Friends abroad have emailed me in the past few days horrified that India could be such a cruel and unsafe place for women. They have been reacting to international news of the gang rape, and subsequent death, of a 23-year old paramedical student in Delhi, that led on to a flood of other rape reports. Similar international reactions were to be heard from two years ago when there were widespread reports of massive corruption, and mass demonstrations called for the system to be cleaned up.
To many people abroad, these events have come as a revelation that charming, culturally fascinating, apparently friendly and even saintly, though often chaotic, India could instead be a cruel, male-dominated, often selfish and heavily corrupt dishonest society, where the strong bully, assault and exploit the weak – a country that is struggling with the tensions and clashes of rapid economic and social change, but where governments find it hard to keep up and rarely achieve major reforms, and where people habitually tolerate their lot, hoping maybe for a better life next time.
The good news is that largely peaceful country-wide demonstrations over the past two weeks have frightened the government into action because the appalling rape – in a curtained bus driven round Delhi courtesy of a corrupt police force and inefficient state government. This atrocity released anger and frustration not just over assaults on women but also against the police, politicians and an ineffective legal system.
The government’s fright at what Palaniappan Chidambaram, a top government minister, unkindly described as the “new phenomenon” of “flash mobs” was evident when the police turned water cannon and tear gas on demonstrators in central Delhi just before Christmas. That cleared away violent rabble-rousers, but the demand for justice and change continued peacefully across the country and turned into mourning and candlelight vigils and protests when the 23-year old died of multiple organ failure on December 29. She died in Singapore where she had been controversially flown by a government that was advised by intelligence agencies of a public backlash if her death were to happen in India after Delhi’s doctors had failed to save her.
This protest movement was genuinely spontaneous, unlike the earlier corruption demonstrations which had campaigning leaders and even more unlike most demonstrations and riots that are usually organised by political parties or other vested interests for short term gains. This time women suddenly found they could come out openly and talk and protest about assaults that they had largely kept quiet about in the past. An astonishing number of women have stories of being seriously harassed and attacked, often on buses.
There was no central single leader, so the government could not negotiate and talk its way out of trouble and into somnolence, as it has usually managed to do with crises for decades. Instead, it resorted to gesture politics, with a flood of sympathetic statements from hitherto silent or contemptuous politicians and the Delhi police chief, plus a security clampdown in the centre of the capital that closed many roads to curb unrest.
The government’s leaders, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, even went to the airport around 3.30am last Sunday morning to meet the girl’s body with her family when she was flown in from Singapore. Two other political leaders went to the heavily guarded private cremation – one was Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi chief minister who, with assembly elections due this year, had been playing politics over the issue and was booed when she had visited the protestors.
Over the past ten days Sonia Gandhi, who rarely appears in public apart from election campaigns, has gradually led from the front (seen here on tv) reflecting the nation’s horror and grief, despite her own apparent poor health. Rahul Gandhi, her 42-year old son and political heir, has failed to make any significant appearance, which has been widely noted, negatively.
The 23-year old’s gang rape on December 16, and other cases involving strangers, are dominating the headlines, but statistics show that victims’ relatives and neighbours are often themselves the rapists, or connive in the crime. Police records show that out of 662 cases reported in Delhi during 2012, 189 involved friends or relatives, while 202 were neighbours. Among the victims, 286 were aged 12 to 18. Incest is widespread – “an uncle rapes a young girl but her father, the man’s brother, lets it happen,” says a friend. The police rarely help.
A 17-year old girl in Punjab committed suicide recently because she was being harassed after it had taken her 14 days to persuade police to accept her gang rape accusation. Another report says a policeman and his nephew raped a young woman who wanted to be recruited into the force.
A friend wrote yesterday on Facebook about how he and a woman lawyer living in west Delhi took an eight-year old girl to the police with her semi-literate frightened dhobi (laundryman) father, who lived nearby The father kept repeating “Iski beti kay saath kuch ladkay nein bura kiya” (some boys have done something bad to my daughter). The police at first were sympathetic, but after a day or two said: “When both her parents are at work, she crosses two roads and the train tracks to move around with boys of another locality. She is a very bad character, and if any boy does anything to her, she totally deserves it”. The girl was only eight!
India is a patriarchal society where women are now becoming economically equal with men, showing new independence in their careers and more liberated private lives, especially in urban areas. The social changes and tensions have turned what has for decades been known as eve teasing – men touching women provocatively in locations such as crowded buses – into something more aggressive. In addition, Bollywood films increasingly show women film stars virtually offering themselves on the screen, provocatively glorifying the prospect of instant sex rather than relationships.
In traditional male-dominated rural societies, and in recently urbanised areas of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh close to Delhi, local village community councils called khap panchyats rarely side with rape victims. Women are blamed for being provocative, or the intercourse is dubbed consensual – a line often taken by the police across India. Women can also be subjected to a humiliating “fingers test”, which defence lawyers use to deny rape citing frequent and consensual sexual activity.
When a spate of rapes happened in Haryana, a khap panchayat (like the picture, left) said the solution was for the young to get married, without any minimum age limit, so that their “sexual desires find safe outlets”.
Often young girls who belong to the Dalit (“untouchable” in the caste system) are raped in a form of lower caste oppression – prompting a local Congress politician to allege the rape reports were a “political conspiracy” by the state’s dalit-based party. In October, Sonia Gandhi visited a family in the area whose 16-year old daughter was gang raped and committed suicide. Mrs Gandhi promised action, but nothing has changed and rapes in the area have continued.
Rape of course is prevalent across the world. In Britain, according to a government action plan on violence against women and girls, 80,000 women are raped a year. That puts India’s 24,000 reported rape cases in 2011 in some sort of perspective, though the basis for statistics varies in different countries and India’s real total is almost certainly enormously higher because the fear of police and social harassment and indifference means many incidents go unreported. The real worry in India is that it reflects long standing social patriarchal attitudes and caste hierarchies that not only persist but have been exacerbated by social and economic changes.
There is therefore a huge need for a change of attitudes across society starting, with how families regard and protect their women and how old traditional societies can be weaned away from male domination. That will take a long time.
Meanwhile there is an urgent need to speed up the lengthy judicial system – fast track courts have just been set up for rape cases. The under-trained and under-supported police force needs reforming with a focus on caring for the public instead of pleasing local politicians and VIPs, but that will take a long time to happen, if it ever does. The government has appointed a panel headed by a retired judge to look at the laws, and a task force to advise on the safety of women and on police operations. The FICCI and CII business federations are considering how treatment of women at work can be improved.
New penalties for rape suggested to the government in recent days include execution and chemical castration, though these seem unlikely to be adopted. Five men accused of the 23-year old’s rape and vicious assault with an iron bar have been charged today with murder, rape and kidnapping, and charges against a sixth younger accused will follow.
Life in India will never be quite the same again because the young and newly aspirational middle class have discovered the power of mass street protests. Corruption has not stopped and new rapes are being reported daily, but the power of protest has been established, not by orqanised campaigners but by ordinary people of varied classes who want India to change, and will demonstrate again until it happens.
As someone said in one of the seemingly non-stop television discussion programmes of the past two weeks, “the days when gradualism was acceptable are over” or, to put it another way, the old attitudes of jugaad (quick fix) and chalta hai (don’t worry, it will work ok) can no longer be relied on by the government to avoid social protest and unrest.