Saturday, 31 January 2009

Protecting and Prosecuting Crime against Women

A Russian lawyer and a journalist supporting his cause, both attempting to bring justice to a murdered rape victim, were gunned down three kilometers from an apex institution of the nation – the Kremlin. Their cause was admirable and their sacrifice noble. The irony of their death place is garish. However, there seem to be more important tasks that the governments world over are attending to, while the givers of life perish at the hands of the immoral and the unlawful.

One would hope, if not expect, that the situation would be different in a nation that has had amongst the longest serving female prime ministers in the world; has a current female head of state and even has a plethora of goddesses worshipped by a throng of staunch male devotees. Statistics, however, beg to differ. India ranks 113th out of 130 nations which were surveyed for gender parity
[1]. Rape is the fastest growing crime in the country; faster than murder, robbery and even kidnapping. In fact it is estimated that two women in India are raped every sixty minutes[2]. And it is even more appalling to know that 25% of the reported offenses were committed against minors.

There are two distinct reasons for the growth in these crimes – one is the changing attitude and perception of the masses and the second is related to the law of the land. Given that people and especially women are slowly de-linking the offense from social stigma, there are more of these crimes being reported. Thus it might not be entirely correct to interpret the statistics in isolation. Even if one disregards the supposed growth in crime against women, the mere suggestion of two rapes an hour is horrifying. This is where the law comes into picture and it is saddening to understand that the Indian legal system still does not fully acknowledge the physical, mental and physiological damage caused by such gruesome acts.

Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) defines rape as “intentional, unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent”. Questions that spring to mind immediately are (i) how does the law define forced oral sex and sodomy and (ii) is forced foreplay or engaging in all but penetration with a minor any less offensive. Those conversant with the law would like to state that while Section 375 might be narrow, Section 354 of the IPC does address the acts of forced oral sex, sodomy and even penetration by foreign objects. Further Section 377 of the IPC deals with ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. However, the trouble is that neither of these two sections, acknowledge that violation of the female mind and body other than forced intercourse also tantamount to rape. This leaves a lot of room for perpetrators and their lawyers to get away with lesser than justified punishment

For the culprit to be convicted, evidence is paramount. In the case of a rape, the primary sources of evidence are the physical examination and statement of the victim. Yet again, Indian legal system seems to fail the victim. Section 155 (4) of the Evidence Act requires that the victim be cross examined in the presence of the accused and that a detail of her past sexual history be noted as well. This not only is harsh and senseless but also fundamentally flawed. Research shows that rape victims suffer from acute and extensive psychological trauma during and after the incident. This leads to anxiety, concern for safety and development of mistrust becoming a part of the victim’s life
[4]. With this backdrop, it is not far fetched to say that any cross examination in the presence of the one responsible for the trauma will be inaccurate and can potentially lead to further psychological damage. The law which is supposed to protect and preserve, in this one instance fails its purpose!

When it comes to minors the situation is direr. While most other countries in the world have separate laws dealing with child sexual abuse, Indian laws treat these crimes under the same Sections 375, 354 and 377. All the concession that the Indian legal system grants to minors is in terms of (i) Section 293 ‘sale, hire, distribution or circulation of obscene objects of literature to children’, (ii) Section 294 ‘obscene acts or utterances in public places’ or (iii) Section 511 ‘intent to rape’. This leaves the minors more vulnerable than adults who can comprehend the situation and voice their emotions. Stunned and puzzled children, even after expressing their experience, do not find redresses in the courts of law. This status quo is distressing in the knowledge that in the city of Mumbai alone, 60% of rape victims are girls between the ages of three and sixteen

The Indian Penal Code was introduced in 1860 and the first amendments to laws relating to rape and sexual assault were effected in 1983. In 2004 Sakshi (an Indian NGO) filed a public interest litigation seeking an amendment to the classification of various sexual offences, other than penile/vaginal penetration, as lesser offenses under the Indian Penal Code. The Apex court did not rule in favour of the social welfare organisation. Post that in 2005 that there were minor changes proposed via the Criminal Law Amendment Bill addressing Sections 354, 375, 377 and 509. However, these changes are limited to expediting trials and protecting evidence in case witnesses turn hostile.

