Will the protests against the Delhi gang rape reach rural India?

In the backwaters of India, in rural areas still governed by feudal mindsets, rapes and gang rapes continue with impunity. The candle flame wave being carried through Delhi’s foggy, winter nights is not reaching this India.

 

On 29 December, I woke up to the news that the ‘survivor’ of a brutal gangrape on a moving bus in Delhi 13 days earlier died. As a woman of Indian origin, who has been in Delhi throughout this period, I felt saddened and ashamed. During the day, as I travelled through the city, I was moved by much of the public response. However, the politicisation of this entire event has been appalling.

On Saturday as India too awoke to the news that the ‘survivor’ had succumbed to the unspeakably macabre injuries inflicted on her by her six rapists, the government promptly began fortifying itself against a backlash. The centre of Delhi became a ghost town. The iconic areas of India Gate, which had seen much of the public protests since the gang rape, and the entire area surrounding India’s Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Presidential palace), where the week’s protests had spilled into, were all cordoned off. Officers from Delhi’s police force, on their festive breaks, were recalled to duty. All to contain the public outcry.

The Indian government had previously responded to the public outrage by way of a two minute and 13 second speech by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, eight days after the gruesome incident.  It was too little, too late.

But following the demise of the unnamed victim, the government - in an attempt to correct their tardy and high-handed approach, sprang into damage limitation mode. Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician, made a televised address to the nation referring to the victim as India’s “own beloved daughter, their cherished sister, a young woman of 23 whose life full of hope, dream and promise was ahead of her”.

Other politicians followed suit in their messages of condolence and condemnation. But in a country where 31% of the polity - 1148 politicians, including Members of Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies - have criminal cases pending against them, their calls to action are nothing short of hypocrisy. Worse, some 641 lawmakers face serious charges like rape, and in the last five years, more than 30 men charged with rape have stood in Indian elections. For the politicians’ promises to have any teeth they must swiftly begin to cleanse their own fraternity. Otherwise, their promises of action are nothing but hollow.

Western media reports have claimed that this incident has "shaken India" and "left a country in a crisis". But which India are they talking about? It is the urban, educated, mostly middle class India that is revealing a visibly scarred conscience. Away from there, in the backwaters of the country, in rural areas still governed by feudal mindsets, off the nation’s radar, rapes and gang rapes continue with impunity. The candle flame wave being carried through Delhi’s foggy, winter nights is not reaching this India. 

Long unaddressed social, cultural and economic issues are the cause of this disconnect. The alleged perpetrators of the Delhi gang rape come from the underbelly of Indian society; from India’s slums - notorious for their poverty and squalor. Their questioning by police has revealed dysfunctional and apathetic childhoods.

Despite the ‘India rising’ story of the last few years, the country retains an entrenched patriarchal mindset, which extends from the home to institutional settings. From the very outset, the socialisation of women in the domestic space is redolent of unabashedly misogynistic practices. Akin to the submissive role Indian Goddesses play to their husbands in popular Hindu mythology, Indian women remain subaltern to their husbands. A city domestic worker’s comments, justifying her husband’s violence towards her, are telling: ‘My husband is good. But if I don’t obey, ofcourse he’ll beat me up. That is nothing unusual."

According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s data for 2011, in 94.2% cases the perpetrator of a rape is known to the victim. This abhorrent statistic evidences reprehensible, familial patriarchal attitudes. Disconcertingly, women themselves sometimes encourage the notion of the inherent superiority of men. This plays out in the importance they ascribe to the raising of their sons as compared to that of their daughters. Mothers giving their sons preferential treatment is common practice.

Sons are viewed as a blessing, daughters a scourge. So the birth of a son is celebrated. He is viewed as an asset: on marriage, he will add to the family’s finances by way of his bride’s dowry. (Dowry, the material wealth gifted to the bride, groom and the groom’s family by the bride’s family– a social practice unarguably demeaning to women, is still widely practiced. This abhorrent practice reduces a woman to a liability to be transferred from father to husband.) Dowry related deaths and female foeticides remain rampant in India.

There is also institutional collusion in the abasement of women. India’s unequivocally sexist rape laws are a case in point. When a rape happens the victim is viewed as a repository of shame, when really the moniker ought to be accorded to the perpetrators. When rape cases come to the fore, the laws are framed so that it is routinely the behaviour of the woman which is scrutinised and pilloried not that of the assailant. Consequently, rather than the laws being a deterrent for the perpetrators, they become a deterrent for the victim to report the case. Unsurprisingly, an FIR (a first hand report made to the police) is filed in only 12% of the cases.

To tackle India’s disgraceful record of crimes against women, we must address these systemic issues. The recent events have provided a rallying call to those who want the country's malfunctioning and indolent judicial system reformed. The public are demanding fast track courts to try those accused of rape. But in a country where there are 12 judges for a million people, any gains in speed of rape cases would come at the cost of other trials. What is needed is a comprehensive reform of the judicial system that sees it being better financed. Currently, a very miniscule percentage of the GDP is spent on the judiciary.

Better and fairer legislation, judicial reform, more female police officers (a dismal 7% of India’s police officers are women) are more immediate measures to tackle the rise in crimes against women. But simultaneously and most crucially, the prevailing medieval attitudes towards women have to be challenged, contested and transformed.

It will be a protracted battle - but it must begin now. A placard at a candlelight vigil in memory of the departed rape victim read: ‘She is not dead, just taken to a place where rapes don’t happen’. But she leaves behind many women in a place where they can, and do, all too often.

A candlelight vigil in Kolkata. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder