The Water Cooler

What's the point?!

Long ago, I read something that stuck in my mind. The quote might be inexact, and its provenance is lost in the mists of memory, but the argument went like this:

"When Christ was crucified at Calvary, the enduring image of that one man dying for our sins gave birth to a religion that swept the world; when millions of Jews were massacred during the Third Reich, it left us intellectually disturbed but largely emotionally unmoved, because who in the hell can identify with millions?"
That line came back to me last night while reading some mails people sent in after reading yesterday's post. Some at least argued on these lines: Yes, the Delhi rape is horrific, it is tragic, but why did it take this incident to wake people up? Is it because it happened in Delhi, and hit too close to those who, by virtue of making their home in the national capital, conferred on themselves a special, protected status?

The argument is analogous to what we heard in the immediate aftermath of 26/11, when a section argued that the only reason the terrorist attack had captured national attention was because the targets were the Taj and the Oberoi, those playgrounds of the rich and the pampered. That argument dishonored those killed at VT station and at Chabad House; the argument above about the Delhi 'elite' taking to the streets forgets that Delhi leads the country in crimes against women, so it is not as if this incident came out of the blue to shake them out of their complacency.

The reason is far simpler - this is, after all, that single straw that breaks the camel's back. This happened to be it.

Far more pervasive, in the mails I received and in some comments on my timeline, was the word 'futile'.

This is how the argument played out in my mailbox: What's the point of marching in the streets and driving up the stock prices of candle-makers when we all know nothing will come of it? It might temporarily salve our collective conscience, one particular mail argued, but we have the New Year parties to "paint and dent" for, and our lives to lead, so we are all going to move on anyway and it is business as usual, no? What would we have achieved? What is the end game here? What counts as a "win" for us? (I wanted to reproduce this angst-ridden mail in full but the writer, a girl who has been attending every protest march and candle-light vigil she hears of, refused permission.)

So what is the end game?

At some point in every major upheaval, this question has been asked. The Occupy Wall Street-ers - what did they think the outcome was going to be, reform? Did those who thronged Tahrir Square see a 'heaven of freedom' at the end of their protests? Tiananmen Square - gosh, how's that experiment in bringing democracy to China working out? And so on, through the annals of public protests.

Park the question for a moment.

Read, from recent annals, two stories. One, of the father who had to make repeated visits to a police station just to get the officials to register the fact that his daughter was brutally raped. The other, of the young girl who was raped; who begged repeatedly for help, for justice; who was then 'raped' again, emotionally, by police who would summon her to the station house late in the evening and treated her like some kind of live sex-line for their prurient amusement. After more than a month of this, the girl committed suicide yesterday.

The commonality between the two stories should be instantly obvious: The police failed the victims; they victimized the victim. And that should not surprise us, for such incidents have been distressingly common down the years and across the country. 'So you got fucked, big deal, go home and get over it' is more the norm than the exception; the norm is to see rape as a bunch of guys having a bit of harmless fun and not worth all the trouble of filing cases and carrying out investigations.

Now go back to those two stories and note what else is common: the police in both instances got punished. Now ask yourself this: If Delhi hadn't happened, if the incident hadn't triggered the anger it did, if it hadn't provoked the public to take to the streets, would these other incidents have registered in the minds of our "rulers"? Would they have resulted in any action against the errant cops? Do you, for instance, remember any questions being asked of the cops who delayed taking cognizance of this rape, also in Delhi, also in December? Or to take another example, a PIL was filed last week against elected representatives who have crimes against women in their curriculum vitae. Ask yourself: why now? Could it be that the public anger following the Delhi rape has made people more aware of the need for zero tolerance for the abusers among us?

I'd argued yesterday that rapes have tended to become more gruesome, more prolific, in recent times because the rapists have a sense that there are no consequences to their actions; I'd argued, too, that this sense of entitlement stems from the fact that a misogynist law enforcement machinery is more often on the side of the perpetrator than the victim. (While on official misogyny, read Nilanjana Roy. Also read this account from one of the protestors:

"I couldn't see anything; I just heard the two cracks of a SPLIT BAMBOO STICK on my back, butt and thighs. Then I heard the police screaming, HARAMZADIYON, RANDIYON, and then I saw a boot kicking my knees and shin.)"

The rapists rape at will because they have been led to believe that the police will do nothing. And the police do nothing because there is no consequence to their inaction. That needs to change. The police need to realize that not acting is not in their own interests; that their inaction could rebound on them (as it has in Patiala, where senior police officials have lost their jobs).

Is that it? No - but it is a start that has already been made. What the ongoing protests have already accomplished is to line the dominoes up. The politician learns that there is a very public, very visible, consequence to his apathy. He now has to act, and be seen to act. That in turn impacts on the police, who know inaction could rebound on them. So they have to act. And that impacts on the potential rapist, who gets the signal that he may be made to pay for his "fun".

