Lessons from Hyderabad: Yesterday, today and tomorrow

A busy night bazaar.

Krishna Menon and Rukmini Sen (Ambedkar University Delhi)


Image: Night Bazaar (Ramzan) by Rajesh India via Flickr Creative Commons

As we move towards the close of 2019, women’s groups are out on the streets in India protesting the abrogation of Article 370 that takes away special status to Jammu and Kashmir,  the introduction of a highly exclusionary citizenship bill , the attacks on public funded education as detailed in the National Education Policy,  and the partisan and contested  judgement on the disputed  site of worship at Ayodhya.

However, the shocking gang rape and brutal killing of a 27 year old veterinary doctor in Hyderabad brought the issue of gender-based violence back to the fore. The discovery of  the charred remains of  the victim, attacked and murdered on her way home from work, shocked the residents of a city renowned for its genteel ways, and deemed the safest city for women in India in a 2017 survey.  This atrocity was followed by reports of the death of another young woman who had been attacked on her way to court in Unnao Uttar Pradesh to testify in an ongoing rape case.  She was allegedly set alight by the accused rapists, and died shortly afterwards from her injuries. Just as it seemed that it couldn’t get worse came the chilling news of  the police ‘encounter’ in Hyderabad that resulted in the killing of the four alleged rapists.  This ‘unlawful’ attempt at ‘justice’ has very worryingly been hailed as praiseworthy by some, including women, who showered rose petals on the policemen involved in this shooting.   Feminists have been quick to spot the connection between a state that justifies coercion and suspension of fundamental rights and the heightened impunity that now characterizes incidents of rape and murder of women.   Fortunately, despite the feelings of despair and dejection,  citizen groups are active and alert in their responses to these shocking incidents of gender based violence.  Feminist groups need to remind themselves that, it all began in a manner of speaking, ironically in the city of Hyderabad in 1978, with the rape of Rameeza Bi and the murder of her husband by the policemen who raped her, while she and her husband were going back home after a late night film show. Tough political  battles and legal struggles have characterized the journey thus far and  much has changed. Feminist solidarities of various kinds across different contexts is the only way out.  This is also the time to re-engage with the question of violence – of all kinds and at all levels with enough attention being paid to the perpetrator as well.  The psyche, the social context and the individual experiences of those who engage in violent acts and those who legitimize it need feminist analysis. For so long we have focused, and rightly so, on the ‘victim/survivor’.  We argue that academic analysis, incisive journalistic writing and creative engagement with the question of violence in general and gender based violence in particular are the need of the hour, to take us beyond binaries of accused-survivor or acquittal-punishment.

The events of Hyderabad in December 2019 point to a distressing reality in a modern tech savvy Indian city in India and multiple dualisms are noticeable. On the one hand women occupy public spaces in much greater numbers in the last decade in India; while on the other hand, this presence has also seen increased levels of violence against women.  Despite Hyderabad’s status as the Technology City, the city for the millennium or cyber city with a high living quality rating, clearly one kind of progress doesn’t necessarily lead to comprehensive patriarchal transformations. The lethal misogyny that this incident exposes is connected with the reform of rape law in 2013, in response to the notorious Delhi gang rape. In responding to the outrage  engendered by this case, the death penalty was introduced as a punishment for rape, as well as a minimum tariff of seven years of imprisonment for committing rape. Paradoxically, the risk of women being murdered after rape increases  in instances where the death penalty is introduced as a punishment for rape, since killing the victim removes the one witness to the crime. In the Hyderabad case, the four men accused of rape were killed by police in an apparent reconstruction of the crime shortly after the incident. The reason why this is troubling is because, without any due legal process, killing is understood as justice in itself. This also feeds into  the culture of lynching that India is witnessing in the last few years.

Increased levels of sexual violence on women is connected with the presence/absence of women in public spaces. #GenderAnd reports that the Census (2011) data for cities (tier I, II and III) shows that women form only 22 per cent of all people travelling for work across India. Bangalore is at the upper end of the spectrum, with women forming 26 per cent. Delhi is at lower end, with this figure falling to 15 per cent. Such low numbers of women commuting in public spaces reeks of deep constraints to women’s mobility — be it concerns for safety, or attitudes which perpetuate the notion that women need not work or step outside their homes unless necessary. Together with this data, according to the 2016 government of India data; out of 38,947 cases of rape reported by children and women, the accused was known to the victim in 94.6 per cent of the cases. Data shows that although over the years women’s presence has increased in public spaces, women still occupy much less than half of these spaces.  This evidently point to a paradox and a grave form of patriarchal violence that exists not only in the ‘real’ figures of rape but also in the fear of the public space. The insistence on  harsh and stringent punishment for the perpetrator of rape has been consistent. In 2013 however, going against the Verma Committee recommendation, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 introduced the death penalty in cases of aggravated rape for the first time. That the death penalty does not act as a deterrent in rape cases has been well noted and therefore does not serve the desired purpose. All the rapists in the Delhi gang rape were given the death sentence. Public calls for retribution trended on social media as #HangHyderabadBrutes and #NoMercytoRapists in the immediate aftermath of the Hyderabad rape as well, which was subsequently followed up with ‘celebrations’ after encounter. The Chief Justice Bobde has raised his concern over the police encounter and killing of the alleged perpetrators. He cautioned that justice can never be instant; if so, it loses its character as justice and becomes revenge.

We are at a critical juncture in Indian feminist politics – trying to make sense of popular support towards hanging, extra-judicial killing and mob justice and the promotion of  surveillance systems to ensure safety for women. The politics of propagating  women’s unhindered access to public spaces with freedom needs to be a consistent and an everyday mode of feminist engagement to counter questions of fear and mobility restrictions.  Upholding constitutional values of liberty and dignity to all citizens  needs  reaffirmation in the broader political context and specifically  when all such ‘events’ hurt public conscience.

Krishna Menon is Professor and Dean School of Human Studies, Amebdkar University Delhi krishnamenon@aud.ac.in

Rukmini Sen is Professor School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi rukmini@aud.ac.in