India Faces Up to Its Legal Problems
1 | INDIA
The fog enshrouding India's capital was a fitting backdrop to the grim proceedings being carried out in a New Delhi court. On Jan. 7, demonstrators and members of the media camped outside the courtroom, awaiting the arrival of five of the six suspects in the attack of a young physiotherapy student who died two weeks after being beaten and raped last month. The scene in the packed courtroom was so chaotic that the judge eventually ordered nearly everyone out, closing the proceedings to the media as the accused stood on charges of rape and murder. The sixth suspect is expected to be charged and tried in a juvenile court.
The upcoming trial is part of a fast-track process initiated by authorities after outraged protesters took to the streets by the thousands throughout the country to demand justice for the 23-year-old victim and better security for women across India. In addition to proposing several measures to create a safer environment in New Delhi, officials will try to usher this case--and other sexual-assault cases in the future--more swiftly through a legal system that can move agonizingly slowly and sometimes not at all.
It's one of many deep fractures in Indian society that the upheaval of the past three weeks has exposed. The barbarity of what happened to the young woman and her male companion behind the drawn curtains of a private bus on Dec. 16 has raised hard questions about what led six individuals to act with such rage and impunity, leaving their victims for dead on the side of a road. The coldness--or fear--that apparently kept onlookers from helping the naked and bleeding pair for nearly half an hour, according to the companion's account, has raised even tougher ones. "Passersby simply look the other way when they find somebody in distress," said Rajesh Garg, a student demonstrating outside the courtroom. "Nobody wants a brush with law."
That instinct is part of what many are saying is at the root of the problem: the mercurial application of Indian law. "Our law is not enforced," says Dipankar Gupta, a Delhi-based sociologist. "We don't pick up small crimes. We don't pick up large crimes." The court scene didn't do much to restore confidence in the system, with many lawyers vociferously refusing to defend the accused. Fast-tracking this and other cases is intended to fix one problem, but observers worry it could create others, potentially denying defendants a fair trial or creating troubling procedural irregularities. "We do not have a culture of abiding by rule of law," says Vrinda Grover, a human-rights lawyer based in New Delhi. "If we did believe in rule of law, we wouldn't be in this situation in the first place."
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