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Even as Indian women seek more control over their lives, they face greater violence. What explains this contradiction, and what is to be done?
It's impossible to comprehend the sheer brutality of the Delhi gangrape. It's easier, perhaps, to puzzle over two self-contradictions that provide it context. First, the middle class is prosperous and rising; yet middle-class protests are rising. Second, women's empowerment is increasing; so is violence against women. How to explain these puzzling trends?
Let's take the first one. Three decades of economic growth has greatly expanded the middle class. There are the anecdotes that we marvel at — the panwallah's son with an IT degree, the farmer's daughter who gets into IIT. And there is statistical evidence to back some of this up. Literacy levels have increased by 9.2 per cent in just the last decade. The number of Indians with a graduate in their nuclear family (one definition of being "middle class") is now 150 million — and given graduation rates, that number is likely to spike. One would expect liberalisation's children to be grateful to Manmohan Singh. He is greeted instead with rage, first seen in the Anna Hazare protests in 2011. In an article on these pages then ('The blind spots of India Shining', IE, August 17, 2011), I had argued that those anti-corruption protests showcased a new, privately employed middle class, with a "service" view of the state — unlike the mai baap attitude of the older middle class. They have seen the private sector deliver, have rising expectations, and are enraged that corruption — and in the Delhi rape case, patchy policing — threaten their "contract" with the Indian state.
The anti-rape protesters have been called "dented" and "painted". Callous words were also hurled at those protesting the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, and at the Anna Hazare movement. They miss the point. This is not the older middle class — children of lawyers and civil servants — we are talking about. The rape victim was the daughter of a farmer in Balia (in Uttar Pradesh), who sold his land to make what social theorist Ashis Nandy calls "an ambiguous journey to the city". With rapid urbanisation, it is a journey millions are making. The girl herself was studying physiotherapy. They lived in a fast-growing suburb of Delhi, aspiring to all that an older elite has always enjoyed. The girl did not have daddy's driver to pick her up at night, but she wanted to watch Life of Pi with a male friend just the same. This was why her story struck such a chord; many Indians shared and grasped her dreams. Not so Abhijit Mukherjee. The president's son cannot grasp candle-lit protests that are far from the caste, agrarian, student or party mobilisations that our politicians are familiar with. What to make of a leaderless mob, literate and fuming, demanding better governance? It must be dented and painted. Mukherjee only said what many politicians privately believe.