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By candlelight, a nation confronts its dark heart

It won’t be so easy to change the deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset that lead to the rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi.

On the evening of 16 December, a 23-year-old woman set off for home with her fiancé after watching a film at a south Delhi cinema. They hailed a chartered bus, a private vehicle used to ferry schoolchildren during the day and which prowls the city streets by night in search of passengers.

There were no other passengers on the bus. There were six men, all staff. The men assaulted, beat and raped the woman as the bus –which had large, tinted-glass windows so that no one could see in –was driven around the city.

A rusty iron rod was forced into her. A part of her intestines was pulled out. (Her injuries were so severe that the whole of her intestines later had to be surgically removed. But the infection could not be contained. It spread to several of her vital organs.) The men then stripped the woman and her fiancé and threw them out of the bus.

The woman, who has not been named to protect her identity, was a student of physiotherapy from a lower-middle-class family. Her father, a loader with a private airline at Delhi Airport, had sold his ancestral land to pay for her studies. She gave private tuition to help out. She lived with her parents and two younger brothers in a one-bedroomed flat on the edge of the city.

As doctors fought to save the woman’s life in a Delhi hospital, India erupted in a manner never seen before. People were overwhelmed by the horror of the incident, angry and ashamed that it could have happened.

Waves of protests engulfed the country. In a country familiar with political rallies and speeches, these demonstrations drew a very different crowd: young men and women, mostly ordinary citizens, gathered in their thousands at various venues, among them the homes of the president of India and the chief minister of Delhi.

As candlelit vigils and marches persisted through the days and nights, police arrested six suspects by 21 December. But that was barely enough to assuage the people’s anger. It could have been any of us, they said. They wanted action. They wanted change. One of many demands was the death penalty for those convicted of rape.


As the horrific incident and its aftermath continued to dominate public discussion on television channels, in the newspapers and on social networks, the Congressled United Progressive Alliance government misread the public mood. Its initial silence was interpreted as indifference. It was not seen to be acting; it was not seen to be empathising with the young woman and her family; it was not seen to be reflecting the convulsed conscience of a nation.

People’s fury was exacerbated as barriers went up at certain protest sites, several underground train stations were closed and the government tried to put Delhi under lockdown.

With her condition worsening, the woman was flown out of the country in a plane chartered by the government, which by now had begun to try to control the damage inflicted on its image. She was taken to a hospital in Singapore on 26 December. In the early hours of 29 December, she passed away.

New Year’s Eve celebrations were muted across the country. We were shamed and chastened, united in grief, and the notion of revelry was not something that figured in most people’s minds.

As 2012 slipped into 2013, the Congress proposed harsher laws against rape: a 30-year jail term, chemical castration, and setting up fast-track courts to try the accused and mete out justice within three months. There has been only one conviction from the 635 cases of rape reported in Delhi between January and November last year.

That is not all. One of the accused in the bus gang rape is 17 years old. He is said to have been the most brutal of the young woman’s torturers. There is talk of redefining the Juveniles Act, of treating young offenders as one would adults, depending on the severity of the crime.

In the first week of the new year, the mood is still sombre, grief-stricken, impatient for change, angry and ashamed. Harsher laws are likely to come as soon as February to address the punitive aspect of the matter. But the slew of measures suggested to act as deterrents – stepping up police patrols; sensitising the force to deal with complaints of harassment from women; a more nuanced portrayal of women in popular cinema and advertising – may not be enough to make India’s streets safe.

Not all men want to be violent towards women or rape them. For those who do, it is a question of a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset, upbringing, education and awareness. It won’t be so easy to change those things. That is the heart of India’s darkness.

As the six accused await trial, an entire nation will continue to look deep into its soul.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, and the author most recently of the fatherhood memoir “Dad’s the Word” (Westland, Rs225)

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.