About Me

My photo
If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rape - and the Delhi wake-up call!

At least one good thing seems to have happened this week.

India, a country that is rarely united on anything that doesn’t involve cricket or film (or more recently, corruption), finally found itself rallying around an issue that, in terms of its seriousness, should’ve been top of the country’s agenda a long, long time ago.

But then this is India – and unless “push” comes to “shove” (and this, believe me, is a huge energy-sapping effort!) – things move at their own sweet pace. And that is, if they do at all.

People will argue that, on the economic front, there has been tremendous progress over the last couple of decades. Sure. But then weren’t we perilously close to the precipice in 1991, with our foreign exchange resources barely able to finance three weeks’ requirement? When we instituted reforms in 1991, I don’t think we really had much of a choice. "Push" had clearly come to "shove".

This week, “push” may have finally come to “shove” in another matter – the matter of rape. (And, to be honest, if it still hasn't, I really don't know if it ever will).

In a country where rape is an everyday incident - across the length and breadth of the country – it must be considered particularly unpardonable, and the biggest example of failed governance, that the government of the day (and I don’t care who it is) has done precious little to stem the incidence of this heinous crime in the several decades since independence. Or perhaps, it is partly BECAUSE of this, that rape has indeed become an everyday incident across the length and breadth of the country.

It has taken an incident, right under the government’s nose (so to speak) – a horrific, gruesome incident in its own backyard – to seemingly finally wake the government up from its stupor. And create an uproar in the media and, consequently, around the country. A 23-year old girl, travelling with her male friend in a Delhi bus on Sunday evening, was brutally gangraped in the bus, then further assaulted so brutally that her intestines were completely damaged. She was then thrown out of the bus, as was her male friend, who was himself assaulted with an iron rod. It is an incident for which any word indicating horror sounds woefully inadequate. As at the time of writing, the girl is still fighting for her life in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. Her male friend seems to have been less critically injured.  

I must say that it is with deliberation, and quite deliberately, that I used the word “consequently” in the previous paragraph. For, however much we may want to deny it, the media plays a HUGE role in what we get to know. And even how we react to it. If something is mentioned in passing, it is far less likely to have us invested in it than something constantly drilled into us every few minutes.

So make no mistake.  This incident, gruesome and horrific though it is, would probably not have elicited half as much of an outrage had it happened in rural India. Or in one of India’s less glamorous states like Odisha. The media would have reported it as a news item for the day. And moved on.

But in the pecking order of media importance, Delhi and Mumbai occupy pride of place. So when this most repulsive of horrors was picked up by the media, it was picked up with all the attention it deserves. Every channel, quite rightly, had it as main news. And, expectedly, social media, increasingly a barometer of the news weather in the country, outraged in a manner that reflected the pain, shock and anger of all who came to know of the incident.

And this media and public reaction was exactly what was needed. MPs in Parliament have expressed their outrage about the incident, some in dramatic fashion. People have begun congregating in various towns and cities to highlight the issue of rape, to protest against government inaction on the subject, to voice their views on how the issue should be tackled.

People have been writing articles about rape and how they think it should be tackled – in print media, on their blogs. They have been  hyperactive in social media – whether on Twitter with their tweets, or sharing opinions on Facebook. In general, the issue has everybody’s attention – and very rightfully so.

Rape is one of the most heinous of crimes and, like I’ve said earlier, should have been very high on our priority list for tackling social ills. In fact I would expand the scope of this, and say that addressing Violence Against Women (VAW), in its various flavors, should have been right up there in our priority list. (For the purpose of this piece, I am excluding rape against men, though I don’t deny its existence).

So now it’s taken such a sad and shocking incident to make us react like this. And to seemingly shake our MPs out of their stupor.

I say “seemingly” because while the MPs have expressed their outrage, this isn’t the first time they’ve done so. And yet, on the ground, precious little has happened. Not that VAW is going to disappear with some legislation, but there are several areas where the legislation is either weak, or just missing. And it is MPs who can introduce and pass legislation for the country. So,  while the outrage is all very well, the MPs will need to now most certainly walk the talk as well. Otherwise this will be seen as just another hollow act on their part. Politicians have been known to take expedient action only when their own politican careers are at stake.

Many of the reactions to this incident focus on the “deterrent” side of rape. Discussions range from a life sentence, to the death penalty, to other forms of punishment for the perpetrator. There have been some knee-jerk reactions no doubt, but there have also been some well-thought out opinions expressed.

Some of the items are no-brainers.

