Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
Here has been a clamour of voices in newspapers, electronic media, blogs, Facebook and Twitter over the unconscionable gang rape and brutal beating of a 23-year-old girl in a moving Delhi bus-the fact that the girl was accompanied by a male friend and the hour was only 9.30 pm made no difference. The girl is now battling for her life in Safdarjung Hospital. Her intestines had to be removed because gangrene had set in. If she recovers, she will never be able to eat a proper meal. Citizens have gathered in India Gate and Raisina Hill and Jantar Mantar to demand accountability from those in power and safety for Delhi's women. Peaceful protests have been held, placards displayed, street plays performed. The response of the government and the police was to latthi charge, teargas and water cannon these peaceful protesters. Yes, certain anti-social elements have hurled stones at the police and damaged police vehicles yesterday but there have also been many innocent protestors, young students, housewives, old women and men, who have been injured in the fray.
I tried to walk to India Gate this morning and was stopped by scores of policemen on Copernicus Marg, barricading the area, dressed in battle gear from head to foot, saying that Article 144 had been enforced and so all approach to India Gate was denied. I spoke to one of the policemen on duty, a young fellow who could not have been over 20 years old. When I asked him for his reaction to the events he looked completely flummoxed and stammered a few disconnected syllables. These young policemen just follow orders. Besides having long working hours, there is nothing in their training or orientation to teach them to behave with respect and sensitivity towards ordinary citizens. In a city where the ratio of policemen to politicians and policemen to citizens is so skewed, one policeman for 761 citizens and 3 policemen for every VIP, that these men do not think that they have any duties towards ordinary citizens. That is why the complaint made by the man who was looted on that self-same bus on the same day the horrific gang rape took place did nothing. If action had been taken-and it surely would have been if the caller was a politician-the tragic incident might have been averted. As I walked back, I passed many a young girl, bag in hand, busily walking towards their destination. Any of them could have been a victim that night. Is it a crime to be born a girl in this city?
The government has reacted with its usual arrogance and insensitivity. The PMO's office has been silent, that silence was broken only yesterday, seven days after the event. And the first statement was an expression of sadness at the events leading up to police action. This slip is revealing-taken literally, the statement means that the PM was saddened by the peaceful protests and not by the rape or the injuring of protestors by the police! He also said that violence serves no purpose-exactly! What purpose did the police lathi charge serve? Both the PM and the Home Minister have spoken about the fact that they have three daughters. Is this supposed to absolve them from taking immediate action? Male MPs have deafened us by their silence. One of them has said that it is more appropriate that women MPs speak on the matter. Is this squeamishness, indifference, passing the buck, sexism, or all of the above? Violence to women is not a women's issue, as we have been saying all along.
Citizens are saying that they have had enough, that they will not let the government get away with doing nothing, that the police have to be sensitised and proactive, cases fast tracked, the guilty punished. This is the only heartening aspect of the entire horrific episode. Some protestors have been calling for the molesters to be hanged. I don't think that is a solution. An eye for an eye is not going to stop the menace of violence against women. And people who say that such a penalty would probably make every rapist kill his victim are probably right.
So what is the solution? Is there any, or are we fated to see the same thing happen again and again? The statistics are numbing: Delhi sees over 400 rapes a year, more than one rape a day. The conviction rate is abysmal: 26.4 per cent. For the police, the answer lies in redeployment where they are needed rather than to cosset politicians and their families. Orientation programmes must include a gender-sensitization component. A number of NGOs dealing with women's issues can help in this process.
Facilities like helplines and PCR vans are in place, but they have to work. Police stations have to be made places where women will feel comfortable enough to lodge a complaint about sexual or any other kind of violence. And the same goes for the courts. The atmosphere in court is so dismal that you feel like a petty criminal even if you are there for a traffic violation. Imagine the horror of a rape victim having to testify in such an atmosphere.
Public transport has to be made safe with the help of CCTV and the bold advertising of police helpline numbers. The measures taken must be lasting-not like the present where you have five police check posts on a two-km stretch of the Ring Road a week after the rape, and no check posts at all on the same stretch a month later; a speedy trial for the six accused in this case but no justice for past or future victims for decades.
People must become familiar with the laws of the land. How many young women have been subjected to date rape and have not known they could report it? How many young girls have been sexually molested within the home and were told to keep quiet about it? How many working women have been sexually harassed at the workplace and took it as an integral part of their job environment? How many women are stigmatised because their sexual preference is other than heterosexual but live with it? And it's not just women. Men, too, are confused and vulnerable. Changing times have riddled men with anxiety about their social, familial and gender roles. Many of them feel displaced and do not know how to interact with the new, confident, educated, economically independent young woman of, not just the metros, but also small towns, and react with mindless violence.
The attitude, so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, that some people are more equal than others, has to be recognised and wiped out.
Empathy, no matter how fast our lives or crammed our agendas, can never be in short supply. Yes, it is true the protest has been haphazard, but it has happened. People do want a change. And somewhere, deep within our frustrated minds and horrified hearts, lies the knowledge that the change has to begin with ourselves. We can externalise it for now and demand better police, better lawyers and better politicians. But only after we all start practising what we preach can Delhi change.