I am finally left wondering - if the Russian lawyer and journalist were in India, would their quest to “defend the law against abuse by the state” even see a start?

[1] World Economic Forum
[2] National Crime Records Bureau
[3] Under Section 375, the punishment is seven years and upwards; Sections 354 and 377 are treated as other criminal offences and hence the prescribed punishment is not severe.
[4] See for further details
[5] The data is slightly outdated : WIN News 1999

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Wish I had just some more time!

Yesterday I stormed into the hospital room and opened the curtains. He was lying on the bed and smiling. His smile made me feel warm. It gave me the confidence that I could probably be a little stern and get my way with him. All I wanted to do was to make him sit on his own. And he did albeit with a little bit of coaxing, some cajoling and yes even some emotional blackmailing. Yet I achieved my aim and hence was eagerly hopeful.

Today I walked into the room and found him in pain. The surgery and the anaesthesia had disoriented him more than his illness already had. I gently walked up to him and he took my hand into his. He clutched it tight and motioned me to sit by him. His grip was firm, despite his age and the wretched Parkinson’s, and that said all he wanted to but is unable to – he wants me close. His only grandchild in the city and I am not there for him for more than just a few hours in a week.

I can recall numerous evenings of umpteen summer vacations when I held on to his hand to cross the road and go horse riding. He never let go of my hand till I was on the horse. If I accompanied him to his morning walks, he would hold my hand as I stepped on the rocks by the sea and urge me to be careful. He would even hold my hand as I threw the grains to feed the pigeons on the terrace. Today, it is he who is holding on to my hand; and expects nothing but some time. Time to sit by him and talk to him not waiting for a response. Time to help him say all that he is feeling. Time so that he can be a grandfather once again. But alas! It is time that I do not have.

So caught up am I with the responsibilities of my own life that I have to ration it for the person who is responsible for the life that I have and I lead. If not for him I would not have had parents that I do. If not for his insistence, education would not have been valued like it is in my conservative family. If it was not he who encouraged not only his granddaughters today but also his daughters forty years ago to have a career, I would probably not be independent. So if not for him I would have not had the chance to know myself. And today that I do, I am too caught up with myself!

Ironic! He helped me be where I am today and I am unable to help him today. He stroked my head just a couple of years ago as I lay with my head in his lap. Now, I cannot even stroke his hand for long enough to comfort him. He was the one who was most eager for me to return to India. And my return seems to have disappointed him the most!

If such is the compromise required where I need to forsake emotional fulfilment for financial independence, not fully undertake my duties because I choose to endorse other responsibilities and where my ideals constantly clash with practicality; then I question if we as a generation are on the right path of growth. With the growing availability of resources, are we becoming more efficient or just more complacent? Or am I just being overly sentimental?

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Reading various articles on Slumdog Millionaire makes me think that the world actually believes that Indians are oblivious to the poverty that exists around us. I have recently moved to Mumbai from London and can safely say that is certainly not the case. Never once in my six years outside the country did I encounter an Indian who is unaware of the imbalanced economic growth in the country. Indians, here and globally, are very aware of the poverty. However, yes in the rat race to elevate their own standard of life, the able and the rich, ignore the poor.

Is Slumdog Millionaire the first movie to tackle this issue and highlight the despair of families surviving on less than USD 3 a day? Whether it is Bollywood, or film makers of the Indian diaspora globally, there are multiple films made on this issue. So Danny Boyle has made no first move. Are such efforts worth applause? Most definitely. They highlight artistic curiosity and skilful filmmaking. They promote innate talent and bring clean entertainment to the audience.

However, is just the depiction of these lives via the medium of cinema of any consequence? For those who want to present the underdeveloped third world India yes. For the “celebrities” like Amitabh Bachchan who believe that this is the reality and we need to accept it; yes movies such as this make a lot of sense. It gives them something to talk about on the dining table and with the media to promote themselves. However, other than that there is not much impact that these films have. No person in power or a position of authority has ever used such cinema to lay down a concrete action plan. Has Mr. Bachchan used his power and his wife's status as a member of parliament to do something about the abject poverty in the country? Acknowledging the truth will do us good only if we do something to change the situation!

