Friday, December 28, 2012

India's 'Arab Spring': Youth call for sweeping changes

It is an unspeakable tragedy. The victim of the gang rape in India which has sparked protests across the country died in the early hours of December 29th Singapore time. She will undoubtedly become a martyr for women's rights in India.

The 23-year-old woman was viciously gang-raped on a bus in South Delhi on December 16 and left with serious internal injuries. She died of severe organ failure at a hospital in Singapore today after the Indian Government paid to fly her there in a desperate attempt to save her.

India erupted in daily protests following the rape but you might not know it, if you relied on watching British TV news channels, which have barely given the protests any coverage, focusing instead on what is happening in Syria and Egypt. However, they are being reported on on the web of British news sites and in British newspapers and, of course, dominating Indian TV news channels.

The woman had been to see a film at the cinema with a male companion, a software engineer. At about 9pm the pair boarded a private chartered bus, the kind that is often used to supplement public transport in Delhi, to get home, not realising it was not in service and the man driving bus and his five accomplices, who had been heavily drinking, were killer rapists.


Using iron rods the men knocked the man unconscious before raping and beating the girl at the back of the bus with the rods, as the vehicle, which had tinted windows, drove around the city for an hour, the driver being an accomplice in the sexual violence. The couple were eventually thrown off the bus, stripped of their belongings and dumped naked on a flyover. A passerby spotted them and called the police who took the pair to hospital. The woman, a physiotherapy student, was left in a critical condition on ventilators in a Delhi hospital battling for her life and on Wednesday this week was flown in an air ambulance to Singapore for emergency medical treatment. Despite attempts to save her, she sadly died there a few hours ago at 4.45am local time from severe organ failure.

Rape statistics

There were 24,206 rapes reported in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, of which only 26.4 per cent led to a conviction. In the UK 15,934 rapes were reported in 2010-2011, of which 58 per cent led to a conviction.

Sex objects

The ingrained cultural reasons why women are sometimes disrespected and treated as sex objects in India has been discussed passionately in the Indian media ever since protests erupted on the streets a week ago triggered by the gang rape. It is because of deep rooted chauvinism in the Indian male psyche, according to Anand Soondas, of The Times of India. He writes, in his blog, entitled Why Indian Men Rape, that many Indian men simply cannot stomach women being equals. He talks about "a mindset that since the time of that deviant philosopher called Manu has refused to see 'the weaker sex' as anything but property and the receptacle of male sperms." He adds that while new rules and regulations to guarantee women safety in India are a good idea, nothing will really change until the polarised attitudes towards men and women inside the Indian home metamorphose. Currently the former can be given all the respect, all the freedom and all the money for education, while the latter can be treated as second-class citizens, not allowed out of the house, denied an education and seen as only good for wearing an apron and bearing children. 

Second-class citizens

There has also been a misguided belief  among some sections of Indian society that women who are raped deserve it, either because they were out late, or drinking alcohol, or consorting with men, or dressed inappropriately whilst Indian men can party, drink and flirt as much as they please. "Boys, as they grow up, will have to be taught that their sisters are not there to get the leftovers – the one piece of chocolate that couldn’t be eaten, the tricycle with a broken wheel that couldn’t be driven, the school with expensive fees that couldn’t be afforded," Soondas writes.

However there is even more to the fury than a desire to get greater security for women, punish rapists more stringently, wipe out misogyny towards women and crush inequality of the sexes, which seems inappropriate and outdated in a country set to be the world's fourth largest economy by 2022, which is the world's largest democracy and which has embraced 21st century technology, having the second highest number of mobile phone subscribers in the world, after China. 

'Corrupt police'

In his column, Delhi gang rape case -- is our democracy collapsing? V Mahalingam blames the lack of security for women in India and the high number of sexual attacks on and harassment of women, on corruption within the Indian Police and the sluggish judiciary, which sees trials go on for years on ends, both of which, he says, put women off reporting violent sex crimes and allow rapists to roam the country freely with no fear of ever being caught.

