After the Delhi rape, a deluge of authoritarianism

An Indian writer asks: if the protests about that awful gang rape really are progressive, why are they leading to less freedom?

Sadhvi Sharma

Topics World

On 16 December, a young woman in New Delhi was brutally gang-raped on a bus by a group of six men, and then thrown off the vehicle. Critically injured, she died 13 days later in a hospital in Singapore. The incident was horrific, the men’s actions deplorable.

Yet the understandable feelings of shock and outrage in India are speedily turning into something problematic. The Delhi rape has led to an outburst of middle-class angst about modern India and its populace, and has generated widespread demand for more authoritarian social control. Commentators have turned this extreme act of violence into a symbol of nationwide decay, encouraging every Indian to assume guilt. With everything from Bollywood to Indian family values, from economic growth to parenting style, being called into question, the reaction to the rape appears more and more removed from the incident itself.

The 23-year-old physiotherapy student was returning home with a male friend after watching a movie when they were lured on to the bus by the six accused, who were drunk and on a joyride. They were assaulted with iron rods and the woman was abused in a most gruesome fashion. Many Western commentators have used the terrible incident to promote their theories about the warped values of Indian men. But if anything, India-based commentators have gone further. They have exposed their deep sense of self-loathing, questioning the very fabric of Indian society and theorising on Indian males’ inherent aggression.

Many commentators are keen to shift the blame for the crime on to all Indians. ‘All of us have blood on our hands’, said TS Sudhir in FirstPost. Apparently we failed to prevent the Delhi rape. Others have demonised the Indian male as naturally evil, prone to violence: they have used words like ‘predators’ and ‘wolves’. ‘What’s wrong with Indian men?’, asked one headline. ‘Keep your creep radar on at all times’, journalist Priya Ramani wants to tell her little girl; ‘we live in a country of predators who don’t see potential or intelligence when they look at a young girl, just an easy target’. A filmmaker said the Delhi rape encouraged her to talk to her children about some modern realities. ‘Bullying’, she tells her daughter, ‘is to be rude, to insult someone. Some grown-ups are very mean to children. Sometimes parents humiliate their own children.’ Yet another article tells parents to ‘catch them young’: ‘We have to start teaching our boys not to rape from a young age’, it says, as if rape and gross violence were the norm for kids growing up in India.

There is something perverse about the way we’re all encouraged to feel culpable for this crime. The aspiring, emerging nation of India appears simultaneously anxious about its economic and social transformations, and particularly about how those transformations are impacting on a certain class of men, who are apparently ill-equipped to deal with them. ‘Is the sight of a young, smartly-dressed educated female professional generating a sense of displacement in men?’, asks one journalist. The feminist writer Urvashi Butalia thinks an increase in the incidence of rape in India is related to the slowing down of economies in recent years and the fact that the ‘slice of the pie’ is getting smaller. That is, faced with rapid economic and cultural change, the ordinary Indian male becomes an even more brutal creature.

Another commentator thinks our economic growth has come at the cost of social progress and argues that it is time to ditch the obsession with GDP in favour of justice – as if these two things are contradictory. There is hardly any aspect of Indian society that has not been problematised. Women’s groups and so-called liberals have come down heavily on Bollywood and popular culture and their representation of women. Bollywood, through celebrating machismo, apparently played a part in this rape. In the wake of the rape, the Punjabi rapper Honey Singh, who has been criticised for his sexist lyrics, was forced to cancel his New Year’s Eve performance in Gurgaon following an online petition by activists. Once-popular chart-toppers are now being criticised for their alleged misogyny. The campaigners keen to censor certain artists show little faith in ordinary people’s capacity to distinguish between words and actions. As far as they are concerned, Bollywood films and songs automatically create rapists.

Even the protests in the streets have not been entirely progressive, sometimes expressing kneejerk illiberalism. After the rape, thousands protested at New Delhi’s iconic India Gate, leading to violent clashes with the police. There have been other demos, marches and candlelit vigils across India, which have been hailed as a new form of citizen activism. Much of this protesting has expressed an understandable anger with incompetent or corrupt police, the dismal justice system, and an inefficient state bureaucracy – all of which are real problems in India that need to be addressed. But, worryingly, much of the post-rape protesting mainly comes across as an incoherent expression of angst, with some rather reactionary undertones.

This is evident in the demands for the death penalty or chemical castration, and for even more police presence in people’s daily lives. One protester at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar called for the return of our colonial masters, holding a placard that said: ‘Britishers please come back, we don’t have good leaders.’ The protesters’ demands for justice and freedom sound hollow when one considers the usurping of the normal rules of justice in the forthcoming trial of the six accused men. It has been announced that the men will be tried in a ‘fast track’ court, where ‘red tape’ – that is, normal legal rules – can be done away with. The Bar Association at Saket District Court, where the case will be tried, is boycotting the accused, meaning they have no representation.

Some insist that a trial is not even necessary, since we all know the men are guilty. According to one report, some lawyers shouted slogans in court, demanding that the accused ‘be handed over to the public’. Even as the state announced that it would push for the death penalty, two protesters went on hunger strike to demand that the accused be hanged immediately. Fifty activists have shaved their heads in a symbolic protest for the death sentence. ‘By getting my head shaved, I wanted to draw the government’s attention towards our demand of immediate justice for the rape victims’, said one.

There are also calls for more police on the streets and on public transport, for CCTV cameras on buses, for the deployment of plain-clothed policewomen at malls and shopping centres, and for zero tolerance of public drinking. Newspapers have initiated campaigns demanding stricter laws to prevent sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. Next time you hear a sexist joke in the office, don’t laugh, we’re advised; if you do, you are complicit in these kinds of crimes. The end result of the heightened emotional reaction to this terrible crime is that everyday interaction between men and women and between workers will be subjected to greater official scrutiny.

Indians are being told that we live in a violent society inhabited by ‘predators’ on the prowl. We are being told that men cannot be trusted to use judgment and reason, and that women need to be protected not only from violence but also from harsh words, tasteless jokes, bad songs and sexist films. This pathologising of modern India is neither progressive nor constructive; it only speaks of an anxious society heading towards greater suspicion and mistrust.

Sadhvi Sharma is a PhD student at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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Topics World


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