India’s political system responds to a brutal rape

February 4, 2013

INDIA HAS a reputation as a place where needed government action comes slowly, if it all. This fault is often blamed on the country’s democracy, which is said to be ineffective compared to the authoritarian regimes of China or Russia. On Sunday, however, the coalition cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ratified a landmark package of laws dealing with sexual violence, just 56 days after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a New Delhi bus. The reforms fall short of what is needed and must be seen only as the beginning of a struggle to protect women from rape, trafficking and other abuses. But they also demonstrate why India’s political system can respond in a way unthinkable in Beijing or Moscow.

The new laws came about not because they were priorities of Mr. Singh or the political elite but because the violent attack on the woman, who later died of her injuries, prompted an uprising by angry Indians, many of them young women and men of the growing urban middle class. When they took to the streets in December, they were greeted by hostile police and callous politicians. But India’s free media quickly took up their cause.

The pressure prompted the government to put the trial of the suspects in the rape on a fast track and to appoint a special three-member committee of jurists to examine the broader issues. Last month the panel came back with a searing, 200-page report that lambasted police and politicians and a sweeping demand that India “change the way in which women are treated.”

The package ratified by the government included a number of legal reforms suggested by the committee, including tough penalties on newly defined offenses such as stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks and trafficking. Bowing to a popular demand, the cabinet also instituted the death penalty for rape cases where the woman dies or is left in a vegetative state. Police would be required to include female officers in all interviews of rape victims.

The cabinet failed to agree on some recommended — and needed — measures, such as the criminalization of marital rape and sexual crimes committed by military personnel. Parliament, which will take up the package this month, will have the chance to add those provisions, but legal changes are just the beginning of what is required. The harder stuff includes a top-to-bottom reform of corrupt and poorly trained police forces and a shift in entrenched cultural attitudes.

India has nevertheless shown how its political system can respond to an urgent popular demand for change. The same could certainly not be said of China, where protests over problems including food contamination and illegal land seizures have been suppressed rather than listened to, or Russia, where the regime has set out to eliminate grass-roots citizens’ movements. As for the United States, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings occurred two days before the New Delhi rape; whether our political system will respond to the subsequent outcry remains to be seen.

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