THIS IS A MOMENT THAT COULD GO EITHER WAY. It can deepen a crucial engagement or it can leave one with the chaotic debris of a fierce, but passing storm. As the intense outrage over the gangrape in New Delhi on 16 December begins to live out its heat, it’s imperative to question, which of these will we be left with?
Over the past few weeks, many angry questions have been hurled at the police, the judiciary and the political establishment. The failures of the State are staggering and one cannot be grateful enough for the initial rage and outpouring on the street. Without that, there would have been no conversation.
But there is an urgent need now for calmer review, for genuine and calibrated suggestions that can lead to long- and short-term change. There is a need also to ask, are we framing this discourse wisely? Can its shrillness or the suggested remedies have adverse impacts one did not intend?
Before examining any of that though, there is a big missing piece that must find voice. The anger against the State — the demand for greater efficiencies and accountability — is hugely legitimate. But what about the giant shadow in the room? How endemic is the prejudice that stalks our society? What produces and perpetuates it? What creates the idea of women as ‘fair game’ for sexual violence? What, in effect, do Indian men think about women?
It would have been comforting if vile foolishness in India had been the domain of the few. But Asaram Bapu is not alone when he says one hand cannot clap by itself. Or that taking diksha, reciting a mantra and pleading with her rapists as brothers might have saved the young girl that fateful night.
The clergy of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind are not alone when they advocate co-educational institutes to be shut down, pre-marital sex to be outlawed and girls to dress in sober and dignified clothes as ways to prevent rape.
Mohan Bhagwat is not alone when he asserts more rapes happen in ‘India’ than ‘Bharat’ — the first a synecdoche for promiscuous modernity; the latter for a more pious and traditional order where women live within boundaries prescribed by men. Abhijit Mukherjee is not alone when he mocks women protesters as “dented, painted” girls. Nor are Abu Azmi, Kailash Vijayvargiya or the Chhattisgarh home minister who says minors in the state are being raped because their stars are not favourable.
If they had been alone — a marginal raft of clumsy old men — mere derision would have been enough. But the fear is, they are signposts of a much wider and deeper mindset. And if they are that, how is one to negotiate such a gaping cultural divide? How can a society articulate — and enforce — desired values for itself if there is such a foundational disagreement over what those values should be?