Asia Economy

India Confronts its Own Brazen and Spectacular Violence

Jason Overdorf
Digbyangshu Sarkar | AFP | Getty Images

As America mourns children and teachers killed by a gunman at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary, India is confronting brazen and horrific acts of violence, too — though the problems here are not as directly tied to guns or mental illness.

Perhaps the most brutal such incident happened Sunday — even as America's tragedy still occupied television stations here — with the horrifying gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapist in a New Delhi bus. The victim is now fighting for her life.

As the curtained bus floated ominously through the city, the victim, currently in critical condition, was raped repeatedly and sliced with a knife by her seven attackers before being beaten with an iron rod and finally dumped on the roadside. The young man with her, a 28-year-old software engineer, was also beaten within an inch of his life.

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The brutality of the assault prompted doctors at New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital to describe it as "probably the most grievous" rape case they had ever encountered — noting severe injuries to the woman's head, and abdominal wounds so vicious that while they attempted intestine repair surgery, "there was not much that could be done."

Ostensibly committed to teaching the couple a lesson after the young man objected to comments that "only prostitutes choose to travel with men at night," the crime prompted street protests and a parliamentary debate on Tuesday.

"The reason it's become such an emotive issue is that the expression of violence, particularly gender violence, is in a way a public event," said Delhi University sociologist Radhika Chopra. "This is not secret violence. This is not happening in a dark corner of a street or shady corner of a park. It's on a bus. It's in broad daylight. It's on flyovers. It's in the most public spaces of all. And there are always people there."

But the spectacular act of violence is only the latest in an obscene string of blatant crimes, committed almost casually, apparently without shame or fear of prosecution, that have prompted soul-searching here in India, similar to the kind that is under way in the US.

Last week, a gang of thugs beat up two men with whom they had a dispute over property outside a Haryana courthouse. Then, in broad daylight, the gang stormed the Gurgaon hospital where their victims had been admitted and shot them in their beds — paying no mind to the hospital staff and other witnesses.

Last month, liquor baron Ponty Chadha and his brother were killed in a Scarface-style hail of bullets on the outskirts of Delhi.

In September, a jilted lover in New Delhi went on a shooting spree, killing four people, including his ex-girlfriend, before putting a bullet in himself, while another woman was gunned down by men on a motorcycle after what witnesses described as a heated argument.

Incidents in which a Good Samaritan attempting to stop goons from harassing a woman gets stabbed or beaten to a pulp — as happened to a journalist with India's NDTV network last week — seem too numerous to count.

And rapes and other violence against women (and children) — often in plain sight — are reported at a rate of two per day in the nation's capital.

"Trials take almost eight to nine to 10 years, depending on the situation. Trials don't go to complete fulfilment and the conviction rate itself is fairly low," said Pinky Anand, a New Delhi lawyer who works frequently on cases involving such violence.

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"Given all these factors, the accused feel they can get away with this in society and will not be brought to book."

The difference between India's tragedies and America's, of course, is that India has some of the world's strictest gun control laws, and these crimes don't have as direct a connection with mental illness.

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Though civilians here are prohibited from owning all but the most rudimentary revolvers and shotguns — and licenses for even those weapons are very difficult to obtain — guns feature regularly in India's daylight crimes.

But it is rape, not shootings, that has prompted India's soul-searching. India is not known for quality mental health care, but it's radical socioeconomic change, rather than a public health failure, that underlies India's violence problem, experts say.

Sociologists argue that the vicious rapes and other public acts plaguing India's National Capital Region — which includes New Delhi as well as neighboring areas of Haryana and Uttar Praesh — reflect a subconscious struggle for power.

On one hand, globalization and urbanization have brought new opportunities for women and the lower castes, putting pressure on traditional hierarchies. On the other, rampant corruption and the growing nexus between crime and politics — where both money and muscle are needed to win elections — have turned the "goonda" (hired thug) into a figure to cower before, rather than report to the police.

"The goon is, if you will, a very iconic figure of the fear, the anxiety, and the fact of power which cannot be controled, which has a nexus you have no sense of," said Delhi University's Chopra.

"The exercise of power requires a public display of it and a public acknowlegement of it. These spectacular forms of violence in highly public spaces is part of this notion of power that can be used without any stopgate."

According to Prem Chowdhry, a sociologist who has worked extensively on the intersection of gender, violence and caste, women of traditionally conservative states like Haryana are now leaving the house for work, attending universities, and asserting their right to property. Meanwhile, in these same areas, the practice of aborting female children has led to a skewed sex ratio. So the number of bachelors and the quantum of sexual frustration and resentment is rivaled only by underemployment as a social force.

When that resentment boils over, "rape is taken as a form of revenge or control," Chowdhry said.