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India’s rape riot exposes culture of impunity against women

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India is on fire and the anger on the streets is boiling over as protesters defy ban on demonstrations, water cannons and tear-gas attacks from the police, to register their disapproval of the gang-rape of a medical student on December 16 in New Delhi,  on a moving bus. She was beaten, raped for almost an hour and thrown out of a moving bus, was still in a critical condition on respiratory support, doctors said.

The protesters, predominantly college students but also housewives and even children, are demanding more steps from the authorities to ensure safety for women and some want the death penalty for the accused.

Stormed by protesters all over India,  the authorities have promised better police patrolling to ensure safety for women returning from work and entertainment districts, the installation of GPS on public transport vehicles, more buses at night, and fast-track courts for swift verdicts on cases of rape and sexual assault.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on December 27 addressing at the 57th National Development Council meeting said that the issue of safety and security of women was the highest priority and asked all Chief Ministers in the country to pay special attention to this crucial area.

Referring to the 23-year-old gang-rape victim in Delhi, the Prime Minister told the gathering that the government had decided to review the laws in cases of aggravated sexual assault.

But the protesters view those measures as inadequate and are looking for the government to take a firmer stand on sexual assaults countrywide, most of which go unreported.

What about the women, who are raped by security forces? What about the rape victims, who belong to Dalit families? No one bothers to talk about them. If the Indian government is really serious about containing this crime, it has to show zero tolerance for it regardless of who commits it – a soldier or a petty criminal. Similarly, the Indian government needs to show that such crimes will not be accepted as a necessity to punish a community in those areas where the state’s forces are fighting with separatists. Changing the mentality and attitude of a people is a long-term objective, and should not be confused with immediate actions such as the need for changes in the laws to propose death penalty for rape criminals regardless of their position in society.

Reported rape cases in India have increased by 9.2 percent to 24,206 cases in 2011 from 22,172 the previous year, according to the latest figures from the National Crime Record Bureau.

"This is not about that one rape," said aspiring fashion designer Shruti Sharma, 24, at a protest in Delhi.

"This is about how crime is rampant in our cities. We are angry at the government for not ensuring the safety of its citizens. The judiciary is slow. Cases take too long."

Opposition political parties, normally quick to exploit the government's vulnerabilities, have largely been sidelined in the protests, which have mostly been organized through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.