The harder battle

A tidal wave of protest appears to have taken over Delhi, beginning with popular anger and revulsion over the recent gangrape. Given how everyday and pervasive sexual violence in India is, and how indifferent the state's response tends to be, nearly every citizen relates to the issue. In as much as it has framed the rare sight of citizens rallying around women's freedoms, this protest has been an unprecedented achievement. A privately endured fact has now become a public cause.

This, though, is the moment where the different strands of the protest must be sorted, and legitimate and necessary action identified. Right now, this public mobilisation is in danger of becoming a soup of indignation, one that will soon boil over and be forgotten. Every step and misstep is met with equal outrage, from the PM's "theek hai" to a TV technician to Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee's disparaging remark about what he saw to be the artifice and triviality of the protest to a CPM MLA reportedly asking how much Mamata Banerjee would "charge" to get raped. The police action against those who breach the barricades is deemed as offensive as their refusal to file FIRs. This collapsing of degrees helps no one.

That said, some directions for change have been made clear. Fast-track courts have been announced, suggestions for better urban planning have been solicited. A registry of sex offenders will be created, because sexual assault tends to be a repeat offence. The real problem remains police reform and a painfully slow judicial system. The police is understaffed and underpaid. It is geared towards dominating citizens rather than working for them, not to mention being open to influential interests. It reflects the misogyny around us, rather than actively fighting for the rights of citizens who happen to be female. The legal system, too, needs special attention. Apart from the pendency problem, there are loopholes in the law specific to rape, and the pending sexual assault bill is far from satisfactory. How then, can this system be overhauled to make women's freedoms a priority? Sheila Dikshit has suggested getting more women into the police, through a quota if necessary. Similarly, the women's reservation bill, long put off, hopes to change the character of governance. While the mere presence of women may not make institutions more feminist, a critical mass of women in power could certainly reorient them to be more responsive to women's concerns. Anti-women attitudes must be determinedly countered in schools and homes and streets, in the movies and in advertisements. The energies of this street protest must now be channelled into different arenas of struggle.

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