So have we ushered in a brave new world for our women? No, but it is now a work in progress - and that is more than we could say two weeks ago. So to those who asked what the end game is, I'd respond: to get to a desired end, you first have to begin some place. And this is a beginning.

Also in my mail, I found this argument: When Anna Hazare did his thing, you argued that a Lok Pal will not solve the issue. How come you now support those hotheads who demand that Parliament immediately pass laws making castration and/or death the punishment for rape?

The short answer is, I don't. (Nilanjana Roy in her thoughtful fashion makes the argument against). Thing though is, those demands are being made at the extreme fringes of this movement - and any movement will have an extreme fringe. In the amphitheater of anger, in the adrenalin-rush of rage, there is little room for nuance. (After all, we are a nation that, after losing a Test series to England, demanded that the entire team be sacked and replaced with eleven others, no?)

Ignore the fringe for a moment, and focus on the middle ground. What are they - the majority - asking for? Not public torture followed by public hanging, as this Monisha Sethi piece suggests (More on this later). Minister Shashi Tharoor posted these on Twitter yesterday: 1, 2 and 3.

What are they asking for, again - castration? Not. They are out there, braving the 3,000 cops deployed against them, to ask for: (1) More cops on the street and more focus on doing what they are supposed to be doing; (2) Less cops on VIP duty (currently, according to reports, 60 per cent of the police force in Delhi are engaged in "protecting" VIPs or, more accurately, beefing up the VIP's sense of self-worth and status.

To me, those seem like logical, acceptable goals to fight for, for now - how about you?

Reading Matter:
1. A piece by Manisha Sethi asks the same question as above: What are we fighting for? And argues thus:
"Ideally, a movement's energy forces the opening of uncomfortable questions, challenging commonsense understanding and expanding our ideas of justice. One sees that the mass protests at Raisina Hill and India Gate are flattening out complexities: reducing sexual violence to rape alone, and the need for legal reform to simply an inclusion of capital punishment, castration and immediate punishment for rapists.

"A whole range of sexualised violence such as molestation, parading, stalking, stripping, are not recognised as serious violations by our legal system. While stalking and molestation are laughed off as 'eve teasing' (indeed trespassing is deemed a more serious crime), stripping and parading women naked are often tools of punishment by the powerful. Remember Khairlanji where Priyanka and Surekha Bhotmange were paraded naked before being murdered by the politically dominant caste? Or the young Laxmi Orang, stripped by a group of hooligans, not very different from the stone pelters of India Gate, when she was marching on the streets of Guwahati seeking 'ST' status for the tea tribes of Assam?"
True. Rape is not the only assault on a woman's dignity - every day, women around the country suffer from physical and emotional abuses often lumped together under the benign rubric of 'eve-teasing'. Attention needs to be focussed on those, too; redress needs to be sought. In that sense, the 'flattening out of complexities' and the singular focus on rape might be counter-productive - or maybe not. Maybe the anti-rape protests now on serve - or can/should serve - as tentpole; as the fire that keeps the political kitchen hot, while more informed minds such as Manisha, or Anita Krishnan who led the march yesterday, and such others who have a wider grasp of the issues at stake take light-handed charge of all this energy and direct it where it will do most good.

To say that the protests focus on only one aspect of the problem and hence should be dismissed, however, seems to me a case of chucking baby and bathwater out in one swoop.

2. Jai Arjun Singh has a round up of some of the more compelling writing that has surfaced in the aftermath of the Delhi rape. The value of the post is further enhanced by Jai's own thoughts on these contemporaneous subjects. Do read.

3. From The Atlantic, a vivid photo-feature on the Delhi protests.

4. In the National, a piece on India's national shame:

The main cause is men.
"I have never lived in a country where women are completely free of the fear of harassment or sexual assault, but I have also never lived in any other country where there is such a permissive attitude towards harassment and sexual assault. It is almost casual.

"At its most benign, the harassment is merely annoying: the odd Bollywood love song sung under the breath of a passer-by to a woman or a girl on the street, a wolf whistle, or a request to "make friendship" - a local euphemism for an illicit dalliance. At other times, a man will make his interest felt with an outburst of frustrated sadism, such as throwing an elbow to a woman's breast.

"There is little shame in these acts. Society rarely punishes these men. Many if not most women in India are belittled, abused and cast aside from cradle to grave.
"I will never forget the sight of a small black plastic bag in the middle of a Delhi highway. The bag had been smashed by a car, revealing the mangled corpse of a newborn baby. I did not stop to check, the police were there already, but I am sure that the infant was female. Female infanticide and foeticide is rampant within certain communities."

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