The unnamed victim of the Delhi gang rape incident wasn’t the only woman raped in India in the past weeks. There were several others every single day since the gang rape took place on December 16. Newspapers collated them neatly on their national pages, testimony to about four or five incidents of extreme sexual assault. Of these that do find their way to police complaints, few are investigated and fewer still end in convictions. What they do become eventually is a statistic. There were 24,206 similarly unnamed victims of rape in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the statistical arm of the police.
Sharing space in those dailies would be a report or two of acid attacks, one on a girl on her way to school in a remote village, another on a young working woman in a burgeoning metropolis. And then there’s sexual harassment that any woman in India risks facing everywhere – in the neighbourhood, on the bus, at work. Countless incidents that insult ordinary women going about their lives, of which there is no statistic simply because of the hassle involved in informing the police. They suffer the indignity, fight back if they can, and move on.
As brutal as the Delhi gang rape is, the danger lies in seeing it as an aberration that calls for a speedy trial and certain death to the perpetrators. While the law must firmly take its course, such an understanding of the events in Delhi limits the possibility of broader change. What the Indian capital has seen over the past weeks is a spontaneous outburst of anguish that was enough to make the governing class scuttle behind its security barricades. A high-handed police force filled in for the visible lack of political leadership. Punish the accused, and while that provides some consolation, it seems to be all that the government is pondering – 30 years in prison and chemical castration, according to recent reports.
What causes rape? A protestor in Delhi speaking to a news channel spoke of large families living in crammed single-room homes and the resulting lack of privacy such housing affords. It is true that low-income housing is inadequate in Indian cities, so much so that to a large degree it doesn’t exist. Also, sexual assault is more widely under-reported among the economically weaker. But this defines rape strictly as a sickness of the lower income groups, as something that doesn’t happen to people like us, as something that needs eugenics.
As every woman knows, sexual assault isn’t a class problem. In fact, the more a woman seems to be doing well for herself, the more the perpetrator feels the need to reinforce his authority over the victim’s perceived weakness. Unlike the Delhi incident where the rape was by opportunists, a majority of physical and sexual assault against women in India is because of life and choices independent of the confines imposed on them. This is aggravated by an accompanying feeling of emasculation and a loss of male entitlement. The woman is empowered when she does well and the man infuriated that her empowerment is challenging his authority. So he decides to put her in place, through verbal harassment, beatings, acid attack and rape.
What India needs is education. And jobs for economic security. Safe public transport. Sensitised policing, street lights, and stricter censorship of how women are depicted in the media. For courts to decide on cases of gender violence fast and for political parties to stop fielding criminals as candidates. For people to do their jobs and not shirk responsibility.
In the book A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess deals with the morals of human behaviour. Illustrating the issue with his “ultra-violent” protagonist, Burgess invents the fictional Ludovico technique that preempts violent behavior and robs a potential criminal of his ability to commit the intended crime. His premise is that any human action, even criminal, ceases to be human when deprived of the choice to commit it. Man should choose not to commit crime, instead of being forcefully conditioned to forego it.
The six men in Delhi did not just rape the girl, they butchered her. And for India, this isn’t a stray incident. Yes, it is horrific and punishment is necessary. But Burgess is right. What is more important, difficult but also more effective is social reform and the hard road ahead for the ruling class and civil society in implementing it. India needs to pull itself together even as its GDP multiplies and recognise the citizen’s right to security.
But the government offers nothing. It doesn’t know how to, or even why it should. Which either way will not matter – because tomorrow there will be another media blitz. And the world will move on.
Tanya Thomas is a journalist from The Hindu Business Line, Chennai.