Solving India’s sexual violence crisis means holding the perpetrators of wrongdoing accountable – no matter their power in society. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this means ending the VIP culture within his own party.
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, a 17-year old girl alleged she had been raped in June 2017 by Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a state parliamentarian from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Before the case was taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s equivalent of the FBI) and Sengar finally arrested on 13 April 2018, the local cops harassed the family, her father was beaten up and died and the case made it to BBC News.
P. Chidambaram, former Finance and Home Minister in the Congress Government, pinpoints the culture of impunity as a chief culprit. He writes that the perpetrators “knew the criminal justice system had broken down and what little remained could also be broken”. Yet what Chidambaram failed to acknowledge was the role of Congress governments in creating the VIP culture in the first place over several decades of misrule, while systematically subverting the autonomous functioning of state institutions.
In the heyday of European empires, colonial masters ruled imperiously over conquered subjects. During the Raj, the British class system fused seamlessly with India’s caste system to entrench social divisions even more rigidly.
Independent India proudly declared itself a ‘sovereign democratic socialist republic’. The central tenet of the four words taken together is that the people are sovereign, and politicians and officials are their servants. But as in other self-described socialist paradises, India’s ruling elites captured all the privileges in the name of the people while the disempowered populace was saddled with poverty, scarcity and general misery.
The political-bureaucratic elite moved into the opulent bungalows of New Delhi vacated by the departing English, even as the growing mass of destitute citizens lived in slums that sprang up along the city’s outskirts.
In time the brazenness of privileged behaviour spread to an all-encompassing sense of entitlement, as the ruling elite began to act like feudal overlords over citizens. Inevitably, this morphed into the VIP culture that Indians, by and large, detest with a depth of contempt, anger and resentment that is difficult for foreigners to fathom.
Narendra Modi’s election-winning slogan of good governance in 2014 promised to restore the rightful balance in relations between citizens, officials and politicians. ‘Twas not to be.
The gap between boastful rhetoric and actual practice remains wide. Although Modi himself has not been seduced by the VIP culture, he has failed to assert himself against those from within his party and allies who have very publicly abused their offices. On 23 March 2017, for example, Ravindra Gaikwad – an MP from the Shiv Sena party, a BJP ally – boarded a Pune–Delhi flight that did not have business class. He threw a tantrum at the lack of business class seats, refused to disembark in Delhi and repeatedly slapped a 60-year old Air India employee. When questioned by the media if he had indeed slapped the staffer a few times, Gaikwad proudly corrected him to say no, not a few times: he had used his slippers to hit the staffer 25 times. Air India and other domestic airlines then put him on a no-fly-list. In a country with normal standards of accountability, Gaikwad would have been expelled from his party, charged with assault and lost his seat. The party would have moved quickly to apologise to the attendant and the people, and pronounced that such appalling thuggish behaviour is unacceptable to the party.
But not in India’s corrupted political culture. Instead, the party threatened to pull out of the coalition with the BJP and to launch a mass agitation to prevent Air India from flying in and out of Mumbai. The central government capitulated to this mobster-like blackmail and ordered Air India to take Gaikwad off the no-fly-list. Throughout the highly publicised episode, Modi said not a word.
On 5 August 2017, a young woman complained to Chandigarh police that two men had stalked her in their car for 7 kilometres and tried to kidnap her from her vehicle. One of the men turned out to be the son of the BJP chief in the state of Haryana (Chandigarh is its capital). This seemed to throw the police into a nervous tizzy. They registered a complaint of stalking and of driving under the influence of drugs, but not attempted kidnap. They then claimed that footage from nine consecutive sets of CCTVs had malfunctioned that night, only for a miraculous retrieval when there was media and social media uproar across the country. The BJP resorted to victim shaming. Fortunately for the victim, her father is a senior bureaucrat who threw his full support behind her and promised to see it through until justice was done. And Modi? Once again, a cone of silence.
Abraham Lincoln famously described democracy as government of the people, by the people and for the people. Modi appears to be leading a government of VIPs, by VIPs and for VIPs.
To return to the rape epidemic sweeping India, the most distressing recent case involved an 8-year old girl from the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. She was kidnapped in January, held captive in a Hindu temple, sedated, gang-raped repeatedly and finally killed. In a temple! My gut reaction even as a non-religious person was – how dare they defile religion so? But in fact the Hindu BJP leaders turned this into an issue of teaching the Muslims a lesson and attended rallies against the state police for having arrested the alleged chief perpetrator, the temple caretaker.
Fortunately for my faith in the people of India, the reaction across the country was one of abhorrence at the crime and outrage at the attempted cover-up. Two BJP state ministers had to resign and the central government has put forward an ordinance instituting the death penalty for child rapes.
But this falls into the trap of another pathology: solving the problem of the lack of implementation of existing laws by enacting new laws.
The solution lies in increasing not the severity of the punishment, but the probability of detection, prosecution, conviction and punishment within a reasonable timeframe. In turn, this requires depoliticising and professionalising the police and bureaucracy, and enacting structural reforms for the recruitment, training and promotion of police officers.
Above all, it requires abolishing the VIP culture. One hopeful sign: ‘Godman’ Asaram Bapu, accused of the rape of a 16-year old devotee in his ashram in 2013, was convicted earlier this week.
Ramesh Thakur is Emeritus Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.
First published in Policy Forum, 1 May 2018.