India in the dock
An essential component of any democracy is its ability to guarantee individual rights and to protect its citizens. Women's rights are human rights and they are being violated on a massive scale in a country with high aspirations on the international arena and which prides itself on being the world's largest democracy.
On June 2, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh found the body of a 22-year-old woman who had been gang-raped and strangled. The perpetrators of this heinous crime forced her to drink acid and then threw it in her face. The victim was found just 45 kilometers away from the scene of last week's horrific murder of two teenage girls belonging to the low-caste Dalit community.
They were raped and then hanged from a tree. Those arrested were from the higher Yadav caste. Two policemen were arrested and fired from the force for complicity in the crime. But later, the state's Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, dismissed journalists' questions about the failure of the police to stop such acts of brutality. Few journalists in the state, however, saw fit to criticize him, let alone demand his resignation.
At a national level, violence against women has been in the focus of media attention since the rape-murder of a young student in the capital New Delhi on December 16, 2012. In the wake of that murder thousands of people protested across the country to demand better protection for women and a fundamental change in the attitudes towards them in India's patriarchal society.
The former Congress-led government responded by introducing the death penalty for rape-murder. The prosecution of suspected rapists was speeded up through the introduction of fast-track court proceedings and new police units were set up to help women. But the latest murders highlight the huge dimension of the problem facing the country.
The fact of the matter is that a government can create a legal framework and the judiciary can try and punish, but far more is required. Rape in India is a deeply rooted cultural problem, some would say a disease. Indian society is patriarchal through and through. The lives of most Indian women are still determined by their husbands or families regardless of improvements in their education.
Women in India are subordinate and must be submissive. This role is enforced by the country's arch conservative society in a number of ways: through family tradition, through religion and through the country's mythology. And this stereotype is perpetuated publicly through Bollywood films.
Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women's affairs in the new BJP-led government in New Delhi has responded to the murders by announcing the establishment of a rape crisis cell to investigate this sort of crimes across the nation. This is a vital first step, but it must be followed by the creation of an institutional framework to combat the problem such as women's empowerment councils at local level.
The fact of the matter is that with so much violence against women pervading Indian society, the government needs to go to the roots of the problem and convince its citizens that the safety of women and respect for their contribution to society must be a priority issue if India is to secure its place as a modern nation in the 21st century.