Protecting India’s Children

Sanofi Pasteur, via Flickr

Unlike the Christian god-child Jesus Christ, who reaches manhood before his final act of self sacrifice, Hinduism’s Lord Ganesha experiences his climactic tragedy while still a young child. His inexperience and youth are punished when his mother, Parvati, commands Ganesha to guard her privacy while she bathes: her husband Shiva finds a stranger blocking access to his wife and swiftly decapitates the young boy. Moved by his wife’s sorrow, Shiva places the head of a commensurably-youthful elephant on the boy’s torso and restores his body to life.

The God of Wisdom, Ganesha’s youthful innocence is considered foundational in his love and thirst for knowledge. However, whereas the story of Ganesha is one of parental love and justice, the recent gang rape of a five-year-old girl in India tells a different type of story: one about brutal domination, merciless violence and hopelessness for the young victim, her family and the global community following the ongoing story of sexual and violent crime against women and children in India.

The public’s response to the rape is angry and passionate: hundreds of protestors in New Delhi are demanding Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar’s resignation. However, Mr. Kumar is unwilling to quit his post, on the basis that neither he nor his police officers could have prevented the rape of the five-year-old girl, or, in fact, most incidents of rape because they are, as he describes them, “opportunistic crimes committed within the confines of private spaces.”

Mr. Kumar acknowledges a salient point in understanding India’s problem of sexual criminal activity: more often than not, rape is committed by someone who knows the victim, oftentimes a relative (father, uncle, cousin) or member of the community (priest, merchant, neighbor). As adults, these perpetrators are by default figures of authority in the victims’ lives, exploiting unbridled access to, and wielding unquestioned authority over, victims and their families.

However, Mr. Kumar’s claims that his resignation would not prevent rapes from happening, and that his police force is not responsible for any instance of rape perpetrated by someone the victim knows, is a fallacy and betrays an ignorance of the function that law enforcement and other institutions, whether religious, educational or social, play in the conditioning and shaping of a society and its morality.

A quick study of how America has dealt with cases of sex abuse provides a precedent and model for how India could begin to bring justice to victims of rape, as well as prevent the crime going forward: investigate, prosecute, publicly and strictly punish these criminals in courts of law; perform rigorous background checks before staffing roles that allow for access to children; hold the institutions where crimes take place (temples, schools) accountable for creating an environment that enabled the incident to occur; legislate statutes like “Megan’s Law,” which mandates the public’s access to information regarding sex offenders in the U.S.; and require health professionals to report suspicions of abuse to authorities.

By taking similar actions, India’s Parliament, local governments, and law-enforcement agencies will put in place a formal infrastructure in which rapists are duly punished, reinforce social mores such as a community’s responsibility to protect all its children, and acknowledge crimes against women and children as nether shameful nor dishonorable for the victim and his/her family. By publicly acknowledging the heinous nature of crimes committed against young victims, and the strict punishment these offenses provoke, the focus shifts from preserving “family honor” to denouncing criminal behavior.

Individuals hold a contract with their community’s institutions, voting for and installing people in positions of authority whose job it is to work in the best interest of protecting the community, socializing its members as to what behaviors are abhorrent or appropriate, punishable or rewarded. Thus, Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar’s assertion that neither he nor his police force could have prevented the rape of a five-year-old girl reveals a gross misunderstanding of his and his employees’ responsibility to the people of New Delhi: just as adults have the responsibility to protect and instruct the children in their sphere of influence, institutions such as the New Delhi police department and Indian Parliament have the duty to hear and respond to protestors’ and parents’ cries for justice and action. Just like Lord Ganesha, whose innocence and sensitivity are foundational in his role as the God of Wisdom, children deserve the protection, attention, and active engagement of their entire community, parents or siblings, teachers or bus drivers, Parliament or police commissioners.

Kavita Ramdya is the author of Bollywood Weddings and teaches at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.