Thursday, January 3, 2013

Protesting against rape: Are we focussing on the right issues?

There has been a growing clamor from all and sundry to have a special parliamentary session to enact new laws and strengthen existing laws on crime against women. As if that (the session) is the panacea for all ills! Although it is easy to understand the growing public outrage and impatience on the absence of political will as well as lack of stringent laws, a few concerns pop up in my mind.

To begin with, what can we practically think of achieving from a session starting, say, today? Will we be able to formulate and pass a stringent law immediately? What are the chances that the session will not end up highlighting the same old things - adjournments, walk-outs, "shaant rahiye"'s and some more - in the absence of something concrete to discuss on the "changes" and "modifications" based on thorough evaluation? It is essential for our law makers to spend sufficient time in understanding the nuances of all the proposed changes, then have a discussion in the parliament and see to it that the law does what it is supposed to do.

Our efforts need to focus on ensuring that we do not come out with a half-cooked solution like so many of us opined about the Government's version of Lokpal bill. How much time did we spend in having discussions between civil society representatives and the Government on Lokpal, before the former started blaming the latter for using time wasting tactics? Much more than the time spent in a special parliament session, right? Then, why this hurry? People may question the "spending time" argument by asking what has happened to the Lokpal bill. But many of us agree that it is in a cold storage (not exactly, but still not up there in every body's priorities) now because we could not focus and prioritize. Let's not politicize the case. There's a need to focus and prioritize, and from our experience, let's do it right the first time. Getting emotional on this issue is something our country can not afford.

Isn’t it true that more than absence of stringent laws, we have a problem of effective enforcement of the laws? Yes, it is important to have stringent laws that act as a deterrent. But all of us will agree that it is equally important for the laws to be feasible and enforceable. It is all the more important to ensure that the loopholes in the existing laws need to be plugged and at the same time, due stress needs to be given to the fact that any new law needs to be made safe from misuse. We do not want the watchdog to be kept busy with frivolous charges from people and agencies who all of a sudden feel empowered. Empowerment is good, whereas misuse of the same is criminal. And we can vouch for that from our past experiences on many ground-breaking and radical changes in the laws.

Taking a case in point ... so many people are proposing chemical castration of the accused as one of the punishments. From the look of it, it definitely seems to be an obvious choice - hit where it hurts the most, period! But just yesterday, I came to know how ineffective that measure might turn out to be. For the punishment to have a longer term effect, the procedure needs to be repeated every three months or so (have heard different frequencies from different "experts"), and would require regular observation of the convicts. Bottom line – it is not a one-time solution. Moreover, the experience of having chemical castration as a deterrent has had mixed success around the world. Do we still want to have this as a punishment? Somebody rightly said, severity of the punishment is not as important as the assurance that the punishment will be delivered.

All the protests today focus on one set of victims. With due respect to the current incident (and similar other incidents) and the fact that today the gender at the receiving end is the one in focus, doesn't the law need to think about the other gender as well? Do we need to face something like this gaining importance in the future? With the number of loopholes present in the current system on similar issues, it makes sense to focus on this aspect. Or else we will end up formulating ineffective laws which in a distant future will lead to protests by some other aggrieved parties. Given the enormity of the situation today, this is of course not a priority, but some thing that needs to be addressed.

Civil society representatives raised their concerns during the Lokpal debate that can we expect the same people to make tough laws against corruption, who have multiple corruption cases against themselves? Will the civil society raise their voice on similar lines this time as well? With many representatives from our political class exhibiting scant respect to the gravity of the situation by making shameful comments, are we right in expecting them to come with pertinent solutions, without the involvement from you and me? Let us all shun skepticism and send our suggestions to the committee headed by Justice Verma.

Among the many reasons given by commentators on the high number of rape cases in our country, one reason that finds a frequent mention is that the topic continues being a taboo in our society, and that there is no constructive debate across the spectrum. People belonging to a particular section of society are blamed for the malaise … I am sorry, cases we are witnessing on a daily basis suggest otherwise. New Year parties in five-star hotels are attended by rich and highly educated people. We have seen and heard top performers in the society discriminating against girl child. At the same time, I have been a witness to an incident where my next door neighbor (can safely assume that he is well educated) was correcting his daughter when she was singing a song that has been attracting a lot of controversy around degrading women. Let's face it - the problem cuts across all sections of society.

Why does it take occurrence of such a heinous crime for us to question, say, our films which are supposed to be a social barometer? Why do these thoughts suddenly become more acceptable today and were called anti-modern yesterday? Why do we not question the stark difference in the ratio of security personnel to common man vis-a-vis the ratio of security personnel to VIPs and VVIPs? Why wasn't this questioned earlier? Why not increase the scope of reforms to include this and avoid this? Why does this follow-up happen only when a similar crime is committed, and not as a part of a regular accountability test? Wouldn't the amount of time and energy we have spent in expressing our grief and support, and the seriousness with which we have challenged the intentions of authorities, be henceforth put to a good use in fighting the bully committing the crime in front of us when today most of us just turn our head or press the accelerator harder?

Making and enforcing stringent laws is just one aspect of the solution. With the target of this heinous act being girls as young as a few months, I believe the issue is as much at the psychological level as at the physical level. The issue is more in the brain than down there ... between the two shoulders and not between the two legs. And hence, the solution also needs to span across the two levels. Along with strict laws and their enforcement, we also need a change in attitude. It is sad to see that even in these times, we have reports on quacks and superstitions being responsible for rapes. What the society lacks is compassion for fellow individuals and recognition of the individual responsibility towards the betterment of society, towards the general uplift of quality of life for everyone, and not only self. There are enough people in the society who are capable of interpreting empowerment in their own unique way, and end up making a mockery of the existence of others around them. It needs to be understood that individual good can not sustain for long without general good. And this is something where you and me can contribute by spending time in explaining the correlation between the two "goods" to our kids. We need to stop telling our crying sons that do not cry like a girl, and at the same time need to stop telling our daughters that do not play car racing games like a boy.

In the end, going a bit tangentially, why don’t the political parties say – “We have wasted enough time of the parliament staging walk-outs on one hand and not listening to the opposition parties points of view on the other. Let’s have special sessions to discuss and pass key reform bills so that the economy gets a much needed kick-start.” Going a step ahead, why do we question only the age-old rape laws? Why not use this platform to force a review of all the antiquated laws? Isn't it time for a greater revolution?

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