Author: Hiranmay Karlekar
The eruption of public anger over the gang rape of a girl in Delhi and the response of the authorities to that protest point to a serious mismatch between the Government and people’s aspirations
The wave of anger sweeping the country over the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi raises important issues. The first pertains to Delhi Police’s response. Not surprisingly, it was unimaginative and unpardonably excessive. Police in Delhi, as elsewhere in India, have not been trained in sophisticated crowd control methods and, pressed, react the only way they can — using the stick. One, however, must say in their defence that dealing with the extraordinarily volatile and sensitive situation was not their responsibility alone. There had to be a political response, which was missing.
The spark that triggered the massive demonstrations by students, youths and women’s groups that rocked the capital was the savage nature of the crime in which gang rape was accompanied by an indescribably inhuman assault on the girl and her male friend who fought to protect her. It fell on an explosive heap of accumulated rage building up among the public over complete non-delivery of governance leading to an abysmal law-and-order situation, power shortages, gross inadequacies in public transportation, road maintenance, medical facilities and educational and employment opportunities.
The rage and its causes reflect the harsh fact that India’s state has become predatory, its politics criminalised and its bureaucracy and police extortionist exploiters. The way a person without money or power is treated in Government offices and police stations hardly requires any elaboration. The plight of women is particularly horrible. A young lady who once went to an office of Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking (which was then the sole supplier of power to Delhi) said that the male employees were passing lewd comments and visually undressing her all the time.
A bribe has to be paid even for a small thing that is one’s due. The humiliation one invariably undergoes increases one’s resentment. The alienation from the system is widespread and anger against it intense. One had the first indication of this in the massive support for Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement against corruption in the early 1970s. The infamous Emergency was imposed to suppress it. But the rage simmered while the country witnessed a procession of events — the Janata Party’s ascent to power and subsequent collapse at the national and State levels, Indira Gandhi’s return to power and assassination, the Assam agitation and Pakistan-stoked turmoil in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, the ephemeral and disastrous VP Singh Government, PV Narasimha Rao’s initiation of economic reforms, the coalitions headed by Mr Deve Gowda and the late IK Gujral, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era and now the Manmohan Singh Government.
The simmering rage has fuelled the various militant movements — political, religious and regional — sprouting in different parts of the country. It has accounted for the spontaneous and large-scale response that Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption attracted and much of the support that the Aam Aadmi Party commands. It also explains the eruption in Delhi over the girl’s savage gang rape.
Lathi and teargas seem to have prevailed. The upsurge appears to have been contained. The anger that triggered it, however, has intensified and spread. Students and others, who demonstrated peacefully, will not forget how they were savaged. There will be another, and perhaps bigger, explosion of anger when another outrage occurs. Even that may be crushed but the rage will remain and, over a period of time, acquire a critical mass that may threaten the survival of the system itself.
This is not paranoid doom saying. The argument that India is a very large country where all uprisings, however massive and intense, tend at most to be regional and can be put down by force, may not hold for long. While Delhi seethed over the savage rape, police in Manipur fired on people demonstrating over the rape and murder of another young girl, killing one. The two upsurges remained uncoordinated, which may not be the case with such events in the future. In this age of instant communication and extensive media reach, people throughout the country can mobilise themselves and ignite a nationwide conflagration if there is provocation enough or if there is a convergence of local explosions.
Nor can one argue that the country’s economy has now acquired an autonomous dynamics that will lead it to the path of development even if the political leadership remains inadequate, and growing prosperity will lead to peace and good order. Such a breathtaking view ignores that the economy functions in an environment profoundly influenced by politics which determines the state of such preconditions for growth, as a good law and order situation.
Hence the importance of a political leadership which can not only handle through persuasion and concrete action spontaneous upsurges but can also initiate measures that transform the system from an engine of oppression, plunder and exploitation to an instrument of democracy, humane maintenance of peace and law and order, and equitable economic development. Unfortunately such a leadership, which will require a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela at its helm, is nowhere in sight.
The intensifying churning in the country may throw up such a leadership. One cannot, however, depend on that happening. Hence, there is need for constant pressure for measures that mitigate the increasingly predatory character of the State. In this context, it will not be enough to implement reforms to insulate the police from political interference. The fact is that police forces have become alarmingly criminalised even at their highest echelons. Corruption is ubiquitous, instances of sexual harassment and rape by uniformed custodians of law and order alarmingly frequent. The process of reform must, therefore, involve a massive clean-up of the police establishments themselves. Also, since women are much greater victims of the system than men, ensuring their safety, equality, and freedom should be the first priority of such an agenda.
One has heard in this context much about the need for an attitudinal change in society and not just in the administration and police forces. The environment, particularly the cultural one, pays a critical role in shaping attitudes. Increasingly, the market economy and the way of life it promotes through advertising, which use women’s sexuality to attract attention to products and services, are creating a climate in which women are seen as objects of sexual gratification that have to be grabbed by force if necessary. Hardly surprising that the incidence of rape is rising alarmingly.