Implications of an Indian Gang-rape

The moment I heard that the Delhi gang-rape victim was being flown into Singapore, I knew what was going on. That unfortunate woman, whom we will call Amanat, was the victim of a horrible gang rape and mutilation at the hands of a bunch of hoodlums in Delhi. She was clinging to her life. Doctors had removed parts of her intestines at Safdarjung Medical Hospital and she was surviving on life support. It was difficult to imagine that she would be able to live.

As has been reported across the world, generating spreading outrage, the victim, a paramedical student, was brutally raped and assaulted in a moving bus in Delhi on the night of Dec 16. Moving her to Singapore was clearly a political decision. If she had died in Delhi, the public outrage, which was already bursting out of control (a constable, Subhash Tomar, had died during the violent demonstrations at India Gate in Delhi), would get even more fierce. News of her death coming from Singapore would be much more manageable for the establishment. This is exactly what happened.

Right after the news of the victim being moved to Singapore flashed across TV channels, I tweeted about the same from my Twitter account. So far, I had avoided saying anything about the girl or the tragedy that had rightly incensed Indians across the world; not that my saying anything on this issue mattered-I am hardly Sonia or Rahul Gandhi.

My response was mute because for years I had been reading about crimes against women in India, including rape, mutilation, murder and communal humiliation (being paraded naked on the streets or in villages by men). In 1994, Shekhar Kapur had made a stunning film on this subject-Bandit Queen. The film was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a poor girl who turns into a dreaded dacoit after high-caste men in her village gang-rape her.

Over the years, I have read too many reports to count of girls being kidnapped and raped in Delhi and the national capital region (NCR), including many of such crimes being committed on buses (I personally dreaded living in Delhi for the lack of safety and also worried about my family members when they were out on the streets). Every time I read such hideous stories, I would be filled with anger and revulsion. And it was not just Delhi where such crimes were rampant. It had been happening all over the country.

Over the years, I was so disheartened that I had stopped reading crime stories from India. They made me seethe with anger at a system that seemed unchangeable, worsening my blood pressure, and making me sick. The kind of crimes, for example, that were committed against women during the Gujarat riots in 2002, just reading about them was enough to horrify a human being for a lifetime.

Like many, I too was baffled at the way the TV and social media-fuelled public outrage was gripping India in the dead woman's case. Why did it capture the nation's imagination? The news was treated non-stop like a terror attack and the social media constantly amplified it. It reminded me of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai and how they had been covered. At that time, the victim was not even named (only now her identity has been revealed; her real name is Jyoti Singh Pandey) and no one had seen her in person. Of course, the incident was stomach-churning but what was making them so angry this time-that was not clear to me. Was it the happy confluence of social media and 24 hour TV married to the on-ground marches at Jantar Mantar, remnants of the Anna Hazare movement that had licked the streets only a year and half ago? Or was it the convenience of timing-it was December and the university exams were over and young students were free to demonstrate? (Many of the demonstrators at India Gate were students).

Therefore, one was at a loss to find a reason behind this sudden fission, this outburst of youthful energy. Equally importantly, what could account for the silence of the same people before this-that is, how were they able to contain their anger in other cases and for so long? Was it just because of the fact that the girl had been picked up from Munirka, very close to my alma mater (and a perennial source of demonstrators) Jawaharlal Nehru University? Or was it because someone like them, a girl from a middle-class family, had been attacked this time in the heart of the city, not a dalit or an adivasi in some far away corner of India, as celebrated economist Amartya Sen has argued? Or was it because the angry mob had decided that enough was enough: we have to stop it now, once and for all. I thought the latter was true in this case, and I heartily supported it. I wished that this awakening had come to Indians much earlier.

It was amid these thoughts that the news of the victim being moved to Singapore reached me. Sometimes you need distance to be able to talk about something. Sometimes, it is just the opposite. She was at my doorstep. It was time I broke my silence. I tweeted.

Within a few hours of my tweet, I got an email from the news assignment head of a news channel in India, a stranger to me. The request was very simple. Can I recommend a person who could help the TV channel provide video feeds and regular updates on Amanat? Initially, I didn't want to pass on any contacts, thinking that the girl needed her privacy. Constant media attention on the victim-perhaps that was another reason why Amanat had been moved to Singapore. This was not fair for her or her family.

Now, people are questioning the wisdom of the government's decision to move her to Singapore. Even on the day she was flown out of India, I saw a report on the BBC's international news channel that had some Indians in London asking similar questions.

Once Amanat was in Singapore, Singapore's Indian chatterati on social media became active. Everyone had something to say, expressing their outrage against the system and sympathy for the girl. Someone even suggested that we start a fund for the family of the victim. All good thoughts.

Being the cynic that I am, I wondered how long they are going to remember Amanat after she was gone? Even three months or six months would be too long to remember her. Would they even withhold their year end celebrations in her respect? Those were my thoughts.

Searching for answers

While Amanat fought for her life in a Singapore hospital, debate raged on why this happened and next, what could be done to make women safer in India.

Many explanations were offered: this is due to a bad and corrupt policing system; the patriarchal system and attitudes of male chauvinism in society were the main cause behind crime against women; and even popular culture and cinema was blamed for this. The skewed sex ratios and women dressing inappropriately or stepping into unreliable vehicles or walking outside their homes late in the evening made them targets of attack-this was also said.

Some said this incident resulted because of the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots of society. Many argued for harsher punishment for rapists (capital punishment, pouring acid on the genitals, and so on) and having stronger legislation to protect women. All this was fine. But to me, it all sounded like rearranging the bells and whistles on a shit hole.

The problem is much deeper.

The main reason, every time we come face to face with a case like Amanat's, is the hollowing out of our moral core. The rapist as well as the victim came from our own society. How can we disown them? And what about those who showed apathy to the victim and her friend-for two and half hours they were lying naked on the road, after they were thrown off the bus? No one stopped to help them!

Unfortunately, we have tolerated a morally corrupt system for too long, allowed it to putrefy for decades. If we had killed the small monsters, we wouldn't have had such big Ravanas to fight today. No one in India is afraid of the law today, more so the criminals. We are responsible for this mess (corruption and crime in every sphere of life) and only we can set it right.

We need a new revolution for a new India. How is this revolution possible? It has to start with us, each and every Indian. One at a time. We don't need leaders. We need aware citizens, who are honest and who are committed to their duty. We have to start from the family level itself.

I know this sounds idealistic but demanding a crime-free society is also a form of idealism, and the reality is, as Locke has said, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Singapore, for example, is largely crime-free because the standards of probity and public services are generally very high in that country. And these days, even in Singapore, aware citizens take their government to task for any irregularity that they come across.

In television debates, some have called the protests in India a process of "democratization of democracy"-people have appropriated the political space from the political class. It is a very good sign and should be seen as the beginning of a change. However, I am skeptical of any change that is brought by the middle class. Real change happens when it happens at the grassroots level.

Change will not happen overnight, we have to remember. Setting right the correlation between economic advancement and healthy law and ethics (rule of law, accountability, equality of rights and opportunities) is the only way forward. Also, we cannot leave politics to the professional political class alone. If we are not steadfast in our struggle for justice, I am afraid nothing much will change on the ground. If at all, changes will be cosmetic and perhaps we will have more cameras watching us than ever before. Let the price of democracy be constant vigilance, not constant surveillance.

(Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based writer and journalist. Most recently, he is the author of The Resurgence of Satyam (Random House India, 2012).)