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
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.