Caught as they were between the stony silence of an impassive government and the cynically simplistic demands of Opposition politicians for instant justice, it is hardly surprising that the leaderless crowds which spontaneously gathered at India Gate on Saturday and Sunday to protest the recent incident of rape in the Capital should have ended up in a violent skirmish with the police. Yes, lumpens looking for a scrap jumped in to take advantage and yes, the police did respond with mindless brutality against everyone present. But the primary responsibility for the turmoil surely lies with our national political leaders who simply lack the ability to understand and engage with a democratic upsurge from below, especially one that is not stratified by language, religion or caste. Confronted with the possibility of mass protest, the government on Saturday should have acted politically to assure the women of India that a serious national review of all legal issues surrounding rape, sexual assault and gender rights would be undertaken on a war-footing. Instead, its first and only instinct was to shut down the public transport system in Central Delhi and prepare for battle. When thousands of young women and men arrived at India Gate on Sunday having successfully evaded official attempts to restrict their movement, they found themselves face to face with a state apparatus that was not interested in a conversation.

Although arrests have been made after the gang rape incident and the government has promised a speedy trial, women in New Delhi and the rest of India do not feel any safer when stepping out of their homes. This is because they know that the official mindset has not changed. Instead of pushing the national debate in the direction of serious systemic reform, especially of law enforcement and justice delivery, a number of Opposition politicians have started an irresponsible debate on the need for the death penalty, or castration of rapists. These demands, which have had a populist echo amongst the protesters at India Gate, ignore the fact that shoddy investigation, poor forensics and misogynist attitudes among the police and even lower judiciary are the main reasons why rape victims in India do not get justice. The editorial page article by Anup Surendranath today explains why castration is not a solution. As for the death penalty, making it mandatory for rape will make it more likely that a rapist kills his victim. A committee headed by Justice J.S. Verma has now been tasked with reviewing the legal position on aggravated sexual assault. What the government must do is to commit itself to implementing all its recommendations, including any on police and judicial reform, and not simply cherry pick those that are politically the most convenient.

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