India Gate on Sunday December 23 is not what women and students wanted -- where for the first time in decades women, particularly young students, middle-aged housewives and battle-weary social activists, felt that a space for their narratives of being woman in an often hostile and predatory city had suddenly been cleared. Many people today however have cause to fear that the cycle of violence, both by the state and sections of the protestors, may well silence their voices again.
'What is it that you want?' is a question that everyone from government ministers to the Delhi Police asks them. According to at least Dharmendra Kumar of the Police and MoS Home, RPN Singh, all the protestors' demands have been met -- an assurance of fast track courts, a promise of the death penalty for rape, a judicial enquiry; but nevertheless the cries of the young protestors still rages 'We want justice, we want justice!'.
What do these young women and men students want? First of all, a city and a society that will at least try to understand why they see in 'Amanat' a little of themselves, and how in her resilient struggle to be hopeful and alive, they see reflected the smaller struggles they themselves wage every day. Young women say that this society has always made them live alone in the neighbourhood of fear -- of parental disapproval and anxiety, of failing to read warning signals, of not staying at home in self-defence, of sexual harassment, of rape, of protesting about them, and even of believing in women who do. For these young students, the setting up of an inquiry commission into enhancing women’s safety in some stuffy room many months later, merely signals that their voices and suggestions about how to make public transport and public spaces safe are simply not being heard. Ironically at a time when sections of the media berate the politicians for meddling in matters of civil society, these young students want the political assurance of a 21st century India that actively combats the injustice done to women in homes, public spaces and institutions.
Second, in their iteration of the demand for fast track courts for rape even when it has been ostensibly accepted, these young students are not merely being skeptical of glib assurances. They know that were the government seriously listening to their message, it would not have divided the women of Delhi from the rest of India. Fast track courts are needed everywhere, across the country. If the government had truly internalised these young students' anguish, it should have immediately confessed its shame -- over a 100,000 rape trials are still pending in courts across India today, at a time when close to 25000 rape crimes were reported across India in 2011. Instead, all the assurances they have received set 'Amanat' apart from Bilkis Bano, the Dalit victims of Khairlanji, the Park Street rape survivor, Manorama Devi, and the thousands of poor and tribal women against whom serious crimes have been committed.
Third, these young students want that their words be attended to, and not paraphrased or drowned out. While some may believe that their cries for swift justice translate seamlessly into a demand for the death penalty, not all these young students want justice to be read as retribution. And then, there is the very real fear that the death penalty may be the death warrant for the woman victim as well, as rapists would have the real incentive to disappear the evidence of their crime, by burning or burying their victims. In any case, these young students say, our cry for justice is about the filing of FIRs on our complaints, about the way that medical examinations are done, the way that evidence is collected, and the way that survivors' testimony is elicited and evaluated, and most of all, how the state abandons rape survivors once the court proceedings begin. These young students want to know why the allocation for relief to rape victims has plummeted from the already abysmal 53.3 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 7.5 crore in 2011-12. By current estimates, the government reportedly spends Rs 42 per rape victim, even as the 2006 Supreme Court directive from six years ago that the NCW extend financial and medical support to rape survivors gathers dust.
Finally, what young students want is for someone to commit that they will change the political system that buttresses the social system arraigned against them. After all, why is it that our vibrant democracy of sixty-five years has never managed to pass a law on sexual harassment or one on sexual assault? These young students want that Parliament listen to them about which laws will make them feel safe, what provisions they must have, and which must be changed and amended. A special meeting of Parliament to pass such laws on sexual assault and harassment would be fitting, but at the very least, every Parliamentarian must stand up tall and say that it is young women and men like these that India wants.
Ayesha Kidwai is a member of Justice for Women NOW!, a joint action forum of students, women's groups and social activists.