Rape case shines a light on India's deep sickness

Kevin Rafferty decries the daily indignities suffered by society's have-nots

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 2:15am

The rape of a young Indian medical student who subsequently died from her injuries unleashed heartfelt angry street demonstrations, especially from women who have suffered sexual abuse, along with much hand-wringing and crocodile tears from the authorities wishing the fuss would go away.

Her death should be a seminal moment in the modern history of India. India suffers from deep sicknesses, including pervasive corruption, the incompetence of the government, the cancer-ridden process of governance - as well as a widespread attitude that women are an inferior species.

The 23-year-old woman's death should be the spark to start mending the problems. Unfortunately, there is no sign that leading politicians understand or have the guts to tackle the issues demeaning India's great civilisation.

This was not an isolated incident. The Indian lexicon has a special phrase to describe how urban men habitually behave towards women - eve-teasing.

This may suggest playful kindergarten pranks, but eve-teasing is nothing like that. It is a contact sport where the object is sexual pleasure, and who cares if the woman is humiliated.

Other big international cities have sexual predators. In India, and especially in Delhi, they are more overt and violent. One of my Bombay (as it then was) reporters told me: "I absolutely will not go to Delhi. It is not a safe place for women. Men have no shame. It is not teasing, but violence. On public buses, they will grab a breast or bottom, snatch a necklace … Other passengers turn the other way. The police think you are mad if you report sexual violence."

The explosive growth of cities and the influx of millions of migrants have led to ambition and frustration, and a breakdown of social mores.

Some commentators claim rural India is different and that men who commit sexual crimes will be isolated, if not harshly punished. But in rural India, women are inferior. The birth of a daughter is an act of shame, and female feticide and infanticide is practised.

Even after the medical student died from her horrific injuries, some leading Indians made excuses. A popular guru claimed that the woman was equally responsible for the attack. A West Bengal lawmaker, Abhijit Mukherjee, whose father is India's president, criticised demonstrators as "dented and painted [who] have no contact with ground reality".

It is Mukherjee and other establishment figures who have little contact with the hard reality for the billion ordinary Indians. The abiding tragedy of India is that it is split between the haves, who enjoy a rich life, and the have-nots who face a multitude of deprivations.

The haves include distinguished women. After Indira Gandhi, regarded as a mother goddess by ordinary Indians, the Congress party is now led by her daughter-in-law Sonia. The chief minister of Delhi is a woman. ICICI, India's second-largest bank, is headed by Chanda Kochhar. Among the haves, women are almost equal.

The rape and killing of the student exposed too many of India's savageries. She got on an unlicensed bus, which went through police check-posts unstopped. When she was thrown off, naked and beaten, it took too long for anyone to come to her aid. Police did not take her rape seriously.

When demonstrators poured onto the streets, the police and authorities were more concerned to stop the protests than to remedy their grievance. The whole political establishment was too slow to understand the tragedy, let alone the political ramifications.

Atrocities happen even in the best ordered societies. But politicians bear responsibility for a society that encourages abuse of women. Any politician with sense would be launching a crusade to curb these indignities to women, which also damage India. It would involve calling police to account, curbing corruption in the process, and treating rape and eve-teasing as criminal offences; revising and speeding up the court system, not just for sexual offences; and, above all, revamping education to emphasise the dignity of girls and improve basic standards for all children. It would give the young, and India, a chance of narrowing the chasm between the haves and have-nots.

Kevin Rafferty has reported on India for more than 40 years and was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group