Our literati and glitterati are back from the literary festival in Jaipur – the famously beautiful, pink city of India – that is the Davos of the book world. It was just wonderful, they say; the talent, sessions, people, gorgeousness, the jamboree not to miss. The festival is, for them, an annual pilgrimage, a visit or revisit to a country that is economically and culturally vibrant, creative, brainy, cricket-mad and glam, too, what with Bollywood, billionaires and a thriving fashion sector.
But while they were texting and tweeting, debating and listening, praising and scouting for talent in Jaipur, a 20-year-old from a village in West Bengal, just a hundred miles from Kolkata, was apparently gang-raped on the orders of the unelected, all-male council of elders, the khap panchayat. Just a year ago, an educated, modern young woman in Delhi died after being gang-raped. Recently, a 51-year-old tourist was also raped by a group in Delhi. These cases are flaring torches – unheeded warnings of the widespread oppression of females in India from cradle to grave. Yet our literary trippers, tourists, politicians and entrepreneurs remain blissfully disengaged from the country’s murderously misogynistic society.
Muslim nations and peoples are constantly (and rightly) scrutinised and damned for their attitudes and behaviours towards females. But “shining India”, as it likes to see itself, is exempt, protected from Western concern and censure. It is perhaps not in our interests to make a big fuss.
So let’s upset the happy consensus here, let’s break the silence of expediency, remove the sunglasses and look at unbearable truths. A reputable study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found India was the fourth most dangerous place in the world for females, after only Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan. Somalia had a slightly better record than India. Think about that.
Seventy per cent of Indians live in privation. In Time magazine this week, US academic Suketu Mehta, born in India, writes that India “is a sorry mess, with the largest number of sick and illiterate people in the world”. International research repeatedly shows that the worst off are females, 614 million of them. They get little education, food and healthcare. I myself saw discrimination made flesh in two 10-year-old twins from a Mumbai slum. The girl, who carried bags for shoppers, was half the size of the boy. When I bought some food to share with them, the mother stopped her daughter from eating and fed her son with her own hands. Forty per cent of prostitutes are children, trafficked or kidnapped girls. This is slavery by procreation. No need to buy, just make, use, break and destroy.
According to commendable Indian women’s rights organisations, dowry deaths are rife: one woman is killed every hour by in-laws and spouses. Countless wives, daughters and sisters are doused in petrol and burnt alive, a modern form of suttee. Acid attacks are also common, and experts estimate a female is raped every 20 minutes. According to police figures, 706 rapes took place in Delhi last year. Reported violations cannot give any indication of actual incidents in a country where rape is considered the fault of the victim and her undying shame. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asian director of Human Rights Watch, says: “Domestic violence is rampant and various forms of sexual assault remain an untold story of horror that is endured.” Add to this female infanticide, gender-selective abortions and the terrible cruelty meted out to widows, who have their heads shaved, wear white and live like ghosts – alive but dead.
Some of this ritualistic abuse is sanctioned by Hinduism. The religion teaches much that is good and noble and also, like all faiths, is guilty of crimes against humanity – particularly one miserable half of it. All we hear about is peaceful yoga and happy celebrations of light, colour and hope; not the forced marriages, caste-based violence, racial and religious hatreds.
The West Bengal rape victim had fallen in love with a Muslim and so was “legally” gang-raped. I have a group photograph of young females in Bhopal taken during Akshaya Tritiya, the most auspicious day for nuptials in the Hindu calendar. In plastic tiaras and cheap wedding gear, they all look as if they want to die or kill. Millions of these forced mass marriages will happen again in May this year.
After the coming general election, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi may become prime minister of India. He governed the state of Gujarat in 2002, when thousands of Muslim men were massacred and Muslim women raped. Banned from the US, he is denounced as a crypto-fascist by democrats and activists. What matters to him is business, money, power and Hindu supremacy. The weak will carry on being violated and exploited, their cries unheard.
Cameron et al will say nothing; our media will focus on India’s economic growth; literary festivals will glitter and Bollywood will sing and dance. Shining India has blinded them all.
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