Rape of Five-Year-Old Will Test Police Accountability in India’s New Law

India Rape Outrage
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A 24-year old man in Delhi has been arrested in connection with the brutal rape of a five-year-old girl, his neighbor, whom he kidnapped and held for days without food.

The young girl remains in critical condition from the torture and injuries she suffered while held captive. Indians are again outraged, as much by the horrific act as by the response from the police.

This high-profile incident comes less than one month after India’s Parliament passed a new rape law, spurred by another high profile case – the gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012. Protestors have again taken to the streets, with demonstrations through the weekend and more planned this week.

Yet the perpetrator, whose actions are unquestionably evil, is not the primary focus of such protests and outrage. Rather, protestors are decrying the ineptitude and lethargy of the Delhi police who investigated the case.

After the girl’s family, low-income and living in a Delhi slum, reported her missing, police took six hours to register a first information request (FIR), a necessary step in the Indian legal system to jumpstart an investigation. The quality of their search is also questionable. Individuals familiar with the case say police were alerted to a locked room in the vicinity of where the family lives (and where the girl was later found), but they did not pursue entry.

The girl’s father says police at first refused to register a rape complaint and instead offered him 2,000 rupees ($37 USD) to keep quiet.

Law enforcement’s dismissive and disrespectful handling of the case is now at the center of the debate around – and is tantamount, some suggest, to accessory to the crimes committed against the young victim.

If police had launched their investigation sooner, they might have rescued the girl sooner from the 48 hours of horrid torture she endured.

Such abhorrent law enforcement behavior is sadly the norm, especially in the case of low-income and low-caste families.

“The person who needs to enforce the law is the one who is refusing to abide by the law. One can no longer see these as aberrations,” says Vrinda Grover, a renowned human rights lawyer and activist. “When a poor person who comes to report a crime, they are seen as someone who is bothering the system and people try to get rid of them.”

Disappointment and disgust with police attitudes toward sexual violence – which parlays gross inaction – is not new for the Indian public. Following December’s highly publicized gang rape in Delhi, Mumbai’s police commissioner blamed sex education for violent crimes against women, while another senior police official publicly urged women to carry chili powder to prevent would-be rapists.

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In the meantime, friends of the victim accused police of taking nearly two hours to debate the jurisdiction of her case before taking her to the hospital. Just last month, an angry mob torched a police station in response to inaction following the gang rape of a 12-year old in Lucknow.

But what has been business as usual for bumbling cops too long may now form the cornerstone of a landmark case testing India’s newest rape law. Prior rape laws already made what happened to this girl – her abduction, her abuse and rape – criminal and punishable. But for the first time ever, the new law included measures of accountability for law enforcement.

The new law also introduced stricter punishments for convicted rapists, including the death penalty for “repeat-rapists” (a shudder inducing term if ever there was one), broadened the definition of “rape” beyond peno-vaginal intercourse, and included a more comprehensive definition of sexual violence as sexual harassment (including “sexually colored remarks”), stalking and voyeurism.

The law enforcement accountability measure is perhaps the very crux of the law, because these are the individuals tasked with ensuring the other components of the law are implemented.

“We wanted to make the police force accountable. That was one of our main goals. We had never made a breakthrough like this before – this was big,” says Grover, who was integral in the drafting of the law. By building in formal accountability mechanisms for law enforcement, advocates sought to root out what Grover describes as a “lethal mixture of bias and knowing that if they are unaccountable and if they don’t deliver, there is no one to take them to task.”

Section 166A of the new law provides a clear directive that law enforcement officials to act with the utmost urgency and professionalism when investigating crimes of sexual assault and if they do not, they could face six months to one year in prison.

In accordance, protestors are calling for the registration of an FIR against the lead investigating officer on the case, so that he may be charged with a criminal offense: basically, failure to perform his duty, or investigating a crime in a timely manner. So far only a vigilance inquiry has been launched, but Grover says this is not good enough.

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“We don’t want you to tell us to how terrible you’re feeling. We want you to do the job that we put you in place to do.”

Public protests have helped push this issue to the foreground of global media once again, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released a statement yesterday that he was “deeply disturbed” by the incident and asked that society work to root out evil.

Through such public protests, society is helping to do just that – keeping the issue of sexual violence and impunity on the forefront of newspapers and policy agendas. But perhaps more pointedly, Grover suggests that society would be more effective at “rooting out evil” if they were formally engaged in police accountability. Lack of such accountability seems dangerous if not fatal.

Sexual violence is commonplace in India, and even sexual assault of minors is not so out of the ordinary, Grover says. “There are rapes happening every single day in this country of a very ghastly nature. Clearly the system on its own is a criminalized system, and it is irrelevant what party is in power. Civilian oversight of the police needs to be built in.

What Grover describes is not just an overhaul of how the system addresses sexual violence, but how the broader political system functions overall. Grover says there is not only in a “crisis of masculinity,” but a “crisis of democracy” in the world’s largest democracy.

India, of course, is not the only country with a crisis of masculinity and where heinous crimes against women are committed more than daily. But it might be the first country to so publicly wrestle with such deep-seated and complicated issues, and this is thanks, in large part, to a civil society of almost unparalleled vibrancy.

Grover and her colleagues will take to the streets again on Monday with thousands of others and are hoping that as the young victim heals and the wheels of justice begin to turn for her perpetrator an FIR will also be registered for the lead police investigator.

And when it is, says Grover, “it’s going to send the shivers down the spine of every cop in this country.”

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About Author

Jessica Mack

Jessica Mack is a writer, blogger and global gender consultant specializing in women's issues, reproductive health and human rights. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Ms. Magazine, and Foreign Policy in Focus and she was formerly a senior editor for Gender Across Borders. Currently based in Bangkok, Thailand, you can contact her at jessmack[at]gmail.com or follow Jess on Twitter at @fleetwoodjmack