Every 22 minutes. The statistic of reported rapes in India.
Ponder that. Once every 22 minutes.
More frequently than you probably drink a glass of water.
So ordinary, everyday. Everywhere.
In homes, in offices, trains, buses, singly or in groups. A team sport, casually tear a life apart, tear their bodies apart. Day or night, under attack. To be was to be available, on call at every corner. To be a woman in India is to be ready to be traumatised at the next step. It is no way to live. Much analysis on rape has been repeated – a crime of passion, a cry for power, a need to subjugate, a need – physical, unfulfilled. The causes, the opportunities and some say – the provocation all have been discussed to futility. Bottomline – it is a crime. A violation. A line crossed – that must be punished.
And goes unpunished.
Justice is for the rich, we hear. Not entirely true, but there is indeed little faith or trust in policing. An ordinary girl living in India is unlikely to want to enter a police station, let alone speak to a policeman on the road. My encounters with policemen have been very civil, but then I have not dared ask for much. On the occasion when police stations had to be visited, the menfolk were firm. The women would be left at home, the men go in twos or threes – never alone. The fear of the law meant just that – you were afraid of what the law would unleash. It was best to stay away. The police too acknowledged that they had to deal with such rough people all the time that they had become used to brutality. This had little to do with gender – there are enough reports of both men and women being injured in police custody. And enough tales of the room at the back in each police station.
Police reforms have been called for time and again, and yet remain stalled. Police have scant training in interacting with people who are not criminals and seek their care and protection ( I can almost hear the laughter in the aisles as I write this). When dealing with a problem, the algorithm is not one that seeks resolution, but is one that engages a series of complex factors that include the contacts (i.e. access to privilege), monetary power among other things. Symptomatic of much that is wrong with they way priorities must be allocated within the force. And of course highlights the need to modernise the attitudes and behaviours of the police force. One suspects, they really did not know what their responses could have been other than what they delivered.
The brutal attack on a girl and her male friend in which her intestines were pulled out by a gang of six who raped her after knocking the friend out with an iron rod has shaken India. The brutality, the impunity of the crime and the fear that again, there would be no consequences – as there have been few punishments in the past. Women are considered disposable objects, their purpose to be of service, regardless of their economic worth. To be used and abused is the prerogative of men. Mediaeval? Possibly. Still around? Clearly.
Pervasive? Yes. Universal? No. As the gatherings at India Gate showed.
The current protest at India Gate was met with a disproportionate use of force. Brutal even, with peaceful protestors being teargassed, lathi-charged (beaten with large bamboo sticks) and water-cannoned. The gathering that had come together to protest lawlessness, to seek solutions for personal safety ended up putting their own personal safety at risk. The first ask of a government is to provide safety to its citizens. As my good friend Nitin Pai said in one of our policy training sessions – drawing on Weber, Hobbes, Locke and others – “We cede to the government the monopoly over use of violence.” – this is the social contract. They keep residents safe, residents promise to adhere to the law of the land. This contract has collapsed. India Gate protests are about the inability of the government to provide security. A girl asks – “Why are they not scared of the law?”
People sought the death penalty for rapists. Some others knowing the history of law enforcement sought to implement vigilante justice. Calls for chemical castration many. The anger overflowed seeking retribution for wrongs present and past. Seeking a system that would deter the daily terrorists from plying their trade. A system that would do the job it was hired to do. An anecdote (posted on twitter too) says it all. The girl was groped on a train. On stepping off, she stepped up to the policemen posted there and pointed out the culprit to them. They ask her – what can we do about it? Did they not know what they could do? Were they untrained? Were they unwilling to do their job? Did they not have a protocol for dealing with this? Or were they seeking to offer immunity to the attacker? Because that is what must have happened. The attacker would have strutted away smug and encouraged. Ready to take his paws forward.
Were these protests about women, and their place in society? Ultimately, yes. They were about attitudes to women. How dare a man think it even possible to reach out and fondle a woman’s body anywhere? How dare he stare at her as if she was there to be stripped of all respect? Women have been dealing with this quietly for years, some with firmness, others with resigned acceptance. The resentments have been simmering as truncated lives are managed, on sufferance. At least she can make tea and bear children.
Where did these attitudes come from? Was there a moment when men decided to subjugate women? This is global, yet the personal daily attacks on women are not pervasive everywhere. This is a personal attack that robs. The daily horror. If there was a newspaper that chronicled what happens to women as they step out, that is what it would be called – The Daily Horror.
Other countries too have had marauding armies, where rape and pillage was common, and yet both visitors and locals can walk around without fear of being molested, groped or attacked. Not eve-teased, like they seem to say amusedly in the films – attacked. Bollywood has to share some of the blame for the depravity. Not just the ‘item numbers’ but the storylines and dialogues too consistently reinforce regressive value systems. A casual meeting at a school function with the CEO of the Central Board of Film Certification this week inevitably led to a discussion on this issue – she is right. Bollywood has rarely provided an alternative narrative or positive role model for people to identify with I have to agree – womanhood in the movies is about physical desirability and access to it in ways that would qualify as crimes in many countries – stalking, harassing, imposing and much more. The woman of course capitulates and a methodology for the hapless viewer is established. Does it make sense to arrogate so much power to the movies, and such haplessness to the viewer? Movies do have power, as do television serials – as a quick look at the numbers in the audience, revenue streams and the influence on large markets of clothing and jewellery indicate. If the data has compelled the government to pitch Bollywood as a significant source of soft power outside the nation, surely, combined with the data, proves the case that it carries power within the nation too.
