India tries to move beyond its rape culture

December 28, 2012

In 1992 a young woman, Bhanwari Devi, was allegedly gang-raped near her village of Bhateri, some 40 miles from Jaipur, capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan. The incident has to be couched in “allegedly” and “reportedly” because – though the fact of the matter has been widely accepted, with compensation being paid to Devi by the state government – the five men accused were acquitted, and an appeal against the acquittal is still – 20 years after – pending.

On Dec. 16 of this year, another young woman, a 23-year-old medical student who has not been named, was gang-raped for an hour on a bus in New Delhi by six men. Using metal rods, the men beat her and her male companion, who tried to stop them, then threw them off the moving bus. The woman suffered grave internal and brain injuries, and has been moved to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, where one of the world’s most advanced centers for organ transplants is located. She remains near death. Even if she survives, her life is likely to be severely restricted. (UPDATE: She died in India on Saturday.)

There is no “alleged” about the recent New Delhi rape: Four of the men were arrested, and three have confessed, one reportedly asking to be hanged. No years of waiting for justice this time: A trial is set for next month. And no painful, little-attended struggle to have the law strengthened: Outrage over the crime has sent thousands of women and men to the streets, where they have demanded change. They and the discussion that has attended the protests have subjected Indian society to the most cauterizing of examinations, in which everything – government, political parties, the police and traditional attitudes toward women – is held up through the prism of violated women.

Urvashi Butalia, a feminist writer and founder of the publisher Zubaan Books, wrote in a comment published in The Hindu on Christmas Day that:

“Rape happens everywhere – it happens inside homes, in families, in neighbourhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s role begins to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller — and it is connected to all these things.”

The Columbia University history professor and writer Mark Lilla, in India during the riots, wrote that the militant Indian response to the New Delhi rape makes the resigned mourning in the U.S. after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, look limp; the newer democracy shows the older one what an aroused civic protest should look like. He has a point: The Newtown bodies were not yet cold when commentators were reminding us that U.S. citizens own some 300 million guns, and to call for any radical reduction in that store was moonshine. A few days later, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, opined that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” – implicitly condemning the U.S. to an eternal, Manichean duel between the forces of good and evil, a nation’s progress unwinding under the watchful, Winchester-toting gaze of John Wayne.

Indians, at least in the form of the mainly young, mainly middle-class protesters at New Delhi’s India Gate and elsewhere in the city, are not resigned to a nation in which men condemn women to a constant threat of brutal violation. They reject the endlessly recycled comments, not confined to India, that they should dress modestly, stay in at night, obey their fathers, brothers and husband, eschew any relations with the other sex until after marriage, and if raped, bear the shame.

When Bhanwari Devi was raped 20 years ago, there were too few women – and men who supported them – who would revolt publicly. Now there is an aroused constituency, with apparent political heft. Politicians from every party have tumbled into the public arena to endorse the protesters’ demands, including the more extreme – castration, or execution. Capital punishment is legal, but rare, in India. Only three men have been hanged since 1995: one Auto Shankar, for the murder of six teenage girls, in 1995; the second, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, for the rape and murder of a teenage girl, in 2004; and earlier this year the Pakistani citizen Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving member of the group that mounted the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. With Kasab as the exception, the death sentences of the past 17 years have been imposed on adult men for violence toward helpless adolescents.

Indian observers have cast both tradition and modernity as background causes. The country’s most prominent sociologist, Dipankar Gupta, said the “unmet aspirations” among hundreds of millions of young men “who know just enough English to know that they don’t know English” were a major cause of Indian criminality. (It’s a telling comment: Fluency in English is among the most obvious class markers in India; most of the protesters’ signs were in English.) Cities are seen both as a place where success can be achieved and where traditional respect for fathers gives way to life in a space where male hedonism can be indulged. For the six drunkards on the New Delhi bus ride, a rape and a beating were folded into a fun night out.

Female empowerment has unsettled men everywhere. Women who think and speak for themselves rip apart settled hierarchies; educated women who take jobs other than mechanical, peasant labor or household tasks threaten the grip men have over income and its patterns of spending. The rootlesssness of the mainly dirt-poor migrants who flock to New Delhi and other cities for work tears them away from a life in which marriage is embedded in family and social structures.

And the nation’s leaders too often create moral vacuums. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered an anguished and brief reaction over Christmas, in which he sounded like a man who felt every one of his eight years in office and 80 years of life, and had nothing to offer but sympathy as with the father of three daughters. His honesty is unquestioned, but his governments have presided over large increases in corruption and in reported rape cases. Neither of these has been more than sporadically tackled. Now, in the December days on the streets of New Delhi, there may be something more than a flash flood of protesters – something that points to a tipping point.

PHOTO: Demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a protest rally in solidarity with a rape victim from New Delhi in Mumbai December 27, 2012. Indian authorities throttled movement in the heart of the capital on Monday, shutting roads and railway stations in a bid to restore law and order after police fought pitched battles with protesters enraged by the gang rape of a young woman.  REUTERS/Vivek Prakash


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Not a good heading..

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

….and Indians are US best friends in that part of the world.

