Shiv Visvanathan | Asian Age
The demand for death penalty was not just a scream of outrage. It was a message that rule of law does not work.
Politics has a way of stereotyping responses. The older generation expected politics to be collectively organised and articulated through trade unions and political parties. Or as social movements. All these responses look outdated as we watch the recent protests against gangrape in Delhi.
Such a response was not new. A year ago the movement led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal almost destabilised the regime. The elite treated corruption cynically, convinced that it was a way of life. The Kejriwal protest showed that the new generation and even the old is tired of cynicism in daily life. It was looking for passion, freedom, autonomy and idealism. It was ready to honour anyone who exemplified these words.
The protests that followed the gangrape of the intern of St Stephen’s Hospital went even beyond the Kejriwal drama. This was one campaign that was not going to be confined to two columns of a newspaper and then sealed with silence. What triggered it was also the earlier responses to rape. When a woman is gangraped, police and politicians treat her as dirt. The victim was seen as someone out of place and virtually made responsible for the violence. Khap panchayats, politicians and bureaucrats criticised her for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or even in the wrong clothes.
There was a sense that woman should be domestic creatures and not be seen after 5 pm. Evening in Delhi became a “Cinderella time” where a woman was vulnerable to masculine repression and violence.
There was another response that fuelled the protest. If politicians were reactionary, police officers were blasé to the point of indifference. They either treated rape as normal or congratulated themselves about police alertness. In fact, police sensitivity to rape victims is one of the oxymorons of city life.
This thickening of indifference set the stage for protests that surprised the capital. It began with the standard cameo bits, with Jaya Bachchan breaking down in Parliament, with MPs being photographed with predictable placards. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit gave her standard interview to Barkha Dutt. It all seemed inadequate. What began as a rivulet of protest on the first day burst conventional banks.
The capital was seeing a different kind of march. Not just the candlelight demonstrations but a collective scream of pain uttered by young women against society which refuses to understand them. As one young girl retorted, “If a nine-month child can be raped, or a three-year-old molested, what kind of clothes would save me from being raped?”
Sensitive journalists warned that something was different here. They claimed that the news of the rape gave them an uneasy feeling, as if the whole cosmos had been violated. They also predicted that the news of the rape would remove the news of the Modi election from page one. By the second day, one could sense a tom-tom of whispers calling the young to battle. For once the language was not measured or scripted. One heard cries of rage, screams of solidarity, a sense of deep communion with the girl who had not just been raped but whose intestines had been disembowelled with a broken beer bottle. One senses a history of accumulated rage of men and women living out the pain of the victim realising that she would continue to suffer for months after.
Some of the demands of the young women were stark. One wanted justice instantly; another wanted death penalty for rape. In fact, the cry of death penalty for rape seems the only form of retribution that would balance the sordidness of the crime. The demand for death penalty was not just a scream of outrage. It was a message that rule of law does not work, that the administration has no sense of the crisis of the city. One could see it in the body language of senior police officers. The slightly superior smile on the face of the police commissioner almost tempted one to lathicharge him.
Yet, as tempers mellow, one has to ask more serious questions. What will the administration do? What steps will it take to guarantee security and justice?
The question that concerned parents and worried families are asking is when returning home in Delhi will stop being an adventure. These groups are not asking for sentimentality. They are tired of seeing protests as photo opportunities. They feel that if the rape was a scandal, a bigger scandal lay in the nature of response. Will the administration stop being proud of Delhi as the “rape capital” of India? If it understands politics, it should see these protests as warning signs and respond to them. Unfortunately, the administration is indifferent to rape and the citizen keeps protesting futilely, waiting for a miracle. The sadness of Delhi is obvious.