India's Rape Case Prompts an American Dialogue

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In the mid-1990s, I walked into a crowded theater in Bangalore with some friends and watched what is probably one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen: "Bandit Queen." It’s based on the true story of Phoolan Devi, a poor Indian village girl who was married off as a kid, raped by her much older husband, and survived a series of humiliations and assaults into her adulthood, including a horrific, 3-day gang rape at the hands of upper-caste men. Instead of fading away, however, she became one of India's most notorious outlaws, returning to the site of that awful attack and slaughtering the upper-caste men in the village.

Stories like this are hardly the norm in India, but they speak to what are seen as the failings of a legal system and a society that don't take matters of sexual violence against women seriously.

Activist Mallika Dutt was in India when the news first broke that a 23-year-old woman, later identified as Jyoti Singh Pandey, had been gang raped in New Delhi. She said she experienced a familiar sort of despair at first: "That horrible, sinking feeling that yet again this kind of awful, awful atrocity has happened to a woman."

Mallika runs Breakthrough, a group based in New York City and New Delhi that fights for human rights and women's rights. She's currently in New Delhi, and says her feelings of despair changed in the following days as she saw demonstrations break out across India. As much as the attack shocked the world, the subsequent response has been just as profound. Not only in India and the developing world, but in the West.

"What I'm seeing for the first time, really, is American feminists and American women's organizations seeing the moment in India as an opening for us to be talking about what's going on in the United States as well," she said. "Women in the United States are saying 'When are we going to see the day when we see young men in America really get out onto the streets and support ending violence against women there?'"

And activists argue that the rape incident in India wasn't the product of some far-flung, patriarchal society but speaks to global patterns of abuse.

"I don't think we've had anything as galvanizing in sexual assault in more than 20 years, since the Central Park jogger case," said Sonia Ossorio, who heads the New York City chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women. She said the Indian case follows a series of other notorious incidents, here in the U.S., including the alleged sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl by football players in Steubenville, Ohio, captured on camera. And former Rep. Todd Akin's remarks last year as he ran for U.S. Senate about "legitimate rape" not causing pregnancy.

"The case in India has really, really touched a deep nerve," Ossorio said. "We're hearing from women, and men, and fathers every single day, here in our office."

Other activists suggest the impact has been minimal in the U.S. Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said that unlike the aftermath of Penn State football scandal -- when calls to the National Sexual Assault hotline went up by 50 percent -- his organization has fielded few calls stemming from the incident in India. But he hopes Indian lawmakers will follow the lead of state legislators in the U.S. after the Penn State scandal, tightening laws on who has to report abuse and how soon.

Ossorio and others say the gang rape case is prompting some to renew calls for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was recently blocked in Congress.

Patrick Lemmon, co-founder or the Washington DC-based group Men Can Stop Rape, says the presence of so many men at demonstrations in India dovetails with contemporary efforts to involve American men in conversations about violence, before any crime is committed. And he's hopeful that something good will ultimately emerge.

"We've seen tens of thousands of people gathering in the streets, talking about this issue in India, in ways that, from what I'm reading, has not happened before," he said. "So this is the real moment of possibility. It's an incredible tragedy, and we have an opportunity, as a world and as the nation of India, to say 'This is not who we are. We choose to be different.'"

Next Tuesday, the group Sakhi for South Asian Women is holding a candlelight vigil for Jyoti Singh Pandey, in Union Square. The organizers say their hope is to remind New Yorkers that the effort to end gender-based violence is “urgent, necessary and ongoing.”

For more on Arun Venugopal’s look at life in New York City, go to Micropolis: NYC


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Comments [12]

If you read the article carefully, you'll notice the comments on caste were specifically in regard to the film, "Bandit Queen," and not, as you suggest, as a way to explain "this and other rape cases," as you put it.

Jan. 14 2013 02:43 PM
Vasan from Illinois

Arun, I can understand the white people taking a short-cut and merely saying 'upper caste men did it' every time they describe this and other rape cases where the heinous act of the men committing the rape was over shadowed 'by the real problem in India' that you and others want to high light - Caste.

