A nation sensitized by catharsis

Brutal gang rape may bring far-reaching reforms.

Frank Islam thumbsizeWASHINGTON, DC:  India exists in many different centuries, it has been said. The brutal rape of a young woman in South Delhi, one of the more cosmopolitan parts of the capital, in mid-December, proves that it is hard to argue against that statement.

The victim, a 23-old-old student, lost her nearly two-week long battle for life at a Singapore hospital just two days before the New Year’s Eve.  The nation reacted to the struggle for survival and the eventual death of the woman with a rare display of collective shame, embarrassment, disgust and outrage.

The brutality against the young woman, who was tortured by inserting an iron rod into her by the six rapists in a moving bus before she was thrown out of the vehicle, along with a male companion, and the way the incident played out in the country’s noisy and activist television media shocked urban India into action.

The victim’s own personal story — her parents, who moved to the city from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, reportedly sold their land to support her education was also a factor in galvanizing the country.

In the days leading up to her death, thousands marched on the streets of Delhi and cities such as Kolkata and Bengaluru, demanding swift justice and calling for more protection for women against sexual violence. Mobilization also took place on the social media, with young Indians reacting strongly to the incident on Facebook and Twitter.

The protesters were enraged as the Indian government, which, lately, has been comically out of touch with reality and tone deaf while dealing with popular movements of any kind, stuck to its script initially and tried to crush the protests.

As a result, even its decision to airlift the victim to Singapore for treatment triggered widespread conspiracy theories. Many saw the action as a ploy to prevent the anti-government protests from escalating. After her death, the grapevine was that the woman had already died in Delhi, and the whole airlifting exercise was nothing more than damage control.

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Conspiracy theories apart, huge tragedies sometimes have cathartic effects on societies. This particular tragedy, has forced the country to introspect and act in a way few similar ones have done in the past. It has forced the nation to confront the issue of violence against women head on and led to the education of millions of young Indians on the issue of sexual violence.

The mass protests and outrage put pressure on public officials to provide more safety for women in public places. The Center and several state governments have announced a series of measures to reduce violence against women in the past few days, one of them being recruitment of more female officers in police stations in Delhi.

Thousand — perhaps tens of thousands — of rapes remain unreported across the country because of the stigma associated with rape in the society. Many traumatized victims would rather suffer in silence than lodge a complaint with male police officers. Sometime, the life of the victims who bravely chose to report rapes are made more miserable by these officials, who are not sensitized enough about the issue of violence against women.

In that context, the government’s decision to hire more women officers and police personnel in Delhi is a good first step. The Central, state and local government work to increase the size of female law enforcement staff should be increased in every police station and female lawyers in every court across the country.

However, a better and a more educated law-enforcement force is a very effective tool in curbing sexual violence against women, the government alone cannot win this battle.

Ultimately, it is a fight the society as a whole needs to wage. Yes, even in western societies, where women are less dependent on men and have relatively greater voices, rape is rampant.

There is a nationwide clamor for giving death sentences to the six accused, and it is very likely that most of them will get capital punishment. Should they be taken to the gallows after a fast-tracked trial, few will shed tears for the rapists, who sadistically destroyed a life that had so much promise.

But one thing that those that those call for capital punishment don’t realize is that by hanging these six — who as news reports indicate are from lower strata of the society — violence against Indian women is not going to end.

In the long run, more than any punishment, however swift and brutal, meted out to the perpetrators of these heinous crime, what will make the country better is the education received by millions of young Indians in the past few weeks on the issue. Perhaps more young adults have been sensitized to women’s rights and safety issues since December 16th than ever before.

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Finally, the Delhi rape incident can also be read as cautionary tale about the impact globalization is having on the Indian society in general.

In her 2011 novel, Miss New India, the renowned Indian American novelist Bharati Mukherjee, writes about how globalization had a positive effect on the status of women in the country. With young women becoming bread earners, the society can no longer keep them chained to their traditional roles. The violence against women portrayed in the book stems directly from this tension that arises as a result of globalization.

Co-incidentally portraits of rapists that emerge from news reports fit the profile of the perpetrators of violence in Mukherjee’s novel.

Speaking about the “psychological, emotional, personal consequences of globalization,” Mukherjee said in an interview: “Homes have been [sold], farm lands have been annexed in order for more and more [corporate] campuses to be built. … [The] feminists in the call center outsourcing jobs are harassed sometimes by young men who feel that they don’t have any jobs — their fathers’ jobs — to inherit, farming, or whatever. At the same time, they don’t have the social skills, or the English fluency to take the jobs that the young women like Anjali [the main character in the novel] have.”

(Frank Islam is the co-author of the book Renewing the American Dream: A Citizens Guide. He is also a member of the advisory committee of the US Export-Import Bank and the Department of Commerce Industry Trade Advisory Committee. His website is ffislam.com)


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