Taking back the city

What is also not new is violence against women. Indeed, one of the clear successes of the movement has been to make the daily violence against women an issue of public debate; to make, as movements do, the ordinary outrageous. But if sexual violence is so widespread, why is this mobilisation taking place now, and why in Delhi? The factors that converge to make a movement go viral are complex and defy simple explanations. Analysts often try to dissect the core or essence of a movement, but this flies in the face of the diffuse, diverse and de-centred nature of movements themselves. Nonetheless, it is useful to explore two contextual factors that were critical in the movement's genesis and will be critical to its long-term effects.

The first is that this movement has clearly been fuelled by the support of a rising urban middle class. The term "middle class" is so overused and overstretched that it often becomes meaningless, but there is little doubt that this movement has been driven by a social strata that is, for the most part, young, educated and inseparably linked to the rise of the city as a site of social transformation. This is significant because, on the one hand, this urban middle strata class has unique mobilisational resources, not least of which is its capacity to rouse the traditional media and fully leverage social media.

On the other hand, this aspirational middle class, unlike the propertied rich that can provide for themselves, depends on public goods and in particular on the freedom to work, socialise, learn and play in the city. The urban middle class in India is often taken to task for being politically disaffected, mindlessly consumerist or narrowly self-interested. But in demanding a city that is accessible, open and safe for all, this middle class is staking a claim that cuts across the social cleavages that have traditionally marked the city. In the US, Anne Pride famously linked the problem of violence against women to their right to move freely with the clarion call of "taking back the night". At a time when urban politics is increasingly fragmented by nativism, communalism and various forms of class retrenchment (gated communities, privatisation of services), the articulation of a vision of the city that is broad and inclusive points to the possibility of a politics of social solidarity.

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