Posted by zhanyeye | Report as abusive

Situation of majority (50%+) of Indian women and children is much worse than situation of lowest 5% of US pets (dogs and cats). I do not lack of dignity to this poor human beings by saying that. These are sad facts of malnutrition and exploitation. The story of raped woman is shocking so it flies across mass media. The stories of 100+ milion Indian children that are hungry every day and 10 million of them will die before age of 10, because of malnutrion and lack of healthcare not so much. While I was writing this post, it took me about 10 minutes, about 20 children died in India out hunger and lack of antibiotics.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

U.S. got its independence through guns, so they cannot easily let go of their legacy of violence even after 200 years – even if 20 innocent children lost their lives.

OTOH, India got much part of its independence through the working out of the well-researched Hindu/buddhistic/jain-istic religious principles of “Non-violence” and this Indian socio-religious legacy is showing up in Dec,12 protests with “No-tolerance” stance for “Violence against every single woman” – In 1947, Indian woman didn’t gain the kind of independence that is reflected through women’s authorship(rishika) of parts of lofty philosophical and holy texts as far back as the Vedic era.

Evidently, its not the no. of years but the culture that the people of a land inherit from their ancestors that really lives on and re-creates the identity as well as decides the future course of a society.

Therefore, any comparison between U.S. and Indian societies on the basis of democratic governance alone is a lame approach – because Indians have the obvious advantage of a couple of millenia of intensive social research on the principles of non-violence, social justice & social & religious living which serves as a shock-absorber.

Posted by rcomment | Report as abusive

For countries around the world, governments have become insensitive towards atrocities met by individuals. What matters is defence budgets. Security in cities doesnt seem to be priority.

Posted by dajma | Report as abusive

A horrific gang rape resulting in death in India and you had to throw in digs on gun ownership in America John? What if that girl or her boyfriend had had a pistol? Would she still be alive? Oh, never mind, the British stripped the Indians of firearms two centuries ago.

It’s a rough world out there and machismo is still more common than not. You and I may know that women are absolutely our equals and sometimes our betters but it’s not the common denominator.

I’m all for chopping rapists balls or heads off, and I’m also all for women carrying leverage to ward off attack. Pistol, stun gun, pepper spray, whatever. Don’t be a victim.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive


“What if that girl or her boyfriend had had a pistol?”

I see. Well let’s use this logic of guns are good for everyone. So what if even half of the attackers had had a pistol? Seeing as there were six of them, that would give them three pistols. Though in an ideal NRA world, everyone would have guns so all six would have them.

I’m not a fan of Bloomberg but his criticism of the NRA as being a paranoid, dystopian vision to be correct.

Why do you need to own a bushmaster? Fine you like to shoot it. Go to the gun range, rent it and shoot away. Why do you need assault rifles? No discussion of gun control is allowed at all?

The NRA is like any other Washington lobby that is concerned about profits and is deft at wrapping itself around the flag to insure those profits.

As to the authors article, I can only hope that this is a tipping point in India and soon other nations. Even in industrialized nations rape is still under-reported.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

I am an Indian woman living in the UK for the last 5 years. Being harassed in public or private spaces is very common, so common that I imagine most of us have become immune to it. When the rape story spread here, I found it became a joke for my non Indian friends. If one of them went to a party which had men from the Indian subcontinent, the first question asked to them would be “Hope you didn’t get raped!”
I work with my boss who is Chinese and she tells me that Indian men are renowned for being lusty.
I find it difficult defending my culture in matters like these.
I feel happy that Indian men are getting a bad rap abroad. An Indian boy is treated like a Prince! He is literally spoon fed by the mother, aunts, grandmothers and then demands his wife do that for him. He will mistreat his maid and spout filthy jokes about others’ mothers and sisters. If he is rich and can afford a Skoda, he will not think twice harassing poor women on the pavements from the comfort of his air conditioned car, or girls returning from their shifts at the call centre. He will do this not alone, but with a bunch of others. This is a “night out with the guys” . He will lear at women from South East India because they dress in western clothes and are hence “easy”. The most common porn search in the country happens to be the “bhabhi” or sister in law. He will sing tunes of songs that are about “teasing” where a hundred extras and the hero sing and dance around a hapless actress until she says “YES”. He does not look at the actress in minimal clothes gyrating in front of other men as an empowered individual confident of her sexuality- he looks at her as someone who is “easy”. God forbid if you’re a white woman or even Anglo Indian.
These are stereotypes and not everyone is the same. I have travelled alone around India many a times often shaving my head to make myself look ugly and unattractive so I can see how beautiful some parts of the country are.
I meet my Indian girlfriends abroad who tell me how amazing it is to walk around any time of the day and night and not be worried about getting harassed or raped. It makes them feel empowered and free and I cannot tell you how that must feel. It is truly amazing.
When I am faced with people who ask me about Indian men, you can understand my dilemma.

Posted by thoughtbubble | Report as abusive

I meet my Indian girlfriends abroad who tell me how amazing it is to walk around any time of the day and night and not be worried about getting harassed or raped. It makes them feel empowered and free and I cannot tell you how that must feel. It is truly amazing.When the person smokes these

Posted by jackman30 | Report as abusive