The death of the brave young girl in the early hours of Saturday in a Singapore hospital has plunged the nation in a state of mourning and smoldering anger. Thousands of protesters have expressed vent to their emotions in different ways and the Indian state –symbolized in the actions of the Delhi police has been found inadequate and insensitive to the prevailing mood.
This column had drawn attention last week to the phenomenon of rape in India as a manifestation of the extreme violence, intimidation and rank societal discrimination that the girl-child and women face from the womb to their ultimate demise. The Mahipalpur victim is the latest of the high-profile cases that have rocked the nation – and given the statistics (one estimate concludes that a rape or an attempted rape is committed every two minutes in India) – alas it will not be the last.
Even as the national consciousness was convulsed by the plight of the young girl who had been air-lifted to Singapore, another rape victim – this time a 17 year old minor from village Badshahpur near Patiala in Punjab committed suicide on December 26. The girl was raped on the night of Diwali (November 13) and predictably, the local police and the neighborhood treated her in such a callous manner that she was driven to take her life.
That the police are also victims of a deeply distorted socio-political environment was illustrated in yet another case from Punjab. In early December, a Punjab Police assistant sub-inspector (ASI) was shot dead by a local Akali Dal leader when he tried to stop the politician and his accomplices from molesting his daughter.
These are just three incidents among the innumerable atrocities committed against women and girls in a routine manner in India. But what is seemingly different this time is the manner in which civil society has responded to the Mahipalpur brutality
The protests have spread across the country and the anguish and anger on the street and in thousands of homes is reminiscent of the anti-corruption mood that seized the country in 2011. At the time the Anna Hazare inspired agitation went viral for a brief period and the political establishment was jolted. The very centrality and sanctity of the Indian legislature as underpinning the democratic fabric was challenged and remedial measures – as represented in the demand for an all encompassing Lok Pal Bill and the immediate creation of a super ombudsman was perceived as the elixir that would erase corruption from public life.
The anti-corruption movement fizzled out as swiftly as it had emerged and the cynicism returned. The state apparatus sought to impose ‘order’ and some of the leading lights were placed under scrutiny or brief detention and despite the initial panic, the challenge to the political elite and their support structure from the people was averted.
The national mood shifted and it was averred that the problem of corruption was too deeply entrenched in the Indian body-politic to be removed in this manner. Today it is the anger and anguish against women that has galvanized civil society across the board and while there may be no single leader like a Hazare, the feeling is as intense.
The central question is whether the cause this time will suffer the same fate that met the anti-corruption fervor. Cynics may respond by saying that nothing will change in India which is inherently biased against women and that the constituency of the powerful in the land of Gandhi (which includes the deviant political-bureaucrat-police-judicial nexus and the mafia support structure in society that encompasses the criminal and the corrupt citizen ) will not let the status quo be altered.
In this status quo, where ‘honor killing’ is still upheld in some parts of the country, violence against women is no “big deal”. This is the reason why the Indian legislature has been dragging its feet in passing appropriate laws, police procedures that are gender biased have not been changed – and rape charges are no bar to being an elected representative. Concurrently the market driven media, cinema and the compulsion of globalization have created a seductive image of the woman as an object of the male gaze and related gratification.
In short the Indian eco-system that is an amalgam of the family, society, market and the state have assiduously nurtured a deep disregard for the individual identity, dignity, freedom and agency of women as a class. And where there appears to be a departure – for instance the vulnerable woman who is not appropriately ‘protected’ – male violence is accepted as a predictable response.
The challenge this time is to ensure that the churning which is taking place over the death of the brave heart in Singapore is channeled and given the appropriate directivity. Immediate remedial measures, apart from the need to ensure speedy and effective justice to the victims of gender violence, include a review of working conditions for women in both urban and rural India and a focus on safe public transport.
Delhi to its shame has not yet been able to fix its auto rickshaws and the private-bus mafia in most cities and towns has become a law unto itself. Police procedures and the need to induct more women in the force receive episodic attention – but the implementation remains abysmal.
Ultimately it is the social orientation that needs a radical change wherein the girl-child is not seen as a ‘burden’ but an equal member of the family, society and state. The challenge as the year ends on a tragic note is to recall the courage of the young girl who died in Singapore and commit the national will to atoning for this continuing atrocity against the more vulnerable gender.