But as people of the upper caste you and I know this is far more nuanced than that. I doubt if any of your relatives or ancestors did the kind of things that are done every day, though we are of the 'upper caste'. My point is not to let these animals off the hook but for you and others to make it clear what caste you are talking about.

If you absolutely insist on bringing caste into the equation, do the due diligence and name the exact caste of the perpetrator. For example find out which caste Jyoti Pandey was from, find out the so-called 'upper' castes to which the six accused belong and then help the white people understand what exactly you mean.

Or you can take the intellectually lazy route and just call me names! Or even worse you can all go Oprah on me and psychoanalyze my mind!

Jan. 13 2013 07:01 AM
sarla from VA

Shocked to read Jyoti's gangrape case. Naked devil dance in our land where ladies are worshipped.Candle vigil is good and offering flowers to show your respect but with the passing of time candles will blow out and flowers will fade but Jyotis inborn fire will keep the struggle alive for ever and crave for justice and respect for women
Ilike Dr Sara Kshi's prevention mantra which we should teach our sisters an daughters, keep a syringe of Red chilli powder hand and spray it in the eyes or nose of the asailent. Be prepared to protect yourself then wait for the men to change .

Jan. 12 2013 07:57 PM
sethu from new york

hi everyone,

the event organized by sakhi will be held on tuesday, January 15th from 5:30-7pm at Union Square North Plaza (Broadway @ 17th)

candles are not permitted on the park premises, so sakhi will provide LED tealights!

you can reach the organizer at

Jan. 10 2013 06:40 PM

Folks: the candlelight vigil in Union Square is at 5:30 pm on Tuesday. More info at

Jan. 10 2013 03:14 PM

In terms of the Candlelight Vigil, to be held in Union Square next Tuesday 1/15/13, I just tried phoning the SAKHI group for South Asian Women, but there was no answer. So, I would suggest you email them at: to request the time and details.

Jan. 10 2013 02:46 PM

Does anyone know when the vigil is going to be held on Tuesday in Union Square?

Jan. 10 2013 01:45 PM
Dr.Sara Koshi from Manhattan

I was the only girl in my class in Bombay Veterinary College 1976 to 1980.
I was the only Woman Veterinary Surgeon in the State of Maharashtra, 1983 to 1987.
The only way I thrived inspite of my 'only' staus is by avoiding groups of drunken classmates or strangers on streets, buses, parties, discos esp. at night. The physiotherapy student Jyothi was testing her luck going out at 9pm with a man and catching a questionable bus.
THese sort of men exist in Central Park, Times Square, Dubai etc.
I live in NY, NY but wouldnt go out at night wearing a short skirt or stillettos. Would you let your wife or daughter go out like thatThis is my prevention mantra. Treatment-Carry Chili powder in a syringe. Aim it into your assailants nose or eyes. Raw Jalepeno rubbed on genitals can make a man dance, second option.
Girls and women teach your girls to fight back, dont wait for men to change.

Jan. 10 2013 11:55 AM
Ed Madara from New Jersey

Appreciated another fine news analysis by Arun Venugopal. Darn good.

We often feel powerless to advocate for needed social justice & the safety of women, so far away. But "vidyasri from NJ" offers a positive way to act - Ask representatives of leading American corporations in India, to fulfill their strong commitment to corporate social responsibility, civic duty, and governance. If you don't personally know of any American corporations in India on the list, to whom you can write personally, then at the very least, consider signing and/or just passing word of the petition on to others, and help "Be the Change":

Jan. 10 2013 11:30 AM
vidyasri from NJ

I was assaulted in Delhi last year on a busines trip and experienced the disinterest of police until I involved the US Embassy to file a basic police report. There certainly is a very real American dialogue prompted by the horror in Delhi. You can read the story here in the NJ Daily Record.

Jan. 10 2013 10:16 AM
Diane from NYC

Jyoti's father asked that her name be made public.

Jan. 10 2013 09:31 AM
Kiran Mahale from Fair Lawn NJ

I was listening to the wnyc on radio and I heard the rape victim name. You are not supposed to reveal the rape victim name.

Jan. 10 2013 09:19 AM

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