Post by Arpita Mitra, MSc student in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Centre for Criminology. Arpita has a BA in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. Her research interests revolve around youth crime and juvenile delinquency in the context of transitional justice and conflict societies.
‘We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.’
This statement, made by one of the foremost lawyers in India in the aftermath of a highly publicised rape in Delhi, highlights a commonly held perception regarding sexual violence against women in the country. On Wednesday, 2 December 2015, the Centre for Criminology organised a special seminar with the National Law University, Delhi (NLUD). Entitled ‘Criminological Perspectives on Sex Crime in India,’ the collaborative event featured speakers from the Centre and the NLUD considering the issue of sex crime in India.The seminar provided an opportunity to review attitudes towards sexual violence and the process of rape adjudication through an examination of socio-structural factors and criminological narratives. The first presentation by the NLUD’s Professor G.S Bajpai emphasised the ‘victimological orientations to sex crimes’ that help demystify the societal views facilitating victim-blaming discourses around incidents of rape. While the infamous Delhi gang rape coined as nirbhaya (or fearless, as the victim was called) became a turning point in responses to the victim’s situation in and through rape narratives, the entrenched nature of beliefs and value systems reflect strong linkages to patriarchal roots. The patriarchal code of conduct in India is crucial in assessing the inherent ideologies and principles guiding the execution of the criminal justice system, reminding us that law is ultimately a product of the society. As a consequence, Prof Bajpai noted, gender becomes an important parameter in determining an individual’s social location and experiences. By legitimising the use of violence under patriarchy, gendered identities are negotiated in this framework of power dynamics, further shaping the social image and position of rape victims. Prof Bajpai discussed the peculiarity of the Indian situation in courtroom experiences, the interactions of traditional caste councils (khap panchayats), and secondary victimisation that comes about through social stigmatisation. The conceptual groundwork laid by Prof Bajpai was further developed by the Centre for Criminology’s Arushi Garg (DPhil student) in her presentation on attrition in rape prosecutions in Delhi with specific focus on workings of the trial courts. Ms Garg drew attention to how notions of ‘real rape’ and ‘hostile victim’ are contextualised in the specific public and judicial imaginations in India in order to emphasise outstanding empirical concerns such as the lack of institutional safeguards for victims and witnesses, and the ability of perpetrators with political and economic clout to manipulate the justice system. The presentation highlighted cases identified for prosecution that don’t result in conviction, the paradoxical role of the police, and the problematic treatment of issues of consent, injury, sexual history, and the delayed nature of reporting rape incidents. The cases of ‘blackmail without conviction’ were interesting because they reflect the higher social costs to female victims of the release of non-consensual pornographic materials that are used by perpetrators to prolong abuse. Questions around victim credibility and who ultimately qualifies as ‘credible’ in the trial courts were raised, thereby highlighting the significance of the physical spaces of justice and actual conduct in the court room.
In the seminar’s final presentation, NLUD Professor B.B. Pande discussed some of the criminological explanations of sexual offending , pointing to a lack of independent academic research with respect to identifying sex crime in its distinct cultural contexts. The criminalisation of specific activities (for example, voyeurism and stalking) were used to illustrate the grey areas inherent in the identification of criminality vis-à-vis activities incorporated into the larger ambit of sex deviance. Prof Pande noted that the liberalising of social norms may be further legitimising violence within the private domain while creating opportunities for the commercialisation of sex without clearly defining the extent to which public morality is linked to criminality.
In the culminating moments, there was an opportunity for questions and feedback. A gap was noted between academic literature and policy-making with regard to sex crimes in India. The complex underpinning of feminist claims that pertain to incorporating women’s understandings of sexual violence were observed, in a cultural context whereby women themselves become agents perpetuating patriarchal rationales used to justify sexual violence. A note of caution was expressed as to the particular kind of language and nature of discourse used to talk about issues of sexuality, victim blaming, and the ‘normative’ order.
The seminar was an enriching experience and underscored the importance of engaging with the issue of sex crime and its endemic prevalence, ensuring it is made visible in the context of India and South Asia.