For the most part, such voices have been shot down by India's educated middle class, the group often referred to as "civil society" in India. But civil society is not a majority in India. In spite of heady economic growth and a fast-expanding middle class, the country remains a traditional place, with only 54 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys over age 7 literate, nationwide. The comments blaming the victim -- or women in general -- for the actions of their attackers actually represent a significant strain of thinking in today's India.
India's top political leaders are careful not to make such gaffes. Neither Singh nor anyone in the central government made any stray remarks holding the woman responsible for going out to see a movie with a male friend, wearing highlights in her hair, or displaying other signs of globalized culture, as she apparently did. But more than likely, Delhi's top leaders know well that these small transgressions against an ancient cultural code of honor are what got this young woman killed. They know she lived in a violent city that has not accepted that women have the right to independence. India's police force is ranked second-lowest in law enforcement resources among 50 countries, according to the United Nations. Yet even in the weeks since India convulsed with anger over the shortfalls in the country's policing, there has not been any official move to add to police numbers or improve police training.
The prime minister sought first to ignore, and then to tamp down, India's fury. He promised to take action against the accused, but chose not to wade into an emotional issue that was sure to turn into a political nightmare, as Obama has done with gun control. Perhaps he was slow to recognize that this would become a national crisis; after all, the young woman's victimhood was hardly unique. One woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau.
India's leaders seem to have finally recognized that this issue isn't going away. On Jan. 23, a prominent member of the prime minister's cabinet promised to make reform of rape laws a top priority. The recommendations of the Verma committee include trying rape cases in separate courts, preferably by female judges, broadening the definition of sexual assault, and making police more accountable. Prime Minister Singh has not yet responded to the suggestions.
There's no doubt that the young woman's rapists will be punished -- and quickly. While it's not unusual for normal rape cases to drag on through India's overburdened courts for a decade or so, the trial of five of the six accused in the gang rape began this week in a Delhi court (the sixth is a juvenile and will be tried separately). They may be convicted within two months of committing the crime; that's lightning speed, by Indian standards. They may even receive the death penalty, which many of the protesters have demanded (and which has sparked its own controversy).
But other activists are concerned about what will happen after these men are convicted and the case fades from prominence. They say that India needs a raft of reforms -- even beyond Verma's extensive recommendations -- if the country is to end the culture of impunity around sexual assault and give women some incentive to report the crime. For instance, India's definitions of crimes against women do not include sexual harassment, stalking, or even acid attacks.
It's not surprising that rape goes unreported in India when you consider that victims are often subjected to an archaic "two-finger test" that involves law enforcement officers using their fingers to ascertain whether a woman was "habituated to sex" before the assault. The idea is to determine whether "victims of sexual assault are 'bad,' 'loose,' or otherwise responsible for the attack," according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report. The test makes sexually assaulted women feel "they are the 'accused' when they submit themselves for medical examination and trial," two Indian sociologists argued in a recent commentary. "Unscientific and degrading" are the rather more blunt words that a government panel used to describe it.
Almost everyone agrees that India's police need a radical overhaul if women are to be safe on city streets. The public transportation system in Delhi, as with many other Indian cities, is unreliable; most bus, taxi, and rickshaw drivers are not tracked by GPS or held accountable for the well-being of their passengers. And in spite of government promises, there are no policy prescriptions about transportation yet. More than a month after the high-profile gang rape, a steady pulse of protesters remains on the streets, including one rape victim who has launched a hunger strike in Delhi that she says will not end until the men who assaulted her are punished. But India's Parliament has yet to debate a single new law on crimes against women, and Singh has been noticeably silent on the topic.
In the month since the Newtown school shootings, Obama has brought up gun control and school violence innumerable times. Of course, that isn't a guarantee of legislative change. But it is a way to lay down a marker, to demonstrate that an issue is at the top of a government's priority list. The head of India's governing party, Sonia Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit -- two women with rare positions of top political power in India -- have made emotional appeals for a change to India's systematic disregard for women. The government says it will listen to the demands for a transformation of its laws and attitudes toward women. But the official silence is still the loudest thing the people of India can hear.