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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.