The Delhi gang rape death sentences won't make India safer for women

The government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: how to prevent the crimes?

The fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi last December caused global horror and outrage and forced India to step back and examine the ongoing war being waged against its women. Two weeks ago a high court judge passed death sentences on the four men convicted of the rape and murder, thereby appeasing a public majority who bayed for blood, calling for chemical castration and public hanging. Lawyers for the four have since launched an appeal against the sentence which could take weeks or even months, but one thing is for certain: even if they are executed, it will not make India a safer country for women.

For hundreds of thousands of Indian women their struggle begins within the womb. According to UN figures, an estimated 750,000 female foetuses are aborted annually, and even if they do make it past the first gauntlet, they face the threat of infanticide, starvation in favour of male siblings, and are likely to endure a life deprived of freedom, education and equality. For every 1,000 boys under the age of six there are only 914 girls, with some states reporting figures as low as 830. India’s Planning Commission called the gender imbalance “a silent demographic disaster in the making” which is already beginning to manifest itself in the form of increased sexual violence, polyandry – where brothers marry the same woman – and a surge in poorer parents trafficking daughters as brides in areas where the female to male ratio is skewed.

In the days leading up to the sentencing an astonishing level of brutality emerged from the Indian public who demanded stoning, lashings, and castration for the convicts, with even high-profile names calling for the death penalty in order to set a precedent and act as a deterrent against future crimes. While it is easy for us in the West to shake our heads and theorise that brutality can’t be fought with brutality, for most women in this country gang rape isn’t a worry when we step out of our front doors and commute to work. My biggest fear is that the Jubilee line might be down – not that I might end up gang raped and beaten to death on a moving bus.

However, by passing the death sentence, the government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: how to prevent the crimes? Rather than focusing on how to treat the symptoms once they bubble to the surface and burst like ugly boils, the root cause needs to be examined and removed.

India is fundamentally a country permeated with both violent language and a violent mentality. From early childhood, phrases such as “I’ll thrash you”, and “I’ll give you such a tight slap” are commonplace, bandied around by both parents and teachers alike. Few can claim not to have been on the receiving end of physical violence from family members and many who suffer at the hands of violence go on to perform similar acts themselves. Ninety per cent of sexual attackers are known to their victims, dispelling the myth of attackers as evil monsters, far removed from you and me. If the death penalty were invoked more often, India would have to accept that there would be many brothers, fathers, grandfathers, co-workers and neighbours swinging from the gallows. And what then of family honour, so often called into question when a daughter is raped, but not when a son has done the raping.

Society has to set the standards by which it wants to live and what hope does India have when its own lawmakers set a horrifying example? A Reuters report revealed last week that the cabinet has passed an executive order to protect politicians found guilty of crimes, which could allow convicted lawmakers to stay in office and stand in elections. Since India’s last general election in 2009, an estimated 30% of lawmakers had criminal charges against them, which included rape and murder.

To chip away at the patriarchal and misogynistic mentality, education on gender equality has to begin at the grass-roots level, within homes and primary schools, and be reinforced with a strong and sustained anti-violence government-funded campaign on television and in cinemas for those who don’t attend schools. The four convicted in the Delhi rape case were all illiterate and had to sign documents with their thumbprints, but they were probably familiar with the latest Bollywood films whose stars could easily be called upon to back such campaigns. It might seem like trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon, but India has already shown that it is capable of achieving the impossible with targeted education. A polio-eradication programme launched in 1985 seemed a futile venture, attempting to wipe out polio from a country as vast and over-populated as India, but with politicians, activists and volunteers, the country has now been polio-free for over a year.

Ultimately the conversation must continue. Since the Delhi gang rape the discussion over each newly reported rape has subsided faster and faster with social media moving swiftly on to lamenting the fall in the rupee or arguing over India’s foreign film entry to the Oscars, while the everyday rapes, acid attacks, domestic abuse and violence continue quietly in the background.

Members of the Karnataka State Youth Congress, some of them wearing masks of the four convicted rapists, enact a mock execution following the sentencing in New Delhi of four men convicted of rape and murder. Photo:Getty.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.