On Sunday 16th December a man and a woman, having been out to see a film, boarded a bus home to an upcoming district of New Delhi. The bus was driven by Mukesh Singh, on board was his brother Ram Singh, and their friends a cleaner, a fruit seller, a gym instructor and others employed to help with the bus. The couple were unaware that this bus was the vehicle for an entertaining joyride around Delhi. The passengers had been drinking and wanted to pick up passengers in the hope that it would pay for more liquor. They had succeeded in picking up a carpenter whom they had robbed and chucked out an hour earlier. Crucially, they had stolen his mobile phone and so their first crime had not already been called in.
The gang picked up some banter with the new male passenger, described universally as the woman’s “friend”. They felt it was inappropriate for the pair to be out at night together, they argued and the man was beaten about the head. No shrinking violet, the woman went to his defence and fought with Ram Singh; biting his hand. Drunk and incensed; he beat the woman, now nick named Damini after a film, and raped her. At least three of the passengers raped and tortured the woman for two hours as the bus, windows tinted and curtains drawn against the night, drove in circles around Delhi.
Eventually, the victims were stripped, papers and mobiles taken, and they were chucked out on a fly over. The group parted, and the bus was taken to be washed.
The man recovered from his injuries and has since been taken away from Delhi by his father amid a media and political storm. The woman, a 23-year-old a physiotherapy student recently died in Singapore where authorities had sent her for treatment.
The perpetrators have been hastily apprehended.
The case has become a cause célèbre in India, considered to be symbolic of a major and growing problem with rape. While it does not show up in the statistics protestors consider the problems to be very real.
I’m aware that this blog has focused on international issues for the last several days, and I apologise to any readers who feel let down by that. This blog does not pay contributors, and so the focus of the blog is influenced by whatever attracts the attention and motivates the people who write it. When a writer feels moved, as I have, by a case then it is important to do justice to victims by highlighting it, and to try to divine from these issues lessons that are universally applicable.
A noteworthy and disappointing feature is the popular authoritarianism the case has produced. From calls for iron security “How dare people just drive around Delhi like that! We want check points!”, to blaming the victim and calling for social engineering “How terrible is it that such young people have a life outdoors at night! Let’s close the night clubs at 1am!” the social conservatism is palpable. Bus companies look set to be regulated: “How come the owner didn’t know where his bus was? We need to mandate GPS!” and the meta-reactionary calls for a clampdown on the media “How dare you blame the victim? Let’s ban talking about the mistakes of victims!” fail to respect the right to free-speech, not-to-mention the short-term benefits of teaching youngsters to behave safely and responsibly at night. Most disturbing, especially after the unusually fast capture of the perpetrators, is the theme of the street-protest at India Gate: the people want the rapists hung, and hung quickly, for justice and as a deterrent.
One of the best Bollywood moments I remember talks about the power of love rising above the power of fear, but it is as if India wishes to be ruled by a strong man a man. A man who will put fear in the hearts of everyone, except presumably for the good law-abiding person who is speaking. Such voices ignore the inevitable attraction and corrupting nature of power, and this is especially disappointing. Corruption is one of India’s biggest issues and the cause célèbre at the heart of India’s last round of mass protests, and for good reason:
Corruption can broadly be divided into petty and big-ticket and both of these appear to be endemic in India. A large part of the corruption in India is associated with the delivery of public services and is spread throughout the hierarchy, it has high frequency but each case is characterized by a relatively low amount. Much more apparent and played up by the media is the big-ticket corruption and the recent 2G spectrum example is only one among a long history of such examples that have come up in the public domain.
Corruption is not a cultural phenomenon but an administrative one. Improper allocation of discretion, not backed up by adequate monitoring, poor enforcement of laws, and lack of punishments all add up to create an environment where corrupt behavior has become more a norm rather than an exception. Add to that the inadequate use of technology within the government – IT systems, meters, and testing apparatus, etc. But clearly the critical element has to do with a surfeit of laws, rules and regulations that reduce economic freedom on the one hand and create incentives for side payments on the other. Many such laws and rules hail from pre-independence times when discretion was allocated to government functionaries without adequate controls on their functioning.
