For many of us it has been difficult to comprehend the nationwide protest and outpouring of grief over the issue of rape in our country. We were of the belief that tragedies and suffering did not move the Indians. For years it was usual to hear from exhausted old communists that revolution really could not take place in India, despite inequality, exploitation and injustice inherent in a feudal society like ours. Democracy, caste system and the determinism that drives people’s lives were stated as reasons why status quo would not change.
How wrong people proved to be on December 23 when large mass of young and old people stepped out to occupy a public space – Rajpath – that had been largely reserved to showcase India’s military might. They were protesting against the gruesome and barbaric gang rape of a premedical student, who was returning home with her boyfriend after watching Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” from a multiplex located in an upmarket area of the capital. Although the police arrested the culprits within 48 hours of the incident, the plight of the girl, who was thrown off the bus, struck a chord with the people of Delhi and later the entire country. Although the UPA government had acquired some experience of handling street demonstrations due to the anti-corruption stir led by Gandhian, Anna Hazare, they were not really ready for the class of people that stepped out to demonstrate against a state that was insensitive and allowed such crimes.
It was really the rage of the new age of protestors. Embracing the message from new norm builders like the social media and 24×7 TV news channels, they began to converge at the India Gate and in other parts of the country. Unlike the anti-corruption protests that the government tarred as being sustained by the right wing religious groups, this time around they had to contend with angry young women and men, who wanted the government to amend rape laws and hang or chemically castrate the evil doers.
The government did not know how to react to these leaderless protests, so they water cannoned them and also freely used tear gas shells. Images of the protests will bear testimony about how women were leading the movement. They were at barricades jostling with policemen or climbing on lampposts along the majestic road that leads to the President House. Absence of a coherent response made the government look worse. Placards demanding Congress President Sonia Gandhi or Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for showing greater sensitivity were visible during the protests. It was apparent that the government read the protests very differently. They thought it was against the government and it was an outcome of the people’s mobilisation that the anti-corruption brigade had engaged in a few months ago.
A nervous government sent the battered woman to Singapore to show that she was being provided with best possible medical care, but that did not help. The trauma was, too, severe for the young woman to survive. Her death seemed to engulf the entire nation in never seen grief. Candlelight vigils were organised all over the country and there was a call to cancel New Year celebrations to preserve the rage against a society that has made light of violence against women.
All kinds of solutions have been forwarded by legal experts, civil society groups about curbing rape, which seems to be endemic in Indian society where a majority of rapes are never even reported. The rule of thumb is that barely 1 out of 10 victims go to the police as there is shame and humiliation associated with the act. This year in Delhi alone there have 635 reported incidents of rape, but there has been only one conviction.
India’s economically and socially iniquitous society feeds violence against women. Rape has been an instrument for the upper castes to establish their supremacy over the oppressed. The state has also been guilty using violence against women to lower the resolve of those who it considers as secessionists. Human rights groups have done detailed documentation of rape and sexual violence by security forces in Kashmir and the northeast part of India. Last year women protestors in Manipur shed their clothes and demonstrated at the Army headquarters with a banner demanding that they rape them. These protests should have stirred the conscience of the country, but it remained just a fleeting image on news channels. Only one national newspaper took note of the disturbing demonstration.
Similarly, the barbaric rapes against the minority community that took place during the Gujarat communal riots in 2002 did not create much of an uproar. A majoritarian narrative had little space for such happenings as it went about conveying merit in retribution against the minorities. These are some tragic moments in India’s recent past that have not been adequately addressed during last week’s anti-rape protests.
Unhappily though, an attempt is being made to limit this incident to issues of law and order rather than focussing on the societal infirmities. Be that as it may for the first time there is active conversation going on about how to make cities safer for women. Twitter and chat groups are abuzz about the best way to control violence against women and help them reclaim public spaces that are mostly denied due to fear of molestation or “eve teasing”. Their fear is compounded by the abysmal record in rape conviction. Nearly everyone knows that the judiciary and the police are so patriarchal that their solution to the problem would not address the issues that brought the women out in the streets. The common refrain amongst the law keepers is that women ask for trouble by wearing “jeans” or provocative clothes. Judges have tried to marry off perpetrators of rape with the victim — unmindful of the trauma she may have gone through. Such gross insensitivity and manifest misogyny is visible in different ways. Even Bollywood has not been spared of its share of criticism. Fingers are pointed at raunchy “item numbers” where scantily dressed women tease men. There is a demand now that film producers be mindful of the script that celebrate a muscular exhibition of romance epitomised by stalking and persistence of the hero.
Politics, too, has not kept pace with the new stirring in the streets. President Pranab Mukherji’s son, Abhijeet, criticised those grieving for the gang rape victim calling them women who went candle vigils in the same manner as they were going to discotheques. He called such women “dented and painted”.
A congress leader from South India, who was rubbished, even mentioned India’s freedom at midnight did not mean women walking around late in the night. He even questioned why the unfortunate rape victim took an empty bus late in the night.
Although there are women occupying important places in the government and political parties in India, the status of women has improved very slowly. There are six powerful women leaders in different parts of the country who seemingly control India’s politics, but they are no different as they all have shaped their political persona around male mentors that nudged them into politics. Their presence at the helm does not really provide relief or protection from violence. In the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) where a lower caste leader, Mayawati, was in power the incidence of rapes never really came down. Many sociologists ascribed the spike in violence against lower caste women in UP to the caste war in these parts.
Another strain of tension is also visible in urban areas. As more and more women join the work place, it is making new demands on employers and the government to provide them safety and security. Reports of molestation of women working for BPO’s while coming late in the night have caused anxiety amongst the families and employers. After the Delhi rape, chambers of commerce, too, have been concerned about how the industry could step into providing safety to their women employees from the threat of violence.
There are many things that the government can do to safeguard women. It should have more women in police force, judiciary, and politics to change the stereotype about them. There is also a demand for 33 percent reservation in legislature, a move that has been blocked by political parties on some pretext or the other.
The government now is under pressure to bring firm laws to punish those engaged in gender based violence. A committee under a retired chief justice of Supreme Court has been appointed to listen to various suggestions that have been made to curb violence against women and strengthen rape laws.
Many believe the protests have been a game changer of sort as it will force the government and political parties to be more accountable and also work towards providing good governance. Women’s active participation in such protests would also ensure that their interests and concerns do not get overlooked in a society that still remains extremely feudal and patriarchal.