Sexual Violence in India: How Long Will the Media’s Interest Last?

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Altaf Qadri / AP

An Indian woman and her son watch a protest in New Delhi, Jan. 13, 2013

It’s been nearly a month of relentlessly grim news in India, as more and more details of December’s brutal sexual assault come to light alongside a daily barrage of new rape cases reported around the nation. On Jan. 12, a 29-year-old woman in the northern state of Punjab reported to police that she was abducted and raped by six men after taking a bus in the city of Gurdaspur. Almost simultaneously, seven men in the state of Haryana were arrested for allegedly confining and raping a woman repeatedly over a seven-month period. Two officials in the state of Chhattisgarh were arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting underage residents at a school for tribal girls. Police in village in Uttar Pradesh told the press that a young man had been arrested after allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

Widespread sexual violence is in no way unique to India, nor is the nation witnessing a dramatic surge in violence against women since a 23-year-old medical student was beaten and raped on a bus in New Delhi on Dec. 16, and died two weeks later. What has changed dramatically in the past four weeks is the amount of space that these crimes, which experts say have been on the rise for years and are still grossly underreported, occupy in the public sphere. Just months ago, India’s English-language dailies would often mark a violent sexual assault in a blurb buried under a few pages of the latest political intrigue. Now the latest violent sexual assault is the latest political intrigue.

Many here argue that is not a bad thing. The extensive media coverage of this month’s protests and the Dec. 16 assault, in which five of the six suspects appeared for the third time in court today in New Delhi, helped kick-start officials’ efforts to improve safety in the capital. It has put the issue of sexual assault “on the political agenda, which has never, ever happened before this,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. “Nobody thought a rape would become such an issue that the Prime Minister would have to make a statement on it.” It helped spur swifter police action on assault cases around the country and initiated changes expected to be made to the nation’s penal code.

Still, while it is a relief to many to see this long-simmering problem finally out in the open, there is something unnerving about the near constant flow of details of the Dec. 16 attack and other cases that have emerged since then. “Not all the coverage has been sensitive,” says Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of the Indian Express newspaper. Kumari agrees that some media has gone too far, as in the recent case of a popular show, Crime Patrol, that was reportedly scheduled to air an episode re-creating the Dec. 16 assault on the victim and her male companion that took place on the moving bus in Delhi. (The show has since postponed the episode.)

It is also impossible to say what, if any, impact the media blitz will have on the proceedings of the upcoming trial, which will be held behind closed doors in keeping with normal legal procedure in rape cases in India. “In cases that become extremely high profile, there is always this thing of ‘trial by media,’” says Mangla Verma, a research and advocacy officer at Lawyers Collective, an NGO in New Delhi. For instance, if the victim’s friend, the sole witness of the crime, strays from the version of events in court that he gave to an Indian network earlier this month, the defense could use that inconsistency against him. “Certain complications can creep in,” says Verma.

An equally complicated question is how long this increased attentiveness to violence against women will last. The logical conclusion to that question is not forever. But even seasoned media professionals say something feels different this time. The way that this has caught everybody’s imagination is “unprecedented,” says Gupta. “Middle India is dealing with its first generation of women going out to work. Men in workplaces are struggling to come to terms with this, and now women are getting empowered.” As a result, Gupta says, this is a story that “concerns every family.”

Even after thousands-strong protests disperse and a 24-hour news cycle churns on, it is possible that India as a society has crossed a line in the last month that can’t be backtracked. Police have been shamed, politicians have been chastened. “We cannot be more desensitized than we have been in the past,” Kumari says. “Things have to improve.”