No one in India will be surprised by the first paragraph of that quotation, but the second part – laying the blame for corruption on a surplus of laws should not be forgotten. In particular, it is worth keeping in mind when listening to Indian Home Secretary RK Singh speaking to Zeenews about the gang-rape case (emphasis mine):
The Home Secretary said no public transport – buses, taxis, autos – will be allowed to run in the national capital without police verification of drivers, cleaners or assistants and vehicles violating the rules would be impounded.
He said drunk driving, drinking and loitering, driving with tinted glass and other unlawful activities will be dealt firmly and all public transport will have to install GPS device for their close monitoring.
Singh said plain clothes policemen will be deployed in buses and those vehicles coming from neighbouring states will be throughly checked and dark films from the window panes will be removed and those persons having licences from other states but driving vehicles in the city, will have to undergo fresh test.
Kumar said there will be a crack down on chartered buses – one of which was used for the crime. So far 1,600 such vehicles have been impounded for violating various rules.
The above reads like a protectionists charter, but also a licence for corrupt policemen to print money. Verification of drivers and mandates for expensive GPS equipment will keep out petty operators and drive up prices, an outcome that many in Delhi can ill afford. Licencing of drivers, of course, can only exclude known wrongdoers, it will not prevent crimes of opportunity or the derangement of drivers after the licence is granted. It will also present an opportunity for graft, and any crack down on one type of operator is a gift to other, better favoured, groups. Selective enforcement of these and other rules presents an opportunity to farm bus operators for bribes. And as Vivek Kaul points out, there are loads of examples of sex crimes going unpunished on account of (alleged) bribery. It is bad enough that tragic crimes might be used as justification for protectionism and corruption, but there is a link here to why these Indian men felt they could get away with rape:
Loads of rape cases go nowhere because the rich and the powerful who are the accused simply bribe their way through the system. When the accused go unpunished or justice takes a long time to be delivered, it makes rape a way of life for Indian men.
Fortunately, while the perpetrators were all employed, this corruption did not work for them, but I fear that creating more opportunities for bribery is not going to make this problem go away.
Kaul also writes movingly about the problems women face in India. A background of economically motivated abortion, infanticide, and disappearances undermine respect and create a numerical shortage of women that causes them to become objectified.
Hence, we kill our women before birth, after birth and keep killing them as they grow up. In a society like this it is not surprising that men grow up with terribly demented minds and commit heinous rapes like the one in Delhi.
“Eve-teasing” the practice of shouting lewd remarks from the side of the road, “accidentally” brushing women’s bodies in crowds, and outright groping is a common experience in India for women, including teenagers. And the economic necessity of a traditional role for women in the home, even at the best of times, constantly reinforces an inferior place for women in Indian society.
So, if socially conservative laws, banning lifestyle choices that are normally harmless, are to be condemned as illiberal; and bus regulation is simply a gift to favoured bus operators, corrupt policemen and special interests then what am I proposing to do about India’s chronic rape problem? Well, it is worth remembering that just because something needs to be done, it does not mean any specific proposal will help. Each proposal should be judged on its merits and counter productive measures filtered out. Indian libertarians must take up arms to ensure that happens, even if no alternative could be proposed. There is also a principle at work that just because someone evil once drove a bus that it is not right to limit the freedom of others to drive buses.
What it is really important to focus on now is economic growth. In this regard reducing the size of Government creates a virtuous circle. An over-sized state is a direct drag on the economy, with taxes diverting resources to central planners that use them less efficiently than the market. The same taxes reduce incentives for productive enterprise. The surplus functions of Government create opportunities for graft and corruption, as we saw above, that represent an unofficial tax with all of the same problems for economic progress. No one can legitimately argue that an untrustorthy state such as India should create more rules to enrust to the state. India should therefore hold tight, and race to dismantle it’s Government; not to create new laws.
Wealthy, happy, enterprising people do not entertain themselves by getting drunk and assaulting people. Citizens focused on self-actualisation do not spend their time smashing the bodily organs of their rape victims; and a society in which marriage for love is possible and commonplace does not maintain prudish attitudes towards couples out late at night.