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Home > Women’s Rights > Rapes of Women Show Clash of Old and New India

Rapes of Women Show Clash of Old and New India

29 March 2011

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The New York Times March 27, 2011, page A8

by Lydia Polgreen

GHAZIABAD, India ­ The young lovers met at a secluded spot next to a
field of wheat at the edge of this sprawling suburb of New Delhi,
where the timeless India of mustard fields and bullock carts abuts the
frantically rising apartment towers of the budding middle class. They
went seeking solitude, but instead found themselves at the violent
cusp of old India and new.

There, according to the police, five drunken young men from a nearby
farming village accosted the couple last month, beating the young man
and gang-raping the woman. It was the latest in a series of brutal
sexual assaults and gang rapes of women in India’s booming capital and
its sprawling suburbs.

In each case there has been an explosive clash between the rapidly
modernizing city and the embattled, conservative village culture upon
which the capital increasingly encroaches. The victims are almost
invariably young, educated working women who are enjoying freedom
unknown even a decade ago. The accused are almost always young high
school dropouts from surrounding villages, where women who work
outside the home are often seen as lacking in virtue and therefore
deserving of harassment and even rape.

“If these girls roam around openly like this, then the boys will make
mistakes,” the mother of two of those accused in the rape said in an
interview, refusing to give her name.

It is a deeply ingrained attitude that has made New Delhi, by almost
any measure, the most dangerous large city in India for women. The
rate of reported rape is nearly triple that of Mumbai, and 10 times as
high as Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, according to government records. A
survey completed last year by the government and several women’s
rights groups found that 80 percent of women had faced verbal
harassment in Delhi and that almost a third had been physically
harassed by men.

Nearly half the women surveyed reported being stalked, a statistic
grimly illustrated earlier this month when a student at Delhi
University was shot in broad daylight by a man the police suspect was
stalking her.

The attackers often do not see their actions as crimes, the police
said, and do not expect the women they attack to report them. “They
have no doubt that they will get away with it,” said H. G. S.
Dhaliwal, a deputy police commissioner in New Delhi who has
investigated several such cases.

India’s economy is expected to grow 9 percent this year, and its
extended boom has brought sweeping social change. The number of women
in the workforce has roughly doubled in the past 15 years.

Law enforcement officials say that the rate of violent crime against
women has actually dropped in Delhi in the past four years, owing to
more aggressive policing efforts, measures like women-only train cars
and laws that require companies that employ women on late shifts to
chauffeur them home.

But a vast majority of crimes against women go unreported, the police
and women’s activists say. The clash between the increasingly
cosmopolitan city and its traditional surroundings is worsening, they say.

“There is a lot of tension between the people who are traditional in
their mind-set and the city that is changing so quickly,” said Ranjana
Kumari, a leading women’s rights advocate. “Men are not used to seeing
so many women in the country occupying public spaces.”

In few places is that conflict as evident as here in Ghaziabad, which
sits at the eastern edge of New Delhi, a metastasizing megacity. The
farmland where the young couple met represents an invisible but
indelible dividing line.

There is no question to which side the young couple belonged. The man
was an engineer at a high-tech company with a salary good enough to
afford him a motorbike and a laptop computer.

Their attackers lived in the village of Raispur, less than a mile from
the tidy complex where the young man shared an apartment with his
parents, but they belong to an altogether different India. None of
them managed to graduate from high school. The narrow lanes of their
sleepy village are redolent of cow dung; every home, it seems, has a
few cattle or buffaloes, many of them living in pens within residents’ houses.

Unlike the growing ranks of professional women in the city on their
doorstep, the women of Raispur live hemmed-in lives, covering their
faces with shawls in front of strangers and seldom roaming beyond the village.

Seema Chowdhury, 20, the sister of one of the accused men, graduated
from high school. But when she tried to enroll in college to become a
teacher, her brothers refused to allow it. Young women who wander too
far face many dangers, they argued.

“I wanted to do something in my life,” she said. “But they thought it
was not a good idea.”

In comparison, the young woman who was raped here had unimaginable
freedom. She had a job as an accountant at a garment factory and her
own cellphone and e-mail account. Using those, she carried on a secret
romance with a young man she met online despite the fact that her
parents had arranged for her to be married to someone else, according
to the police.

Vijay Kumar Singh, a senior police official here who investigated the
rape, said that on Feb. 5 a young man came into his police station to
report that his cellphone and laptop had been stolen. When the young
man claimed they had been snatched near some isolated farmland at the
edge of the city, Mr. Singh became suspicious: it was an unlikely
place for a robbery.

He pressed for details, and eventually the young man admitted taking
his girlfriend to the secluded area so they could be alone, and that
five men had beaten him and raped her.

Based on the description, the police quickly identified one attacker
as a village tough named Tony from Raispur with whom the police had
tangled before.

When they picked up Tony, who goes by one name, he was still drunk,
Mr. Singh said.

“He was so shameless he narrated the whole thing without any sense of
remorse,” he said. Tony later denied that he had raped the woman,
according to the police report.

Tony had apparently assumed that the rape victim would not come
forward because the shame would be too great.

Mr. Singh feared that he was right. “I realized from the beginning
that the girl would not help us,” he said.

The police arrested the five young men and charged them with rape and
robbery. They tried repeatedly to get the young woman to come forward.
The city’s police chief sent her an e-mail asking her to cooperate and
offering to protect her identity.

She sent a curt e-mail reply, the police said: “The police will not be
able to restore my honor.”

The police approached her father, and he urged her to cooperate, said
Raghubir Lal, Ghaziabad’s police chief. But the next morning her
brother found her trying to hang herself, Mr. Lal said. The police
decided to stop pressing her to cooperate.

Mr. Singh, the officer who first investigated the rape, said that with
no physical evidence or victim’s testimony, the rape charge would not stand.

The police and women’s advocates say that successful convictions are
central to changing attitudes that tolerate sexual assault.

A similar episode in Delhi in November had a very different ending.
Men in a pickup abducted and gang-raped a woman who worked at an
outsourcing center after a taxi dropped her and a roommate near their
apartment.

The roommate called the police, who found the young woman and took her
to the hospital. She was eager to press charges, the police said.
Investigators tracked down and arrested five men. DNA evidence was
matched to them, the police said, all but ensuring convictions.

Mr. Dhaliwal, the senior Delhi police official who investigated that
rape case, estimated that only one in 10 rapes in the Delhi region
were reported.

“But this girl was very brave,” Mr. Dhaliwal said. “It is a very
difficult thing in the Indian context, but you have to report it.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 27, 2011

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article
misstated that a student at Delhi University was shot on Tuesday. She
was shot earlier this month.