The deeper malaise will take decades to be eradicated. Many do not even understand the nature of the problem, the protest. The protest is about safety, true. But for many it was about not being a second class person in society any more. It was about seeking to be an equal human. Which women are not, as evidenced by the lack of parity in pay across the world. The Indian woman often has it both better and worse than her sisters in other countries. Often getting better chances to reach the boardroom, she has to run the gauntlet of big and small sexual encounters along the way, all the while being the perfect wife, mother, daughter in law, aunt.. the list goes on. These are all relationships that do not understand boundaries, as they do in the west. A work client may call you at 11pm on a Saturday, or an aunt in law may expect you to be on hospital duty in the middle of a working day. And yet, they manage much with grace, stretching themselves beyond what is humanly possible, while running the daily battle with the groper who may turn rapist at any moment. Maybe India Gate was about the rise of an economically empowered emotionally connected version of feminism. An angry, upset, disgusted and law abiding version that only seeks to live in safety and dignity.
Maybe the government did not understand that this was an outpouring of grief, not just anger. Maybe, as many misogynists revealed inadvertently, this was not considered important – this is the way it always has been, women can never be happy, what can anybody do, it will pass – this is just a weekend revolt. They just do not get it. For the government, was it just another angry demonstration that had to be quelled? Did they not realise that all problems are not people vs. the government – and some must be resolved together, with care and tact? Obviously not. The reaction to the peaceful gathering was disproportionate and escalated the anger and disappointments in ways that will have consequences for many years to come. Something broke this week, possibly the camel’s back.
The protest was confusing to a linear authority – there was no clear charter of demands, nothing to be negotiated, no price to be bargained. Their traditional mode of dealing with the enemy was useless – this was not the enemy. They were seeking support, and somehow this message was lost in the trek up the president’s hill. Or was willfully ignored. Could it be possible that the concept of a two way conversation with the public or a meaningful engagement is not understood? The government needs to evolve and adapt for the new generation. Demographics reveal the gap between the average age of the country and that of its ‘rulers’, the gap runs deeper. The attitudes of the future are more inclusive, collaborative and seek to build social bridges. A Public Private Partnership, if you will.
What is this protest about? What did it seek? As befits a democracy, there was no single dominant thought. Nor was there a leader, this was a gathering of equals. There were men and women there as safety is not a gender issue. There were young and old, mothers and children. Each stepping out of safe comfort zones in the bitter Delhi cold, some even staying the night. This is what a civil mature protest looks like and this is what deserves the respect and attention of authorities. Anger shared, acknowledged. You would be angry too if every living moment was running the gauntlet of groping greedy assault attack on identity and self.
The gathering sought to express and share sorrow. All it needed was a genuine acknowledgement of solidarity. What was delivered was the exact opposite – a demonstration of polarity.
What can the government do in response to an incident and consequent citizen protest? What should it do?
Prevent: In this case, it is true that many of the crimes against women are difficult to prevent unless there is a shift in attitudes and values. This must become a national concern, even a mission, and must be led by government efforts (once more, with feeling) . It is equally true that this is a long term goal. The flouting of little laws, the callousness of existing checkposts, all contributed to the incident. Prevention failure. Disciplinary matter.
What about the protest? Should it have been prevented? Absolutely not – in a free country, residents must be allowed to let their grief be shared. It is cathartic and even may lead to solutions being found in partnerships with governments. Holding on to grief in private enclaves can only cause problems in the future. More so – it is their right to protest.
Protect: This obviously was a failure. And at the core of the discussion. The government has failed to protect the people it was supposed to serve. As far as protecting the procession, the difference between the protest march in Bombay, (which ranks number 2 in the number of rapes) and India Gate protests in Delhi was marked. The police marched with the protestors. In Delhi, the police attacked the protestors. It is said that the protest turned violent. Does the police not have the training to calm a situation down, rather than try to stamp on it?
Prevaricate: It is possible to deflect the anger, but in this case any such pathetic attempts clearly demonstrate the disconnect with the public. As was amply demonstrated.
Procrastinate: They did – every reaction was too late, and often harsh. Situations that could have been managed were allowed to spiral. And this gave ‘lumpen’ elements and other political parties to jump into the fray. The protest was diluted, schisms were created and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Punish: This is what happened. Those who went to seek protection were punished. Punished for being hurt. The press who tried to report it were also attacked. The photographs are telling – the brutality undeserved. Families cowering, babies in arms. India has a strong visual memory of similar scenes from the early part of the twentieth century and it may have been wise to avoid this conclusion. The protest was highjacked, giving post facto justification for violence against protestors. It does not lessen the tide of rising tears that brought people out to the streets.
What should they have done?
Speak, communicate and reach out. Reach out with warmth, feeling and understanding. Ask, not tell. All they needed to do was listen. Open the doors and seek to understand before doing anything that would damage the spirit of the people. It is these people who are your demographic dividend. It is this generation that will pay the taxes that will build your roads and hospitals. Listen to them.
Yes, the government did what their processes told them to do – but it was not enough. Finding the culprits, arresting them, suspending the bus licence – these are operational responses to the specific incident. These clearly did not reflect either empathy or understanding. And was clearly poorly communicated.
As I type this, the prime minister has addressed the nation. The reactions are predictable, as was the address. This is about national values and about upholding freedoms. About decency and dignity. About simply living life in a civil society. If this fundamental need is not met, then something breaks.
Remember, a daughter of the nation is violated once every 22 minutes. Something breaks.