India must look back to its traditions to stand up to the scourge of rape

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray says India must draw on its past and unite across class lines to stand up to the scourge of rape and other acts of violence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 3:58am

Contrary to popular opinion, the rape and resulting death of an Indian student is not due to the dead hand of tradition, but, rather, its neglect. Ironically, the explosive outrage - justifiably - manifested by India's English-speaking bourgeoisie is symptomatic of the malaise.

Though heinous, the crime has yet to sensitise India's middle class to a chilling fact: not only is rape commonplace (Delhi alone has seen a 17 per cent rise since 2011, despite most remaining unreported) but normally is of scant concern to opinion-makers. The middle classes normally ignore sex crimes because the victims are rarely from their ranks, though the perpetrators often are.

Indisputably, rape is now news. However, the real story is how it came to be so. That betrays the narrow parochialism that pervades Indian thinking. The raped student's medical college colleagues were empowered enough to protest and that attracted India's media, which, though vociferous, is staffed by the middle classes and rarely concerns itself with what does not affect its own interests.

This insularity explains why comparisons of the mass protests all over India with the Tunisian fruit seller's self-immolation that sparked the Arab spring are delusive.

The sudden media frenzy will not prompt revolutionary change, for the clamour will undoubtedly be replaced within weeks, if not days, by the next big story. Nor does the hysteria of protesters who are demanding "chemical castration", and death by stoning of rapists, help. Their fervour threatens to overturn a history of extremely judicious use of the death penalty.

In the absence of any solidarity with the rural majority, a vast swathe of Indian society has been left to its own devices while being simultaneously squeezed by the beneficiaries of industrialisation. Lacking education and plagued by poverty and hopelessness, violence has become endemic. Although women occupy an exalted position in Hindu lore, contemporary life makes them the most readily available targets of male machismo.

The devaluation of women and denial to them of their traditional status and privileges cannot be generalised across a population of over a billion, but in my native Bengal the highest deity is Durga, the mother goddess. Similarly, in the great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the evil of assaulting women and how to manage it are central stories. The abandonment of these traditions of respect and proper conduct has been exacerbated by middle-class disdain of a past that reminds them of the cultural bonds that unite them with the poor.

Correcting the malaise requires nurturing solidarity across class lines. Only that will make the state responsive and deliver justice not just to rape victims, but everyone, no matter their station or the nature of their suffering. Simultaneously, men have to be re-educated to respect women.

The easiest way to achieve both is to draw upon extant traditions, for they provide a readily available framework encompassing rich and poor. It is therefore not regressive, but practical, to look back, at the dawn of the new year, for India's future is contingent on reconnecting with its past.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a strategic business consultant.