Occupy Raisina Hill

The protest against rape is a howl of anguish, not a charter of real demands

Thousands of sincere young people gathered at Raisina Hill this weekend to express solidarity and anger at the brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus in Delhi.

Her case made MPs weep and courts demand answers. Police officers praised her bravery. "It could have happened to just about anybody," Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said on TV, summing up the reason it agitated so many middle-class Indians. She might be us. She displayed no "adventurousness", no extraordinary trust in the world. She wasn't blurry in our imagination, like say an adivasi woman being brutalised in a faraway badland, or custodial torture, or a furtive family affair closed to the world.

In the public uproar after this gangrape, we heard all the old chestnuts about a woman's izzat, but the discussion also touched on issues that matter, sexual autonomy, the protection racket that constricts our freedoms. In the week that followed, though, that concern about women's safety has become a howl of undiscriminating rage. Otherwise sensible people have called for castration and killing. Some of my Facebook friends advocated public mutilation and hanging, with pictures of what that might look like. At India Gate, kids held up posters saying "No bail, only death". Never mind the fact that the threat of capital punishment does not actually reduce crime, and might lead rapists to kill those they have raped, to eliminate the witness. That chemical castration has proven ineffective, and that "cutting it off" is as medieval as chopping off the hands of thieves. It overlooks the fact that certainty of punishment, rather than severity of punishment, is the real deterrent.

The Delhi protest, by now, has become a mechanical tirade against the government. At Rajpath on Saturday, many held up placards from protests gone by, recycled slogans from the Lokpal agitation, attacked the PM's silence, Sheila Dikshit and the UPA's apathy. "We want justice, we want justice", they chanted, faster and faster, till it was just an insistent, scrambled sound. On news channels and Twitter, everyone blamed the inept government. Why weren't politicians jumping to it, giving us "solutions"? Why weren't they at India Gate, lighting candles and expressing grief? Some of the protestors were childishly self-centred as though, just because they had shown up at India Gate, the prime minister must too. This demonstration of anger should force changes in the IPC, they said. Call a special session of Parliament, they demanded. Meanwhile, commentators spoke of the UPA's empathy gap, its inability to be where the people were.

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