"The credibility of the police in the country today is so low that people hesitate to go to the law enforcers when they are faced with criminal intimidation, threat or violence, " he writes. "Lodging an FIR is a herculean task as the force is hardly responsive or people friendly...The harassment and the pressure from the police to dissuade the victims from lodging a complaint is nothing but autocracy in the so-called democratic government. Bribe is then demanded from both the criminal and the victim. If crimes are not recognised and acted upon, how can law and order worthy of a civilized country prevail in the state?"

"The way an individual is spoken to.... is indicative of the contemptuous attitude of the guardians of law without any consideration for the agony of the individual. The men are untrained for handling a victim of crime or for collecting any worthwhile information to facilitate any investigation if at all," he adds.

Mahalingam claims that obtaining security and justice in India today "is contingent on ones’ financial status and connections." He says that police will manipulate the evidence and witnesses based on who levies the most pressure or has the most cash. He also speaks about a lack of leadership and training in the police force, which he feels leaves it incompetent to provide security to the common man. He slams the condition of police stations too, describing them as "not conducive for any self-respecting man or woman to even enter leave alone complaining." 

He concludes that "moral degradation in Indian society" has touched "an all-time low" and puts the blame  on  "the Governments in power together with the political class, the bureaucracy and the police", pointing out it is the political parties who are giving " party tickets to individuals with criminal background including those relating to crimes against women."

Protesters want sweeping changes

The protesters, made up predominantly of women and college students, have been calling for various actions by the Congress-led Indian Government. They have been saying they want to see swift and tough punishment meted out to the culprits in this case, with many wishing the death penalty upon them, which could happen now the victim has died of her injuries; they want stronger punishments for rapists to be enshrined in Indian law so that they do face the death penalty in future (currently rape is not a capital offence in India); they want rape cases to be fast tracked from now on, so they do not drag on for decades; they want a a better handling of rape cases and sensitisation of the police force to such crimes, so that more get rapes get reported; they want a greater percentage of rape cases to end up with convictions and for rape victims to not fear they will get harassed by the police or ignored if they report such crimes; they want greater security for women across India, but especially on the streets of Delhi, which is renowned for being unsafe for women at night; they also want equal rights -- that means women should be allowed to live with the same freedoms as men.

Heavy-handed response

The demonstrators also remain furious with the Government over the heavy-handed response by the Indian Police, who used water canons, tear gas and batons to quell the largely peaceful protests last Saturday (it was not until Sunday that violence broke out among some sections of the crowds).

However, similar to the riots that ensued in Tunisia after a street vendor set himself on fire, the  fury that has till now been burning across Raisina Hill, India Gate and beyond appears to have also been about issues beyond even these.

In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at the confiscation of his wages. The riots that followed were about high unemployment, food inflation and corruption. They brought down the Tunisian Government.

Arab Spring 

Reading all the comments on Facebook, Twitter and comments on Indian news websites, it seems to me that this incident  too appears to have opened the floodgates for general outrage at the incumbent Indian Government, a fury which till now has been smouldering beneath the surface.

Rape is a catalyst for anger at Government over many issues

Anger has been simmering for a while in India at the Congress-led Government, which has been mired in many high-profile scams in recent years. The rape has also acted as a catalyst for this anger to suddenly explode.

As India grows, it is getting  filled with millions of of bright, educated middle-class people. This modern young shiny educated India is fed up with being ruled over by a more ignorant, uneducated
 India. With access to Facebook, the Internet and smartphones, the educated middle-classes want the same as the rest of the world - to live in a society governed by law and order, in which public services are provided, the citizen is protected, women have equal rights and corruption is rooted out.

But therein lies the problem. Generally-speaking people from good educated backgrounds in India do not enter the police or the Government -- they enter the private sector. Hence why many Indian MPS have criminal records, why the India is witnessing such terrible governance and why the Government is reeling from alleged involvement in so many scams.

