The brutal attack and gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in Delhi on 16 December 2012 provoked countrywide angry reactions and foregrounded the issue of increasing incidents of sexual assaults on women in general and rapes in particular. It compelled the otherwise apathetic administration to take several exceptional measures such as flying the woman to a super-specialty hospital in Singapore and fast-tracking the trial of the perpetrators. Unfortunately the victim could not be saved. Now that she is gone and the issue has faded from the television screens one can think dispassionately and raise some questions that remained suppressed in the heat of agitation. For instance, dalits who suffer alone when their daughters are raped and murdered with impunity are annoyed by this sudden burst of concern for rape as though it was some strange occurrence in the country. They poured out their anger in their blogs and e-mail groups asking why all those candle bearers did not shed a single tear over the rape and murder of Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange that was committed in a festive mode by Khairlanji villagers. What indeed is the character of these television-induced agitations? Do they really serve the purpose of diminishing social evils or trivialise them? What, for instance, did this agitation do for the cause of women's honour?
Why Only Nirbhaya?
Rapes are a part of our environment. Only a small fraction of their actual incidence comes to light because of the social stigma associated with them; mostly, such occurrences are deliberately suppressed by the victims and their families. To a varying degree, this is a world phenomenon. For instance, the American Medical Association (1995) considers sexual violence and rape, in particular, as the most under-reported crime. As such, only a few of these incidents get into police records and get counted. And still, on the basis of this count by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), rapes currently take place in India at the rate of one every 22 minutes. The total number of rape cases reported in 2011 was 24,206. From 2,487 in 1971, when the NCRB started to record cases of rape, this spells a rise of 873%! One may be reasonably sceptical about this distant benchmark as there have been signifi cant changes in the country, particularly in people's attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviour as a result of the free market reforms instituted in 1991. But even if one considers the recent period, say 1991 onwards, the incidence of rape is seen rising at an accelerated pace. From 10,410 cases of rape in 1991, the figure rose to 24,206 in 2011, an increase of over 230%. Delhi, where this heinous rape took place, has been the rape capital of India. The corresponding figures for Delhi were 214 and 572, recording a 267% rise over two decades. Never before did any of these incidents evoke even the slightest of public reaction. The question arises, why did only this incident create such a public uproar?