The December 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, India, deserves the public condemnation and outrage that it has brought. But much of the commentary on the case has gone beyond this, holding up the case as evidence of India’s larger flaws. The subtext writes India off as a backward and incorrigible third world country, whose primitive norms and lack of rule of law put it outside of modern democracies with more reliable norms and laws.
The unfortunate truth is that India’s reported rape rate, and even the slightly higher rate in New Delhi where the gang rape occurred, is less than that of typical European and American rates. In the days following the attack, scores of protests were held all over India but mostly in the New Delhi region where the attack occurred. Democracy went on the move, as thousands upon thousands of people joined in the calls for justice.
The Indian reaction to the incident is in many ways more gratifying and promising than reactions to American rape cases. Take the Steubenville, Ohio, case, which began trial on Wednesday. It has not generated nearly as much public outrage as the case in India. If there is a larger lesson that the gang rape and the public outcry that followed teach us about India, it is one of promise and hope, not alienation and despair.
But commentators have painted a different picture. Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote in The Nation: “[T]here is only one India, a social Darwinian nation where there is no rule of law; where might always makes right, whether your power derives from your gender, money, caste or sheer numbers, as in the case of a gang rape….The young girl who paid an astronomically steep price for an evening out at the movies proved that the so-called 'new India' exists in a bubble built on the delusion of safety.”
Is India indeed “a social Darwinian nation,” to be marked off from other, civilized democracies?
According to UN figures, India’s reported rape rate is 1.8 per 100,000 population (Delhi City’s is 2.8), as compared, for example, to Ireland’s 10.7, Norway’s 19.2, or America’s 27.3. Of course, given the intimate nature of the offense and its social stigma, the actual rape rates are generally higher than these official rates based on reports to police. By last official US estimate, only a half to a third of rapes are reported; and it could be that the reporting rates are even worse in other countries, including India. But the larger picture suggests that the India rape problem may not be that different from the West’s.
Perhaps it is the outrageousness of the conduct that sets the Indian case apart?
Sadly no. Last August in Steubenville, Ohio, for example, young men carried a drunken, incapacitated 16-year-old girl from party to party where two high school football players, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, are accused of repeatedly raping her, one party being hosted by the assistant football coach. Photos of the girl in compromised positions later surfaced on social media.
In October 2009, outside a school dance in Richmond, Calif., a 15-year-old was gang-raped over several hours as others looked on. Two years previously, several teens in Dunbar Village, Fla., were convicted of a brutal gang rape, torture, and forced incest of a woman and her 12-year-old son.
Perhaps it is instead the insensitive reaction by some Indians to the New Delhi rape that marks out India as different?
Unfortunately no. In the Steubenville case, the young men charged with rape and the people at the parties were calling and texting about their alleged exploits in real time. No one at any of the parties apparently did anything to stop the alleged rape or to report it to police.
The rapes at the Richmond high school dance went on for hours, with many observers. After the perpetrators were charged in the Dunbar Village case, neighbors told a local paper that the boys were just kids and didn’t think they should go to jail.
If one is appalled by indifference and inaction in the face of horrendous rapes, the US cases would seem to offer as much or more to condemn than does the Indian case.
Certainly the public outrage in each of these US cases did not rival the mass protests in India and the international attention the reaction drew. Commentary on the New Delhi gang rape should avoid condemning and ostracizing India but should rather join, support, and praise its people for their outpouring of support for the victim, the outrage at the rape, and the overwhelming calls for justice and changes to India’s legal system and culture. This is the process by which a society – be it in India, the US, or any other country – changes and internalizes important norms.
None of this is meant to deny the fact that the New Delhi gang rape does highlight problems that are specific to India. Because the Indian criminal justice system is severely backlogged, with millions of cases pending before criminal courts, justice for victims of sexual violence is often elusive. To make things worse, rape victims in India routinely encounter resistance from local police when reporting their rapes and during the subsequent investigations of the crimes.
All of this is exacerbated by the general disrespect that women are commonly subjected to in Indian society and the impunity with which they are frequently harassed in public places – realities that the outrage and protests in India highlighted.
Yet what was perhaps most striking in the Indian public’s outrage at the incident, in their identification of the malaises in society’s treatment of women, and in their call for change, was the fundamental belief that the law and the legal system had a continuing (and critical) role to play. A commitment to the rule of law and to refining how it works were front and center in the public rallies. This fact is both heartening and inspiring – and is hardly reflective of a “social Darwinian” society.
In taking stock of the New Delhi rape case, we ought to recognize that India is a young democracy, struggling in fits and starts to move its laws and criminal justice system to better reflect its people’s shared judgments of justice in the modern world. That is a path of promise, not despair.
Paul H. Robinson is Colin S. Diver professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and most recently the author, with Sarah Robinson, of the forthcoming book “Human Rules: Modern Lessons from Lepers, Eskimos, Hippies, Pirates & Survivors.”
Shyam Balganesh is an assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and author, with Neel Maitra, of the forthcoming book “The Private Law of India: An Introduction.”