Dismissing protests

Dismissing protests

A fire in the belly of the volcano

Shock dissipates; pain lingers; and rage will extract its due sometime. On Saturday morning, the 23-year-old girl who had been raped by a criminal gang festering with demons on the night of 14 December, gave up her unconscious struggle for life in a Singapore hospital.

Delhi, and perhaps India, fell silent. What was left to say? What else was left to hear after we have heard during this fortnight's public discourse?

The government was bewildered by the paradox that finally shredded its moral roots, if indeed there were any left. The ruling elite thought that tokenism was sufficient as an escape route. Statistics encouraged such thinking. This was hardly the first rape in Delhi; at least 600 have been reported in 2012 alone.  India forgets a thousand rapes a day; why should people  get particularly provoked just because this rape happened on a rogue bus running with the support of a deeply corrupt police system that permitted a physically and mentally twisted driver to operate because he had paid police to get his licence?

The general view was that a few speeches in Parliament would be more than enough. Strangely, the principal faces of governance, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Mrs Sonia Gandhi, did not think that they needed to read out a few paragraphs churned out by their speechwriters on that day in Parliament. The future of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, was missing from the present. Nor was he visible on Saturday.

Outside Parliament, it was a different space. Women lit a flame of anger that  exposed through the clamour of public discourse the truth of what many men in power truly felt. Visceral hatred born from other causes can deform men into rapists by intent. Perhaps the most unbelievable instance was the case of a former Marxist minister in Bengal, Anisur Rahman, taunting the state's chief minister Mamata Banerjee  in language that cannot be repeated. Leftists have been sincere guardians of gender equality. They have  demanded the maximum punishment for the gang in Delhi. We are waiting to see what punishment they inflict on their former minister.

The ugliest remark came from Andhra Pradesh. This quote is unusual not because it is rare, but because it is rarely expressed in public.  The chief of the Andhra Congress is a man called Botsa Satyanarayana. This is what he said about the young victim who has just died: that she "should have been more careful". He also thought   that it was a "minor incident". Will anything happen to this retarded, obnoxious politician? I doubt it. Make your guess and keep checking the newspapers.

Start at home

We will know soon enough if this crisis marks the beginning of reform in social justice, or is merely another chapter of tears that dries up the next day  as life totters on with nothing learnt. But here is a suggestion for political parties. Reform begins at home. They made the right noises when public anguish peaked on Saturday, possibly because they were afraid of a public backlash. From Monday they could do something concrete. Every political party, whether Congress, BJP, Left or regional, has criminal elements including those who have raped. A few of them even rise to elected level. Could they begin with action against them?

All leaders prefer fudge to change. After a week of doing very little, Mrs Sonia Gandhi invited six young people in an effort to calm and reassure the protestors. This group was led into her presence by a minister. A curious thing happened on the way out. All six refused to identify themselves to media. Newspapers got their pictures but not their names. Why? Were they from a Congress party forum or from the incensed crowds in the heart of the capital? It did not work. Something fundamental has changed. The ground has shifted.

In December, 2012 changed from yet another ordinary year in a desultory sequence  to a swivel moment in India's history -  when women, their identity, their rights, their dignity, became the central issue before the nation. It was not just one more crime, however awful, that brought young Indians together. It was a scream of anguish against widespread, inhuman and unchecked corruption in every aspect of existence that has turned the citizen into a hapless victim of kleptocracy, with women suffering the more malicious wounds of brutalisation.

The government has dismissed every public protest over the past years with contempt. Anna Hazare was a 'fraud'. Arvind Kejriwal was a 'pipsqueak liar'.  Ministers competed with each other in becoming more vicious about leaders of popular anger; they laughed and threatened, and  rewarded by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh with better portfolios.
When you are in power, you never hear the volcano rumbling in the belly of the mountain, although  fires are licking at the mouth of the crater.