Women in India: Political and Judicial Responses

Global Women's Project | Wed, Apr 23, 2014

Source: Sthitaprajna Jena//CC the original image was cropped

This post examines the political and judicial response to the brutal gang rape of one woman in the Subalpur village of West Bengal, India. We will also conclude our discussion of this case with this post. Photo/Sthitaprajna Jena//CC


Welcome back to the Women in India Blog! Today we’re going to be examining the political and judicial response to the brutal gang rape of one woman in the Subalpur village of West Bengal, India. We will also conclude our discussion of this case with this post.

A number of high-profile sexual assault cases in India within the past two years have cast a bright and often harsh international spotlight on the issue of violence against women in India. These assaults have provoked global outrage, prompted changes in laws, and sparked an international debate on how to improve the lives of women in the country.

However, it remains unclear if these cases actually provoke any change in policy or practice. As with most international news stories, there is an alarming trend of immediate condemnation of the event, followed quickly by media and political apathy. The West Bengal rape case is no exception.  Indian media and political discussion of this case has sharply decreased, and the case seems entirely forgotten on the international scale.

While the West Bengal gang rape follows a wider trend, it does have a few unique elements. First, because it deals with the Santhal ethnic minority, the case involves issues of cultural preservation and erosion, as we discussed in our previous post. Furthermore, the woman was sentenced to be raped by a local khap panchayat, or de facto court, which introduces questions of governance, politics, and the judicial will to change an illegal system of local tribal councils that serve as de-facto courts.

Police Response

After the victim reported the rape in late January, the police did not seek custody of the accused for days. After chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banjeree ordered the removal of the Birbhum police superintendent and chief investigator, the perpetrators were remanded and charged with rape, wrongful confinement, verbal threats, and assault, according to the New York Times. After being held in police custody for thirteen days without bail, the accused were presumably released pending their criminal trial.

Phiroj Kumar Pal, a public prosecutor in the district, said all 13 men arrested for the rape have confessed to the crime in writing. The lawyer of the accused, however, denies that any written confession was made.

While the initial police procedure was relatively effective in contrast to the numerous procedural failures of past rape cases, the future of judicial proceedings in this case remain grim. West Bengal has the second worst conviction rate in rape cases in the country at just 11.5 percent, less than half the 2012 national average of 24.2.

Political and Judicial Response

The political and judicial response to this case has been very strong, but it remains to be seen if this will result in justice for the victim.

Multiple politicians have spoken out against the rape. Even the Supreme Court itself has taken a strong stance in the case, ordering the West Bengal government to compensate the victim and assist in her rehabilitation, in accordance with the Indian Code of Criminal Procedure.

Many politicians across India condemned not only the rape itself, but the system of local courts, that ordered the rape.

Although the network of village courts was declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2011, these courts continue to adjudicate in about 90 percent of rural disputes, according to Krapa Ananthpur, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. This implicates both judicial and political failure to implement policy, especially in rural areas where these courts are most powerful. 


Unfortunately, political will and media attention are not the only forces that can bring justice to this victim. The victim will not receive full justice until all sectors of society, including the police, the courts, and the village itself unite and recognize the dignity of the victim. Though police and judicial work has not been perfect, it shows a commitment to justice and a growing respect for the dignity of the victim.

The future of this case hinges on a number of factors. The first factor is clean and efficient police work. Rape cases before have been thrown out of court for poor documentation or sloppy reporting. The second factor is continued pressure from all segments of society, including international organizations, for this case to proceed and for justice to be served. The third factor is the respect for and inclusion of the Santhal tribe, which feels threatened in the face of an eroding way of life.

 Though India—and the world as a whole—has a long journey ahead to fully respect the victims of sexual violence, the West Bengal case offers a glimmer of hope that perhaps justice will be served.