As for the police, they are paid a pittance and command little respect from the Indian public. The people attracted to jobs in the police in India tend not to be those from wealthy educated backgrounds but rather less educated and less affluent backgrounds. Those from decent backgrounds would not dream of becoming police officers -- they would rather become surgeons, software engineers, lawyers or businessmen. So police officer offers tend to live in worlds vastly different from the world of the educated middle-classes, as the dilapidated state of the police stations themselves reveal.  Such police officers, being from a different class and background, do not understand or appreciate the concept of women going out at night, frequenting nightclubs, socialising with men, or dressing in certain ways, which is why a policeman called Vasant Dhoble tried to close down Mumbai's nightlife, and why many rapes go unreported as women don't feel able to confide in the police and there is a fear their complaints will be ignored, or they will be harassed.

This social divide is ubiquitous across India and is part of the problem.

However there are various solutions. One is to make India more sexually liberal so Indian men are not sexually repressed. I remember walking on the beach with an Indian man in Mumbai one evening and a dozen policemen came up to  us and asked us what we were doing. It took a very lengthy explanation by my Indian male companion to prevent himself being arrested. Having an Indian man to your apartment in Mumbai, if you live as a single woman, is looked down upon and has to be done in secret. Why? Men and woman visiting each others at home is often just friends dropping round and does not mean they are romantically involved. And even if they are what is wrong with a fully-grown adult indulging in a consensual physical relationship with a member of the opposite sex? Kissing in public is heavily frowned upon in  India. In fact the only human-to-human contact that is allowed is man to man. I often saw Indian men walking around arm in arm or hand in hand. Should India not become a society where it is as acceptable for a woman to put her arm around a man as it is for a man to put his around a man?  You will find motorbikes dotted along a  certain road leading into Bandra with couples embracing on them. Other than that the only place many couples in India can get privacy or cosy up is in the back of rickshaws and in the cinema. This lack of social acceptance of mingling between men and women is possibly fuelling the misogyny apparent in certain sections of society.


Another solution  is to narrow the wealth inequalities in India and educate the uneducated. As long as India is made up of the haves and the have nots, of the educated and uneducated, outdated views of women will persist.

India has perhaps the greatest inequality of living standards and wealth of any country in the world.

The 'haves' enjoy coffess in air-condtioned cafes, live in brick built apartment blocks, drive in cars, have maids and work in offices.

The 'have-nots' sleep on the pavement or road, work in factories, mines or construction, have no money, little food, no access to healthcare and poor education. How long can this social divide continue?

The alleged perpetrators of the gang rape and murder include a fruit seller, an assistant gym instructor and a bus driver - they were men not from affluent educated urban backgrounds but had come from rural deeply conservative patriarchal India that is a world apart from life enjoyed by the middle-classes in the modern cities.  They lived in slums in Delhi.

None of this excuses the heinous crime these men committed. They need to be dealt with swiftly and harshly, the committees set up by the Government  to look at speeding up trials of rape cases and any errors that led to the incident, need to report their findings sharpish, the banning of buses with tinted windows and more visible policing at night, and all the other measures announced by the Indian Government need to be carried out fast.

But looking to the future, India will need much better governance and much better policing. For that to happen more Indians need to take part in the shaping of their country. There needs to be a sense of civic duty to improve India. The government of India at all levels and the police force should not be left vacant for criminals to take positions up in. Instead well educated middle-class honest Indians must start to enter Government and enter the police force. Salaries for positions in both should be made to be as lucrative as salaries in the private sector so the staff are not tempted to and do not need to accept bribes.

The Government needs to start spending on social welfare and on state education especially in rural areas to  start to lift rural India out of poverty and to wipe out illiteracy. Public transport in Delhi needs to be improved so that people can move around the city safely at night, without having to rely on private drivers. Taxi drivers, bus drivers and auto rickshaw owners should be subjected to strict regulations. They must have to undertake tests to obtain licences, which should be regularly inspected and these should be confiscated when they breach the rules.

New political  parties need to be formed that represent the interests and thinking of the flourishing passionate educated middle-class modern Indian youth so they have a party that represents their views.

The female victim in this case, like Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, deserves the highest civic awards for her bravery. She is India's Malala.

India also needs to remember that it will get through this turbulent period and come out the other side hopefully as a safer country with governance of greater integrity. If that happens, this innocent woman will not have died in vain.


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