There are NGOs that are working towards giving children living in the slums a better life (Akanksha, CRY, Pratham etc.), however, that effort needs more whole hearted support from the Indian masses. The upper middle class, NRIs and the celebrities need to spend time, effort and yes money for these children. We can all pick on the limitations of each nation and sitting in the cozy confines of our homes have intellectual debates on the same. That is all easy. The difficult part is to be a contributor in the change that we want to see.

If Slumdog Millionaire can provoke Indians to take action; then it will be a different movie. If not, it will be another movie on an age old subject just well made as the producers, who had access to a pot of money, decided to spend that money for their own benefit rather than use it to improve the life of those that their film portrays.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A Wish

As I typed, the leaf kept soothing my hand, drawing away all the tiredness. The wind blew and with that the strides of the yellow leaf became longer. In the middle of the night, the breeze and the leaf were my ticket to relaxation. I was in such bliss that it took me a while to realise, that the leaf that was bringing me so much respite, was merely stroking the reflection of my hand in the window.

The one that was far seemed so close. The one out of reach was in my grasp. And so I wonder, if only the heart’s most sincere longings could turn into reality; the world would be a much better place. With this thought I close my eyes and transit into a world of dreams. Hopefully when tomorrow comes the window will be gone and the leaf will indeed be mine.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Convicted of Indecision

“I tarried in indecision a moment too long….” says Jane Finch and throws me into thinking whether I am guilty of the same. I stand accused in my own eyes, but maybe I do have a defence. Hesitation and over analysis. Insecurity and lack of confidence. Fear and worry of appearances. All these powerful and legitimate emotions contributed to the indecision, snatching away the moment to act.

Its a few days later and my indecision has come to haunt me. If only I did not swing like a pendulum taking an eternity whether to act or not, and given in to the first instinct to act, I would be absolved from this position of the accused.

The deed though is done and I cannot change what occurred. However, I can apologise and hope that my apologies are accepted, with the knowledge that the indecision was not deliberate.

Question still remains – why do we human beings tarry in indecision only to regret later? Is it ok to be decisive even though one might appear to be outlandish?

I ask this even though I would like to believe Taleb when he says - “To be honorable implies not fearing the appearance and consequences of being outlandish.” Convicted of indecision once again!

Sunday, 4 January 2009

The Commitment of Unconditional Acceptance

There are always two sides to a coin and each one has its own sheen and appeal. There are always two roads to choose from and each has its own allure and value proposition. Life is about choices and at some point, each one of us needs to make one. Perhaps the most important of binary decisions in life is whether to stay single or enter into a union.

Single existence can be hassle free. It brings with it a certain amount of freedom which enables an individual to make spontaneous decisions and live life at an exciting pace. There is a sense of belonging to oneself without having to bear the burden of responsibility. Opportunities to satisfy varied curiosities can be taken full advantage of in existing as a single person. Human craving for a social interaction can also be catered to via friends, colleagues and other relationships.

However, there is one key aspect of life that is missing from the lives of single people and that is unconditional acceptance. There are just two sources of such acceptance in my view – one is the love of God and the other is the true love of a fellow human being. Unconditional acceptance, because of love for someone, does the work of fuel in the fire in the life of a single individual.

Love does not add responsibility but it shares burdens. Affection does not restrict spontaneous decision making but adds to life’s excitements with another like minded individual’s spontaneity. Commitment does not restrict sampling opportunities but provides a comfort zone of satisfying curiosities without being judged. Togetherness with one individual, who can become a best friend, complements interaction with every other friend or colleague and ensures that individual weaknesses are turned into strength.

Companionship with the right individual is probably the only window which provides a view of both the east and the west. It is the only avenue where the two sides of the coin meet to create brilliance that each side cannot imagine on its own. It is the cross roads where the value propositions of both prongs come together into a pool of abundance.

There is no right or wrong in any decision that an individual makes. However, there always is a better proposition for the one who is well thought, well read and more aware. Then the choice to make is only hinging on hesitation and resistance to change. Is that the choice of an intelligent individual...