For starters, though things have improved on this front in the last few years, even today many rapes are not reported at all. There is still this stigma attached to a rape victim. She runs the risk of being ostracized by society. And sometimes even by her own family.

Then the process! Even if a rape does get reported, it is often extremely difficult to get a conviction. Here again the rape victim is often made to appear as the person in the wrong.  As if SHE is to blame for the rape. You see, SHE shouldn't have been out that late. And surely, SHE shouldn't have worn those tight-fitting jeans? The rapist is often better connected, so it is often the victim who has to undergo additional mental torture to “prove” that she was raped. As if she has not undergone enough already! And mind you, given the time that cases usually take in India’s courts, justice, if it were to come at all, could end up being nothing more than farcical.

And then, even if the rapist DOES get convicted, the penalty? Does it match the enormity of the crime? Many would say no.
And after all this, when the victim, inspite of all the scars she's received - physically and mentally - wants to get on with her life, society does not allow her to. Just because she's been raped, it means her life's over? Why? 

Anyway, considering all this, there’s no wonder that rapes occur all over the country every single day with total impunity. There’s a lot – and I really mean a LOT – that needs to be fixed purely on the operational and legal side of this issue.

Many suggestions have come up in the last few days. To be honest, I got a déjà vu feeling seeing many of them. Fast-track courts for rape cases? Surely this isn’t the first time we’re talking about them?

But I’m still happy that these suggestions are being made now. And THIS TIME will hopefully be more than just idle talk. For if even NOW we don’t DO something, I really don’t know what else needs to happen in this country for us to act. For me – and hopefully I speak for most Indians – “push” has definitely come to “shove” now.

While there is universal outrage about rape, there are different opinions about what constitutes the most effective “deterrent” for rape. Some advocate the death penalty, others a life sentence. Some advocate bobbitization, some chemical castration.

To be honest, I’m not very sure where I stand on this. Clearly, there must be a stronger deterrent than we have today. A much stronger one. But I will leave it to more competent persons to determine what that should be.

The other important thing that I’m hearing a lot – and had that déjà vu feeling about – is police reforms. Surely this is a no-brainer? Where do I start?

In my opinion, by and large, the police in India operate under very stressful conditions. They are under-staffed, they are not well trained, they don’t have modern equipment, they work very long hours, they are under-paid compared to other more cushy professions, they are often rendered impotent in their jobs by political interference. And then we expect them to do a great policing job? To take care of the safety of the citizens of the country?

The answer is yes. We expect them to do this. While we may sympathise with their situation, we still have every right as citizens to expect our police to do their job. The police is an arm of our government. And one of the absolutely primary jobs of a government of a country is to protect its citizens from external and internal threats to their safety.

I cannot think of a bigger governance failure in our country than that of breakdown of law and order, at an individual level. Sure, maybe we don’t have the mass breakdown that we sometimes hear about in our neighbor country, Pakistan, but I wouldn’t pat ourselves too much on the back for this. At an individual level, a citizen rarely has the confidence that the police is there to help him or her. That is the policeman’s job, his raison d’etre. The common perception (and mind you, even if it’s unfair and untrue, it is still a perception) is that the police is there for the powerful, for the mafia, not for the common man or woman.

I’d like to think the police are the way they are (or are perceived to be), not because they WANT to be that way. But because of all the issues they face in their job. If so, for me, police reforms cannot happen sooner in this country. If catching perpetrators of crime is itself such a rare feat, one can forget about the judicial process that follows.

So judicial reforms (including fast-track courts), police reforms (including sensitizing the police force towards rape) – cannot happen sooner!

But for me, while all of this is required, what is really really REALLY required is social reconditioning.

We’ve been talking about the law and the police, but what will be the biggest help – most certainly over a period of time – will be changing the mindset in our society with regard to rape. And women in general.

Again, where do I start? There is SO MUCH wrong in our mindset that there’s a LOT of work to be done on this front.

For starters, we’ve been carrying around this sex-inequality mindset with us for centuries. Not just India but the whole world. Only, some developed countries have a more balanced mindset on this now (well, relatively speaking) whereas we’ve still got a LONG way to go.

In India, women are still seen very much as “the weak sex” and men as the “strong sex”. This fundamentally flawed thinking (derived from physiological differences between the two sexes), is to me at the root of many problems. Not just rape, but most forms of VAW stem from this. For example, domestic violence is often purely a manifestation of physical superiority. When a man is frustrated with life, or does not have an answer to a problem, he hits out at somebody who is physically less likely to hit back at him. And who is that usually? A woman.

