Widespread hopes that the outrage over last year’s infamous gang rape would spark lasting change in India receded further still this weekend, as the attack of a Swiss tourist in central India made headlines around the world. The victim, a woman from Lausanne, Switzerland, who is reportedly 39 years old, was camping for a night during a bike tour with her husband in the state of Madhya Pradesh when she was sexually assaulted by several men around 10 p.m. on Friday. The men robbed the couple and fled. Several Indian media outlets reported that police arrested five men in connection with the attack Sunday, though there have been conflicting statements from officials.
While unusual because of the victim’s nationality, the incident is one of hundreds of cases of rape that have come to light in the three months since Dec. 16, when a 23-year-old student was fatally raped and assaulted on board a moving bus in the Indian capital. The government responded to the ensuing massive protests and collective outcry over the attack with a flurry of measures designed to improve safety for women in the capital and increase punishment for rape and other gender-related violence, including making rape that results in death a capital offense.
What lasting impact those measures will have — particularly beyond the streets of the capital — is still unclear. The same day that the Swiss tourist was attacked, Indian media reported that another woman in Madhya Pradesh’s capital was gang-raped aboard a moving bus during the middle of the day. Widespread mistrust of police, understaffed forces and the stretched capacity of the courts are seen as contributing to what seems to be an increasing sense of impunity on display in these exceedingly violent sexual assaults. In New Delhi alone, of more than 600 rape cases filed last year, just one resulted in a conviction. “There is an overwhelming feeling [among sex offenders] that you can get around the system,” says Rajat Mitra, a clinical psychologist and director of the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health who has worked extensively with sex offenders in New Delhi.
So far, the high-profile trial of five of the six men arrested in connection with the Delhi rape case has not served as much of a deterrent to would-be offenders. (The sixth suspect in the case, a juvenile, is being held and tried separately.) After laws were toughened up in February to allow for capital punishment, the five men on trial in a special fast-track court in New Delhi all faced the death penalty. The delivery of swift justice and harsher punishment, however, faced an unexpected complication last week when the alleged mastermind of the crime, a bus driver named Ram Singh, was found hanged in his jail cell in Delhi. His lawyer and family members have said they suspect foul play, and an inquiry has been launched into his death.
The Swiss government has requested a swift investigation into Friday’s attack. Local police have reportedly detained some two dozen people for questioning about the assault that they say was carried out by between five and seven men. Police have told Indian media that the attackers beat and restrained the man in the camp the couple had set up for the night, and several of them raped the woman in front of her husband. They stole a laptop and cash from the couple before fleeing the scene. After the attack, the couple reported the crime to police and sought treatment in a local hospital.
With all eyes once again on India, local police are under pressure to respond to this case quickly — more quickly, no doubt, than other low-profile cases similar to it that are being reported on a near daily basis. But officials’ comments in the past two days still echo some of the early reaction to the Dec. 16 rape case, when many people initially blamed the 23-year-old woman for not taking responsibility for her own safety when she boarded an unmarked bus at night. Over the weekend, a senior official in Madhya Pradesh told the Times of India that the Swiss couple erred by staying in a place where there is a higher ratio of men to women. “They apparently lost track and took a wrong turn and decided to halt for the night by the side of a village brook little realizing that the district with 85:100 men-to-women ratio is not the safest place for women,” he told the daily. Running a speedy investigation in the glare of the international spotlight is a start to addressing this problem in India, but that’s the easy part. Changing these deeply entrenched attitudes about sex crimes will be the longer and harder fight.