In 1972, Mathura, a 16 year old tribal girl, was raped by two policemen in a police station in Maharashtra, while her relatives stood outside, consumed with frustration and hopelessness at their inability to reach her. An already growing feeling of discontent with the police and state authorities escalated to a national outcry upon the verdict given by the Supreme Court on this case.
The women’s rights movement gained unexpected momentum with a nation-wide anti-rape campaign being launched in the wake of the Mathura case verdict, which reverted the judgement that called for their imprisonment. But what was it about this verdict that served as an ignition point to a movement which spread across the country like wildfire? What set the stage for this unprecedented proliferation of autonomous women’s organizations across India?
The genesis of this mobilization was rooted in the excesses committed by the state machinery during the Emergency from 1975 to 1977. In post-emergency India, civil liberties organizations took up the cause of highlighting the rape of women in police custody, the mass rape of poor and minority women during caste and communal riots, and the sexual molestation of tribal women by para-military forces. The issue of custodial rape had already started mobilizations beginning in 1978. It was in this atmosphere of disillusionment with state institutions that the public outrage and the widespread press coverage, the Mathura verdict proved to be a tipping point. A nationwide anti-rape campaign was launched in 1980, which demanded the reopening of the case and for amendments to be made to the existing Rape Law, which was heavily skewed in favour of the rapist and placed burden of proof on the victim.
An open letter written to the Chief Justice by four law professors served as a catalyst for nationwide mobilizations. Roused by this letter, Forum against Rape (now called Forum against Oppression of Women) invited countless other organizations to coordinated protests. On March 8th, International Women's Day in 1980, a formal demand was made pushing for the retrial of the Mathura Case.
The year 1980 saw coordinated activism take place across Delhi, Bombay, Nagpur, Pune, Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Joint Action Committees formed in Delhi and Bombay comprising students from feminist groups, which invited socialist and communist parties to help coordinate the campaign. This period saw the emergence of organizations such as Saheli and Stree Sangharsh in Delhi, Forum Against Rape and Women’s Centre in Bombay, Chingari Nari Sanghatan in Ahmedabad, Vimochana and SJS in Bangalore. Autonomous research organizations also came up, like Center for Women’s Development studies, and women’s magazines, like Manushi, were established in Delhi. Externally, this nationwide mobilization paved the way to faster legal redressal, while internally the organizational structures of these groups evolved to accommodate growing participation from not only women, but men as well.
Additionally, protests against the growing incidents of police rape took place even in areas that did not have organizations to spearhead it. By mid-1980, even political parties could no longer distance themselves from the growing discontent.
The debates on the large scale rapes and atrocities against women reached the Lok Sabha in 1980 itself. The Law Commission consulted with women’s groups and came up with recommendations to amend the criminal law, which was codified in the Law Commission Report of 1980. This bill was presented in Parliament in August 1980, but recommendations made in the report were very selectively accepted. There was a constant tussle between the women’s rights organizations and the state institutions regarding certain clauses (concerned with, among other things, burden of proof, concept of consent, types of rape) which neither side was willing to compromise on. In the three years that it took for this effort to materialize into actual legal reform, the movement had lost its momentum and the energy that fueled it had dissipated. According to Flavia Agnes “by the time the amendment was passed, the campaign had virtually died down”.
Keeping in mind that the movement was never centrally planned, but spread spontaneously from one place to another, this was a watershed moment in feminist activism in terms of the level of coordination displayed for such spontaneous mobilizations. While reflecting on the campaign, commentators agree that the principal gain was that rape, hitherto a taboo subject, came to be discussed openly. Custodial rapes especially now emerged as a major civil rights and women’s issue, and public was far more aware of the power they possess to affect change. Previously, rape misjudgments or acquittals would go unnoticed, but in the following years, women's movement against rape gathered force and organisations supporting rape victims and women's rights advocates came to the fore.
Although there were differences in the approaches taken by these different organizations in terms of internal structuring and outward functioning, they continually played complementary roles in each other’s development. The process of these organizations coming together to work was not smooth, but an overarching solidarity based on the assumption of a certain level of commonality in women’s experience transcended any internal variance.
There is no doubt when it comes to the sheer bravery these women displayed by assembling together and standing up against a seemingly unbeatable force. The strength in their numbers and the relentless hope they had in their cause is something that did not fade away into the annals of history. In fact, we continue to reap the benefits of their persistence and fearlessness because many of these autonomous women’s collective continue to stand tall today, keeping the fire burning even decades later.
Shannon Mathew studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors in 2016. She is currently interning with The YP Foundation.