Rape also fits in very comfortably into this narrative. Rape, as many have pointed out, is not so much about sex as about a statement of power, a statement of physical superiority. As noted film-maker Shekhar Kapur said on a talk show last week, armies in the past would march into conquered lands and not just pillage their wealth but also rape their women. That was their way of saying “we’ve won, we’re stronger than you”.

Even today this is one way that men choose to “teach women a lesson”.

As India is in the process of modernizing itself, as the country is on its way to economic development, more and more women in the country are beginning to do fairly well for themselves. They are getting more educated, they are getting jobs that were going to men in the past. Men used to be fairly secure about their position in society. Not anymore.

So what do the men do? Do they try to become more competitive? Some do. But some others just take an “easier” route. They take out their frustration on the "cause of their problem" using the one attribute they are still confident about – their physical superiority. They just attack – or rape - the woman. Or any woman, because their hatred is now not towards just that one woman, but towards women at large.

Then, we have the moral police. The men who think they are protecting their “culture”. They have an image of “how a woman should be” somewhere in their heads. How she should dress, what she should do, and not do. They then go about enforcing THEIR image in society at large. Welcome, the Rama Sena. Welcome, the khap panchayats in Haryana. Welcome, many more unorganized groups (even individuals) who think the woman is “wrong” so she should be “taught a lesson”.

Then there are the “macho” guys. Yes, they believe that proof of their being “macho” is how many women they have “scored with”. For them, rape is just fun. A points game. They would pick up any woman and rape her – just to brag to their friends about it.

Then there are the perverts. These are the ones who rape the very girls who trust them. A large number of rapes happen by men known – and trusted – by the victim. Many of the victims in these cases are minors.

Even as I’m writing this, my heart is breaking. I am sure there are more categories. I’ve only discussed four so far – the frustrated man who takes out his frustration with life on a woman, the moral policeman who thinks “errant women need to be taught a lesson”, the “macho” man who thinks women exist for his enjoyment alone, the pervert who abuses that most valuable of human traits – trust.

So where do we start fixing these?

To me, there’s one – and only one place – that we can start fixing this.

And that’s in childhood.

No male child starts life as a potential rapist. He is just a child who can become anything.

His environment and his upbringing determine his value system. They determine how he interacts with other people. Very importantly, they determine how he sees women.

If all around him, he sees women objectified, there’s a fair chance he will do the same. You can then safely expect him to pass lewd remarks at women at bus stops, grab them at every opportunity – and quite possibly rape them to show off to his friends.

If all around him, he sees men acting holier-than-thou, talking down women, and dictating to them how they should or should not behave, there’s a good chance he will become part of a moral police brigade later in life. After all, "men know best what’s good for society – and therefore what women’s role is and how they should fulfil it."

I think my point is clear. If we don’t want rapists in society, we need to start by working on a young boy’s formative years, on his impressionable years. This is the best time to instill in him a sense of respect for all. Especially women. 

Teach him that men and women are father-mother, brother-sister, friends, partners. Most importantly, that they are equal. And if he's been endowed with greater physical strength, it is for being put to good use. And for protecting and helping women. For his mother is a woman too - and is the reason for his existence.

I don't think it is very difficult to get this message across. At that age, it shouldn't be.

But EVERYBODY has to work on this. Family, schools, society, media, government, everybody. The ENTIRE environment needs to encourage this value system, otherwise there is a chance of him falling through.

I know this sounds idealistic. Maybe it is, too. But I strongly believe in preventive, rather than corrective, measures. 

Looking at myself, I feel I am a product of a good environment - and that has shaped much of my thinking. I guess I’m lucky. There are millions of other guys like me out there – I think we turned out alright. With an ok value system, at least with regard to women. 

So don’t tell me it cannot be done. 

But it needs ALL of us to be part of this process. We need to build our society together. We need to build tomorrow's world together. Otherwise the lament of Sahir Ludhianvi "aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, mardon ne usey bazaar diya", written all of 54 years ago and relevant even today, will be relevant a hundred years from today too.

No excuses, none of that "men are made like this only", "it's about testosterone, you know" nonsense. There is NOTHING to be proud about - and NOTHING that can justify - violating another's life.

So while we work on all the “deterrents”, while we work on judicial reforms, while we work on police reforms, can we please also put our efforts into changing the male mindset? It is a problem created by MEN, after all, so they need to be a big part of the solution.

Because, to me, THIS is the only long-term sustainable form of society that we should be working towards.

Where men and women live and work together. 

Without being threatened by the other’s presence. 

And actually learning that being together in society, as different sexes, is a lot of fun.