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.

Too many of us, including TV talking heads, confuse the political with the psychological. It is not the government's job to soothe and handhold you, or a politician's duty to make a strident production of her feelings. It is their job to provide security and a responsive administration. But the reason rapes happen, are rarely reported, and are listlessly investigated, is not because of our government, it is because of our society. It is because we make a rape survivor feel that she is better off not asking for redress, and inviting all the social shaming and intrusive questioning that goes with it.

Institutional responses also flow out of social responses, ultimately. Much of the police is hostile to women, treating sexual assault cases with insensitivity, or outright misogyny. Though our rape law is unexceptionable on paper, and privileges the woman's testimony over corroborating evidence or questions of prior sexual conduct and character, it is tripped by bad investigation and by delay. The police, then, could be one point of focus in this agitation. Reforming the police requires depoliticising it, remaking its incentives to make it accountable to citizens, that its men and women are better trained to deal with sexual violence, that their social attitudes are linked to recruitment and promotion, if possible. Judicial pendency would be another productive point of focus for public dissatisfaction.

The real transformation though, still needs to be internal. Rape can be driven by sadism, by the need to dominate or control a person or a group, to terrorise a woman or to teach a man whose "property" she is assumed to be. We can try to change the assumptions of a rape culture, by making sure girls and boys grow up with healthier gender roles, by making sexuality less repressed and dark than it is.

These are all long-haul projects, the patient task of families and schools, and less emotionally satisfying than attacking Manmohan Singh. Tempting as it is to rail at the government, we have to realise that responsibility for crime, including this one, is more diffuse than we would like, and we have to assign blame in the right ratio. Iron rods in all private buses are not Sheila Dikshit's fault or within her control, but better public transport is. No politician can guarantee a deadline on how long a case will take in court. Many people attacked the police for talking about tinted windows but that was the only thing they could realistically have tackled, in this instance. When the home minister spoke of a judicial commission to look into women's safety, it was booed as "another useless commission".

Time-bound justice is our due. But let's be clear about how big and bone-deep the problem of sexual violence is. Petitions aren't going to stop rape, nor is street lighting really, or token gestures like VIPs giving up their own security. Even at the India Gate protest, a young woman I met had been whistled at by a couple of men in the crowd. So even as we press for solutions, we've got to acknowledge that we are the problem.


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