Following the brutal rape and tragic death of "Damini", leading British Indians including professionals from the medical, business and legal sector have written a letter to the UK Indian ambassador Dr Bhagwati and the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, calling for urgent action to ensure the protection of women in India against sexual violence. In a letter endorsed by prominent Labour MP Keith Vaz, more than 500 signatories have called for enactment of a new legislation named "Damini's Law" that should establish that in any case of rape there should be swift justice, strict punishment and the setting up of a sex offender's register.The letter also states that "Mother India", as she is fondly described by Indians, has let down generations of its daughters for far too long.
Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr J.S Bamrah, who originally drafted and co-ordinated the letter told me, "we are petitioning the Indian Government to make India safer for the women of its country, and those who travel from abroad. The Delhi gang-rape has served to send global shock waves not just about a horrific crime in a cosmopolitan city, but also about the extent to which rape occurs in India, and how very little has been done about it for decades."
The statistics are quite terrifying. The fact that a rape is reported every 20 minutes but conviction rates are as low as 1% is a reflection of a wilful blindness to injustices towards women and the poor that is pervading like a cancer through all sections of India's establishment. It is quite shocking that several members of India's political elite have allegations of rape, assault and sexual molestation pending against them. If India wants to project itself as a modern and progressive country in must ensure equality for all women.
Other signatories include past president and current deputy chairman of the British Medical
Association, Dr Parveen Kumar CBE and Dr Kailash Chand respectively. Dr Chand said "we are asking for legislative change, not just lip service from the Indian government."
The authors of the letter plan to hold a seminar in Manchester in March to commemorate the victim where a symbol of rape awareness amongst expats will be unveiled.
Dear Dr Bhagwati,
We are writing to you as concerned Indian expatriates to express our consternation regarding the recent events in Delhi. The gang-rape and the murder of Damini in the supposed safe sanctuary of public transport is a shocking event, and one that has brought shame to us Indians living abroad. The incident has highlighted once more how India's women are treated by society and the state, where no-one it would seem is safe. How can we sustain our pride in the land of our ancestors if there is no respect for women, where the safety of women who visit India from abroad or relatives in India cannot be ensured, where their basic human rights are frequently trampled on, and where there is no sense of justice when this kind of tragic event happens.
The name of 'Damini' will be enshrined in the manner in which rape is dealt with. No parent will ever want to give their daughter that name for the connotations that this raises. This tragic 23 year physiotherapy intern, whose aggravated rape and subsequent death have highlighted the issue of violence and rape against women in India, will live on in the memories of many. While we await the post-mortem of the political fall-out of the whole sad saga, what is very clear is that women in India will no longer accept the current state of the law and its application, or lack of. Mother India, as she is fondly described, has let down generations of her daughters for far too long.
The death of Damini now turns an already horrible crime into murder. It is hard to imagine under these circumstances which is worse - an aggravated gang-rape or the death of a victim who would have been permanently scarred had she survived. Most rapes and other sex crimes in India go unreported and offenders are rarely punished. A global poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in June found that India was the worst place amongst G20 countries for women because of high rates of infanticide, child marriage and slavery. An alarming 52% of women believe it is justifiable for a man to beat up his wife. Add to these the high rates of female foeticide, dowry, the practice of sati, and you would wonder why so little has been done by Indian politicians, society, law makers and the police to stem the tide and bring perpetrators to justice. The depiction of rape in some Bollywood films and the modern glamorisation of Indian heroines completes the image that in India females are meant to be subservient and may be used and abused by a chauvinistic society.
Of course all men are not like that, nor are most women door mats, but where a crime is committed against women, the chances of quick and effective justice are embarrassingly low.
Rape in any circumstance is a horrific crime, but the low priority with which the Indian state then deals with it is just deplorable. In India, New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 15 hours, according to The Times of India. Government data show the number of reported rape cases in the country rose by nearly 17% between 2007 and 2011. Politicians are mute spectators to heinous crimes against women in the country. Perhaps we need to ask how many politicians have rape cases, or have allegations of rape, assault and molestation pending against them . We know that many of them are already law breakers and corrupt, and therefore we cannot rely on them to uphold the law.
And so it is important to raise our collective voice against rape as a societal problem. But rape is not something that occurs by itself. It is part of the continuing and embedded violence in society that targets women on a daily basis. A daughter is unsafe at home, school, college, office and almost everywhere else. In Indian villages (where 70% of the Indian population lives), victims of rape, mostly poor, are silenced or humiliated if they dare to report the crime to the police.
Fortunately, the events of last two weeks demonstrate that Indian youths are not just demographic statistics in economic models. They are a potent and fiery political force of change. They are demanding strong laws, gender-sensitive police and fast track courts.
The government of India has responded by setting up a Commission of Inquiry to identify lapses and attribute responsibility for the 16th December gang rape case and it has also constituted a committee of jurists for reviewing the existing laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in cases of sexual assault. It may not be too late but it is certainly too little as it does not address the underlying causes of violence against women and marginalisation of a large section of society. In a society where crimes against females are endemic, proper legislation and implementation of laws are paramount. Additionally, it is also extremely important to change social attitudes towards women. Mothers have to inculcate in their sons respect for every woman. The commercial portrayal of a woman as a sex object in films and advertisements has affected the male mindset. The government has a role in providing responsive, humane and efficient policing so that crime is prevented, and where it has occurred, for victims to not only see justice being done, but also the sex offenders being appropriately punished.
Damini's death need not be in vain. We ask for the enactment of a new legislation, named after the gang-rape victim. 'Damini's Law' should establish the basic principles that in the case of any rape, there should swift justice, strict punishment, and registration of the rapist's name on a sex offender's register. Attitudes of society can be modified with legislative change, education and tighter regulatory controls. The time to act is now, otherwise India runs the risk of the whole issue being shoved under the political carpet, and the danger that further down the line a recurrence of such an event will lead to more than just peaceful protests.
We conclude by requesting you to convey our heartfelt condolences to Damini's family, and we would ask that you express our anger and embarrassment to the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh (to whom a copy of this letter is being sent) as a matter of urgency.