Photo by Ishan Khosla.
Asia-Pacific / India

What Does A National Sex Offender Registry Mean For India?

On the evening of December 16, 2012 in Delhi, a young woman and her male friend were returning from seeing a movie. This woman was Jyoti Singh Pandey and she was a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern. Pandey and her friend boarded a private bus with six other men. After knocking her male friend unconscious, these men proceeded to brutally beat and rape Pandey, and then they threw both of them from the bus. Although she was transferred to Singapore hospital, Pandey’s injuries were severe and she died less than two weeks later.

This case sparked outrage both in India and around the world. Jyoti Singh Pandey came to be fondly referred to as “Nirbhaya,” meaning fearless, and her case has become a rallying point for the movement against sexual assault in India. In 2016, thirty nine thousand rapes were reported in India. That’s approximately one every 13.5. Western news sources have come to refer to this as India’s “rape crisis.” A 2018 study by the Thomas Reuter’s Foundation, a philanthropic news and information network, named India “the most dangerous place to be a woman.” This is a frightening claim and certainly indicates that changes need to be made. Yet, it also singles out India and makes it seem as though this flaw is due to a lack of action or awareness of India’s people. India is not the only place where it’s dangerous to be a woman—in fact, in this same study, the US tied for third. Furthermore, lack of awareness is certainly not the issue, as many people in India are alert to this so-called “crisis” and are actively working to make a change. Many law reforms have been successful, but we still need to change the way we talk about sexual assault.

On September 20th, 2018, India launched a National Sex Offender Registry, commonly referred to as the NDSO. This is essentially a list of all the people who have been convicted of sexual assault or rape and includes information such as photographs, addresses, fingerprints, and DNA samples. With the establishment of the NDSO, India became the ninth country to have a sexual offenders registry, the US and Canada being among the others. Unlike in the US, however, the registry will only be accessible to law enforcement, not to the public.

In addition to the NDSO, India has previously implemented many laws and reforms to combat the “rape crisis.” After national outrage over the Nirbhaya case, the Criminal Law Amendment was introduced in 2013. This amendment broadened the definition of rape to include stalking, acid attacks, voyeurism, and other crimes. By including other crimes against women in the definition of rape, this act acknowledged rape as a women’s rights issue. This was an important step in legitimizing the experiences of victims. In January 2018, an eight year-old girl named Asifa Bano was raped and murdered in a temple. Her death was then covered up by officials. In response to this horrifying crime, the Criminal Law Ordinance introduced the death penalty for those convicted of rape of a child under twelve years old. This marked the first time that the death penalty has been introduced as a punishment for rape. These laws are all important steps, and the NDSO should have major impacts. Yet, many are still frustrated.

“India has shown utter disregard and disrespect for women … rape, marital rapes, sexual assault and harassment, female infanticide has gone unabated,” said Manjunath Gangadhara, an official at the Karnataka state government. Yet the introduction of the NDSO shows that both the government and the people regard this issue as a high priority. In terms of laws, all the right steps are being taken to pave the way for major changes.

But it’s not just the laws that need to change, it’s the conversations around sexual assault and the way that victims are viewed. Even after Jyoti Singh Pandey’s violent death, some argued that her “western lifestyle” was responsible for her assault. It is illegal for lawyers to use character defamation as a defense in court, but there is still a lot of stigma surrounding rape and the way victims are viewed. Victims’ personal lives are often scrutinized and weaponized against them. Somehow the conversation seems to turn all too often to either blaming the victims, or sympathizing with the perpetrators. This can be seen in the responses to the NDSO.

When the NDSO was announced, many reacted positively, hoping that it would encourage more victims to come forward. Nonetheless, there were an overwhelming number of negative receptions, resulting from the fact that the registry will only be available to law enforcement and not to the public. Many expressed fear that the offenders’ lives will be negatively impacted if corrupt policemen use the registry to target the people on the list. While certainly everyone deserves the right to be dealt with fairly through the criminal justice system, it is problematic that the main topic of conversation is about the offenders. This undermines the concern for the victims, as if seeking to deny the fact that this issue primarily affects the victims and their families. A year after Jyoti Singh Pandey’s death, her father was asked about how their lives have changed. “Without our daughter our world has turned colourless,” he said. The men who committed this crime caused irreparable harm to Pandey and her family, and it would be an injustice to her memory if measures to protect other potential victims, as the NDSO will, are rejected out of concern for how the perpetrators’ lives will be affected. Furthermore, this concern for the fate of the perpetrators suggests that they are somehow the real victims. Those whose names appear on the registry are there because of their own actions—because of a choice they made. Unlike those against whom they committed these crimes, they are not innocent.

It is hard not to see the parallels between this struggle in India and the #MeToo movement in the United States. The NDSO is part of an ongoing effort to help victims in India find their voice, just as many victims in the US have begun to find their voice during the #MeToo movement. Yet in this movement as well, the rhetoric invoked seems to revolve around the perpetrators. For example, when Donald Trump Jr. was asked which of his children he was most concerned for in light of the #MeToo movement he answered, “Right now, I’d say my sons,” for the reason that they bear a risk of being accused of sexual assault. Certainly they do bear this risk, as does anyone who commits this crime. But, it will only be because of a choice they make. Even in the most recent sexual assault scandals in the US, so many refer to the families of the accused, asking how these families will be affected if their loved one is convicted. But, what about the families of the victims? What about Jyoti Singh Pandey’s mother, father, and her two younger brothers who idolized their beloved older sister? This is the essence of the issue, and this is what we should focus on when discussing cases of sexual assault and how to prosecute them. The NDSO is a perfect example of a step in the right direction. It will help victims of sexual assault in India to realize that they are not alone, and it will prevent more assaults by catching repeat offenders. The laws are changing, but neither India nor the US can make progress until we stop blaming victims, and instead, start confronting the issues by talking about the victims. We need to change the conversation.