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Nature of the beast

January 03, 2013

 I HAD a fight with my daughters, or was it the other way round? They both wanted to drag me kicking and screaming to a late-night march from somewhere to somewhere in Delhi to assert the right of women to walk freely in the city that is otherwise known as the rape capital of India.

They said it was important to be part of a movement that seeks to make women more secure in Delhi. I said I didn’t dispute the need to make every city and, equally importantly, all the villages unequivocally safe for women, more so after the recent rape and murder of a young woman by six beasts.

The gender-rights lawyer-activist stressed it was my duty as a citizen to join the debate and to stop being the sceptic she claims I am. The history student on the other hand ignored my experience of failed movements from at least 1977 onwards. She accused me of being inattentive to a different perspective. I don’t believe they heard me out either, and this is what I had wanted to tell them.

What happened in response to the assault on the young woman was initially a spontaneous outpouring of outrage and anger. The urban fury soon became a TV spectacle. That brought in more of the middle classes on the streets.

They vented their spleen at the government’s numb response to the outrage. Political parties from the left to the right joined in. It soon began to look like an urban microcosm of the JP Movement of the mid-1970s, minus, of course, anyone who remotely had the appeal of Jai Prakash Narayan to lead it.

I tried to tell my daughters who were not born then about the inbuilt flaws of the JP Movement, which rose as a tidal wave against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial rule but petered out soon after dethroning her briefly. It eventually led to a rightwing consolidation over India, not left or liberal, certainly not secular. Yes, it was an earnest battle for democracy, one in which everyone saw an equal stake.

An influential cluster of communists saw it as a conduit to an equitable order. The obscurantist twins, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, joined hands as they often do over a range of disparate issues.

Her alliance with the godless Soviet Union abroad, her attempts to wrest India’s financial institutions from the clutches of a usurious private sector at home, her campaign to forcibly sterilise men, her suspicion of and aloofness from Washington — these were some of the features of Mrs Gandhi’s early rule that brought together diverse and contradictory groups against her.

India’s private TV studios have evolved as unthinking clones of their American mentors. They fanned the rape agitation with far-fetched imageries of the Tahrir Square in Cairo quite unaware that Delhi’s Ram Lila Grounds preceded it by decades where a stinging coup de grâce was delivered against Mrs Gandhi’s undemocratic yearnings.

In fact, the likeness is worrying. After New Delhi in 1977, when the neo-fascist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh got the grip on the levers of power in India for the first time, we saw secular dictators getting replaced by theocratic autocracies — in Tehran, Tunis, Tripoli and Cairo among other venues.

What does all this have to do with the anti-rape agitations in Delhi, my exasperated daughters might have wanted to ask. And I would have striven to indicate a possible link. Rape in India derives from a private-public partnership between the state and society. The state’s agencies are let loose on restive regions or groups of people as a tool of social control in which abusing women is both a permissible tactic and a perk.

The Intelligence Bureau cop who came to arrest him told Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani how it was their duty to rape criminals on behalf of the state. The publishers of Gilani’s book deleted the descriptive sentence.

In the private sphere, the intrinsically violent and regressive caste system assures the votes just as it shores up political stability too. The stability as well as the votes would disappear if someone tinkered with say the Taliban-like khap panchayats, the breeding ground for caste-propelled gender bias.

Similarly, try to dismantle the upper-caste Ranveer Sena militia in Bihar that stalls through rape and massacre the Dalit yearning for change, the chances are the state would collapse.

Structural violence pays. That’s the nature of the beast. The mobs that lynched thousands of Sikhs in 1984 gave Rajiv Gandhi an unprecedented landslide majority in parliament. My hunch is that the Delhi rapists would have easily found a place in the mob.

In fact, they did in Gujarat. The same story was repeated there when Narendra Modi presided over an orgy of rape and murder across the state. The mob went on to elect him not once but thrice since the fateful days of February/ March 2002.

Many of Delhi’s agitators wanted Mr Modi to take charge of India. The Congress tried to do its own damage control. I tried to persuade my daughters to look beyond the Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party binary as promoted by TV channels and most urban protesters.

Both parties have harboured alleged rapists and killers in the past not as a policy but by electoral necessity. We can’t stop rape without de-legitimising social violence that runs India’s democracy. We can’t stop rape if it is accepted as collateral damage for protecting the country against terrorism and secession.

My daughters said all this was very well but I didn’t have a clue about what it feels to be a woman in Delhi. We decided to talk again after the next general elections, clues to which I have been looking at in the anti-rape protests.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.