Print edition : April 05, 2013

Ram Singh, prime accused in the Delhi gang-rape case who was found hanging in his Tihar Jail cell. Photo: PTI

Ram Singh's parents at their house at Ravidas Camp in New Delhi on March 11. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The death of the main accused in the Delhi gang-rape case interrupts due process of law that might have restored the faith of women in the state’s ability to deliver justice.

IT was only apt that the most important questions raised by members of the women’s movement in India and other civil society groups around the mysterious death of Ram Singh, one of the six accused in the Delhi gang rape and murder case, were about jail reforms, custodial torture, and the state’s accountability. At one level, Ram Singh’s death is viewed as detrimental to the fast-track trial process that the Union government initiated because of unprecedented protests across the country in December last year. At another level, it raises larger questions about India’s ability to follow legal mechanisms and ensure institutional justice to assault victims.

Ram Singh, according to the police, was found hanging in his cell at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail in the early hours of March 11. The jail personnel claimed that Ram Singh used his own clothes and his sleeping rug to hang himself from the grille of the 15 feet x 12 feet cell he shared with three other inmates, indicating a planned suicide. However, amid reports that all the six accused were made to go through unprecedented torture, many people suspect murder.

Ram Singh’s father, Mange Lal Singh, alleged that he had been murdered. He told the press that Ram Singh had feared his life was in danger and had told him that he had been sodomised by fellow inmates and tortured continuously. He claimed that Ram Singh could not have hanged himself because of deformities in both his hands caused by a road accident a few years ago. Some jail employees had earlier leaked out information that all the accused had been subjected to brutal forms of torture which included eating human excreta and abject humiliation on a daily basis. As of now, it is unclear whether Ram Singh committed suicide or was murdered, but his death definitely points to glaring deficiencies in the way Indian jails are run.

Noted feminists and activists, while criticising the government for having failed to prevent Ram Singh’s death, raised the point that one of the most important demands of the Indian women’s movement was the state’s accountability in matters of gender violence and not quick-fix solutions such as capital punishment or a lynch mob’s justice. They feel that the state should ensure that gender equality and justice are ensured through the proper functioning of its institutions. It was precisely for this reason that members of the women’s movement did not support the call for capital punishment and the unnecessary violence in the spontaneous December protests.

“There is no reason to celebrate Ram Singh’s death even though we know he was one of the main accused in the case. A successful completion of the case in courts without any such impeding incident would have restored the faith of women across the country in our legal system. We had never seen such anger among people as we saw around the Delhi gang rape in December. This was a test case for our country. Can we ensure justice and reinstate the faith of the common people in our legal system, or do we only know to proceed in an extrajudicial way? Unfortunately, the government is not in a position to ensure proper justice even in a case as sensitive as this,” said Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).

India has an abysmally low conviction rate in rape cases. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 15,423 rape cases were reported countrywide in 2011, but there were only 4,072 convictions. In 2010, there were 14,263 cases; only 3,788 of the accused were convicted. This means that the conviction rate is only a little more than 26 per cent. The figures indicate only reported cases. Many other incidents of rape go unreported because of the stigma they attract for victims, the police’s refusal to register a case, or various forms of discrimination that prevent Dalits or members of other oppressed sections from reporting the crime. Conviction rates have, in fact, seen a steady downfall from around 70 per cent in the 1970s to not more than 30 per cent in recent years, indicating a structural malaise in the legal and policing system.

In such a state of affairs, the government’s promptness in instituting speedy trials in the gang-rape incident was seen as an encouraging move, but the process got disrupted by Ram Singh’s death. Custodial deaths and the conditions of undertrials in Indian prisons are at the fore of discussions surrounding it. Even if all the conspiracy theories of murder are put to rest, a case of aiding and abetting suicide can still hold ground. The prison authorities, presumably wishing to appear gender-sensitive, have told the media that undertrials who are accused of charges like rape and molestation are treated with scorn in jail. The alienation of such people in prisons is quite common as even inmates tend to humiliate and torture them. However, gender rights activists say that such practices in prisons reflect a larger patriarchal mindset. By resorting to such lynch mob retaliations, feminists say, men try to alienate themselves from the rape culture they themselves are a part of. Gender violence is perpetuated in a state of affairs where men dictate the terms. By torturing and humiliating the rape accused, other inmates and the prison authorities try to project themselves as “real” men. This same logic demands that women be “protected” in their homes and seeks to curtail their freedom. The women’s movement seeks freedom without any fear for women. It seeks to destabilise the patriarchal notion of women being just reproductive entities.

