After a sad death, a country introspects

After a sad death, a country introspects

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.

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