To many people abroad, these events have come as a revelation that charming, culturally fascinating, apparently friendly and even saintly, though often chaotic, India could instead be a cruel, male-dominated, often selfish and heavily corrupt dishonest society, where the strong bully, assault and exploit the weak - a country that is struggling with the tensions and clashes of rapid economic and social change, but where governments find it hard to keep up and rarely achieve major reforms, and where people habitually tolerate their lot, hoping maybe for a better life next time.
The good news is that largely peaceful country-wide demonstrations over the past two weeks have frightened the government into action because the appalling rape - in a curtained bus driven round Delhi courtesy of a corrupt police force and inefficient state government – released anger and frustration not just over assaults on women but also against the police, politicians and an ineffective legal system.
The government’s fright was evident when the police turned water cannon and tear gas on demonstrators in central Delhi just before Christmas. That cleared away violent rabble-rousers but the demand for justice and change continued peacefully across the country, and turned into mourning and candlelight vigils and protests when the 23-year old died of multiple organ failure on December 29 in Singapore, where she had been flown by a government that was apparently scared of the public backlash if Delhi’s doctors failed to save her.
The rape on December 16, and other cases involving strangers, are dominating the headlines, but Police records show that victims’ relatives and neighbours are often themselves the rapists, or connive in the crime. Out of 662 cases reported in Delhi during 2012, 189 involved friends or relatives, while 202 were neighbours. Among the victims, 286 were aged 12 to 18. Incest is widespread – “an uncle rapes a young girl but her father, the man’s brother, lets it happen,” says a friend. The police rarely help.
A friend wrote yesterday on Facebook about how he and a woman lawyer living in west Delhi took an eight-year old girl to the police with her semi-literate frightened dhobi (laundryman) father, who lived nearby The father kept repeating "Iski beti kay saath kuch ladkay nein bura kiya" (some boys have done something bad to my daughter). The police at first were sympathetic, but after a day or two said: "When both her parents are at work, she crosses two roads and the train tracks to move around with boys of another locality. She is a very bad character, and if any boy does anything to her, she totally deserves it". The girl was only eight!
India is a patriarchal society where women are now becoming economically equal with men, showing new independence in their careers and more liberated private lives, especially in urban areas. The social changes and tensions have turned what has for decades been known as eve teasing – men touching women provocatively in locations such as crowded buses – into something more aggressive. In addition, Bollywood films increasingly show women film stars virtually offering themselves on the screen, provocatively glorifying the prospect of instant sex rather than relationships.
In traditional male-dominated rural societies, and in recently urbanised areas of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh close to Delhi, local village community councils called khap panchyats rarely side with rape victims. Women are blamed for being provocative, or the intercourse is dubbed consensual – a line often taken by the police across India. Women can also be subjected to a humiliating “fingers test”, which defence lawyers use to deny rape citing frequent and consensual sexual activity.
When a spate of rapes happened in Haryana, a khap panchayat said the solution was for the young to get married, without any minimum age limit, so that their "sexual desires find safe outlets”. Often young girls who belong to the Dalit (“untouchable” in the caste system) are raped in a form of lower caste oppression - prompting a local Congress politician to allege the rape reports were a “political conspiracy” by the state’s dalit-based party.
Rape of course is prevalent across the world. In Britain, according to a government action plan on violence against women and girls, 80,000 women are raped a year. That puts India’s 24,000 reported rape cases in 2011 in some sort of perspective, though the basis for statistics varies in different countries and India’s real total is almost certainly enormously higher because the fear of police and social harassment and indifference means many incidents go unreported. The real worry in India is that it reflects long standing social patriarchal attitudes and caste hierarchies that not only persist but have been exacerbated by social and economic changes.
There is therefore a huge need for a change of attitudes across society starting, with how families regard and protect their women and how old traditional societies can be weaned away from male domination. That will take a long time.
Meanwhile there is an urgent need to speed up the lengthy judicial system - fast track courts have just been set up for rape cases. The under-trained and under-supported police force needs reforming with a focus on caring for the public instead of pleasing local politicians and VIPs. The government has a task force looking at the safety of women and the police, and two business federations, FICCI and the CII, are looking at how treatment of women at work can be improved. Penalties for rape being considered by the government include execution and chemical castration – five men accused of the 23-year old’s rape have been charged today with murder, rape and kidnapping, and charges against a sixth younger accused will follow.
Life in India will never be quite the same again because the young and newly aspirational middle class have discovered the power of mass street protests. Corruption has not stopped and new rapes are being reported daily, but the power of protest has been established, not by orqanised campaigners but by ordinary people of varied classes who want India to change, and will demonstrate again until it happens.
As someone said in one of the seemingly non-stop television discussion programmes of the past two weeks, “the days when gradualism was acceptable are over” or, to put it another way, the old attitudes of jugaad (quick fix) and chalta hai (don’t worry, it will work ok) can no longer be relied on by the government to avoid social protest and unrest.
For a longer version of this article go to John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog at http://wp.me/pieST-1Sa