Rape culture

In fact, the rape culture in Indian prisons is reflected in the way they have become dens of sexual abuse. Many independent surveys have found that sodomy and sexual abuse are common in the country’s jails, orphanages and juvenile homes. Ram Singh, according to many reports, was sodomised. This, the inmates felt, was a part of his punishment for his heinous crime. G. Pramod Kumar, a writer for the website Firstpost, quotes in his article a People’s Union of Civil Liberties report describing sexual assaults in Tihar Jail way back in 1981: “When a young boy enters, the prisoners have been known to have bid a price for the boy. The price offered is in terms of ‘bidis’, soap or charas. Often prisoners have been divided into camps and the groups have fought each other on the issue of who shall have the new entrant.”

In the same article, he quotes from an east African prison officer’s blog: “The general, closed, masculine, aggressive, hierarchical and network-like social setting makes the prisoners: closed (introversion, keeping personal feelings in secret), masculine (more active, more dominant, not caring, not passive), aggressive (violent, intolerant, sometimes bestial, brutal, burned out, cynic, etc.), dependent (hospitalised, hyper-vigilant, tranquiliser and body shape addict, etc.) and builds up a gang identity and destroys the pre-incarceration identity.”

Such a violent, male-chauvinist environment inside prisons reflects the broader trends of society where primitive survival instincts dominate modern civilised spaces governed by the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Consequently, women prisoners are subjected to violent forms of sexual abuse. The most recent example is of Soni Sori, a schoolteacher who was arrested in Chhattisgarh for allegedly harbouring connections with naxalites. She was reportedly raped by the police personnel several times in the prison and stones were inserted into her vagina, causing injuries for which she was brought to New Delhi for treatment. In the recent past, many such incidents of political prisoners being subjected to inhuman sexual assaults inside prisons have come to light. Prison inmates are informally trained and socialised into a mob culture with their own definitions of justice and survival. What, however, is conspicuous is the overt and covert support this gets from the prison authorities and the state’s inability to put any checks on it.

Sodomy and other forms of torture as part of societal punishments are among the issues that the women’s movement has consistently been raising. Women in India experience similar forms of sexual abuse and humiliation every day. Gender rights activists and scholars have unanimously condemned mob justice and the kind of violent, patriarchal “righteousness” that one saw in Ram Singh’s death.

Retributive justice vs gender equality

Advocates of retributive justice—an eye for an eye—are celebrating Ram Singh’s death as good riddance. However, feminists contend that such attitudes constrain the fight for gender equality and justice that had received a fresh impetus after the December agitation.

Kavita Krishnan said: “Had Ram Singh been declared guilty by the court, it would have given so many people positive hopes about our system. We also have to ask why only Ram Singh’s death is being singled out for celebration. Custodial rapes and deaths have become so common in India, but not many people come out to condemn it. Does this mean that people in uniform have the right to rape?”

The government has expressed confidence that Ram Singh’s death will not hamper the trials of the other accused. Around 50 witnesses out of 80 have already been examined by the courts, and the decision should come soon. A magisterial inquiry has been established to investigate Ram Singh’s death. Many activists have demanded that its ambit be wide enough to include discussion of issues like custodial torture, psychological trauma in prisons and extrajudicial handling of cases.

“There should not only be a full-fledged inquiry into the security lapses that led to Ram Singh’s death, but the government should also come out with a detailed status report on the conditions of our prisons and the status of undertrials. A counselling plan needs to be put in place for both victims and the accused,” said Indu Agnihotri, director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

Close to 65 per cent of the inmates of Indian prisons are undertrials. Given the power mechanisms in the country’s overcrowded jails (Tihar houses three times more inmates than its capacity), a counselling plan is not only necessary but requires immediate attention.

Since December 16, when the gang rape took place, the battle against structural forms of gender violence had received fresh impetus. In many ways, perhaps, that is what distinguished the December 2012 protests from the earlier ones—people out on streets were finally beginning to look at these incidents as not isolated events but as part of larger patriarchal biases, both overt and covert. With Ram Singh’s death, the belief that the state can still deliver has received a massive dent.

It also highlights the perils of knee-jerk reactions and limited notions of justice. The trials of the other accused might end with convictions, but this incident is yet another hindrance in the long struggle for gender equality, justice, and freedom without fear.

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