Delhi rape: what it says about us Indians
We Indians are an angry people now. Thousands of people have poured into the streets, indignant and outraged over the savage case of rape and assault on a young woman in New Delhi.
That anger degenerated this week into hysteria and bloodlust, with calls for capital punishment and castration of the rapists. The Internet was flooded with comments urging public hanging and beatings. One response on an Internet forum suggested that Delhi men be raped so that “the problem can be solved”; another advocated the rapists be urinated upon.
If there was ever a proud moment to be an Indian, this isn’t it.
There are some who want stricter punishment in such cases, but clearly, as many experts say, it is the certainty of punishment rather than the severity that matters. Sexual assault cases on women in India increased by 25 percent in the six years to 2011, and lawyers believe much of this can be attributed to the low rate of conviction in such cases.
The only time I remember when rape has made national headlines and generated an outpouring of anger was when the victim was someone like us — middle class, educated and urban — such as the cases of the medical student in 2003, or the call centre worker a few years ago.
A few months ago, several men in a village in Haryana reportedly raped a young woman in a car. Someone filmed the attack, and the tape circulated through the village. The woman’s father was so overcome with shame that he killed himself. I don’t remember this case generated the same level of hysteria and calls for public hanging, for it happened to someone who was not like us.
Now, we in the media talk of “national shame”. Where is our sense of shame when women are stripped, beaten and paraded naked in front of an entire village as punishment?
I remember the case of a woman in the late 1990’s, who was labelled a witch by the politically mighty in the village who wanted to seize her land. She was dragged out of her home, stripped, tied up and left hanging from a tree, chili powder poured into her genitals. She was then beaten to death in front of her young children. The story was narrated by her daughter to a television news channel for a Hindi-language programme. But I don’t remember this story being picked up by any English-language newspaper.
Now people protest on the streets, asking for the capital to be made safer. But safe for whom? For the poor women living on the streets? For the boys and girls who sleep outdoors and who are most vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse? No. We want safety for ourselves, the middle classes. We do not want to let anything come in the way of our march towards modernity. We want to be a global superpower. It is a deep inferiority complex, and to get rid of it, we demand the world recognise us. But we have no sense of shame about the millions of poor who are our fellow citizens, and we have little idea of what social justice is.
Exposure to these incidents threatens to remove our mask of modernity as we still remain a primitive society rooted in inequality, polarised by class, caste and religion. These values have come to our door, as shrinking land holdings, lack of jobs, an ambition to be part of a “shining India” and displacement because of dam and industrial projects trigger a massive migration from villages and towns to cities.
Conservative social mores come face-to-face with rapidly changing city lifestyles. Poverty and the humiliation and indignity that come with it are harder to bear in the face of opulent displays of new wealth.
It is time we focus on these inequalities and demand justice for all. It is time to act with reason. A good way to start would be to ask ourselves, do we want to be a civilised nation, or do we want to compete with the Taliban? In many ways, they are our closest neighbours.