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Inured to rape

May 06, 2013

RAPE stalks the land. India rages against it. Delhi, that genteel city of Ghalib, has now been transformed into the rape capital of the world. As the Hindu points out, once fury abates ennui sets in, as was the case with dowry deaths a few decades ago, or with corruption recently. Can rape be combated while the opportunity is still there?

Faced with arguably as high levels of rape as in India (factoring in under-reporting), Western women protect themselves through martial arts, pepper spray and other deterrents. Self-defence has mostly eluded Indian women so far. Schools and colleges need to offer training, and parents encouragement.

If women seek inspiration, they need look no further than the Delhi braveheart, or google the ’70s for Delhi’s teenaged Geeta Chopra. They were both attacked ruthlessly, they themselves carried no deterrent, but they fought back tooth and nail.

The buck in India has stopped with a woman for close to a quarter-century. Seven women politicians have become chief ministers. Some have endured physical assault, but how effectively have they stemmed the rot?

They could start, quite literally, by cleaning house — 327 tickets for national and provincial elections over the last five years were given to people who have admitted to crimes against women, including rape. Forty-four were elected.

Why is Delhi so gruesome? The simplistic answer is that it is situated at the heart of the Hindi heartland, which is believed to be naturally more aggressive and patriarchal than the rest of India. But this can only be a partial explanation. There are, after all, so many other cities in the Hindi belt. None invites the same ignominy. To demystify Delhi, one has to examine its history post-independence.

Delhi was for long governed by the central government, which was preoccupied with weightier matters. Delhiites protested against the neglect, and a local government came into being in the 1990s. The centre retained control of the police though, whereas in other states the police reports to the local government.

This arrangement would be farcical, if it was not so tragic. Delhi’s chief minister and its police chief are at loggerheads, shifting blame instead of taking responsibility. One or the other head is likely to roll, depending upon who has stronger benefactors, but Delhi’s suffering will endure.

Delhi’s police knows where its bread is buttered, therefore it spends disproportionate resources and time in securing federal politicians. The politicos realise that Delhi is too small to decide their electoral fate nationally, so they care little about its safety, unless of course it impinges upon their own.

The Delhi police is not bashful about where it stands. On its official web site, protection of people under threat (read VIPs) is at three out of 10 in order of priority, whereas an explicit callout to women’s safety is close to the bottom at seven.

The very raison d’être of Delhi’s police must then be called into question. Transferring control to the local government should help, for then Delhi’s population would count for something at last. But federal politicians derive so much pleasure, as well as prestige, from having the police around, letting go would be traumatic. In any case, state leaders suffer from the same hubris, so the police would continue to serve as handmaidens.

As recently as the ’80s, men’s attitude towards women working outside the home was pretty schizophrenic. Some behaved paternalistically, wanting to protect someone they thought needed the money. Others believed that since she was in the market, she must be fair game.

Indian women have come a long way since then, becoming much more assertive, no longer content to always play second fiddle. Some men have adjusted to the new reality, others struggle to not perceive the rising feminine tide as anything but a threat. The inanely named eve-teasing was once crude. It has now become deadly.

Delhi, in the meantime, has exploded. Migrants throng to it, leaving behind a rustic way of life that restrained them by rough-and-ready ways. Many are single, and feel even more so, when confronted with sexes intermingling freely. In a lawless city, some become emboldened to commit crimes beyond the pale.

Rape though is not purely an indigent migrant, bourgeois woman phenomenon. The man of means is quite possibly more culpable. It is just that the system is loaded against the poor man. His case is recorded easily, his conviction is easier. He has no bribes to give, no powerful patron, no lawyer to hire. The haves always have loopholes to exploit.

Reforming the police, sensitising the courts, facilitating reporting are all necessary to tackle rape, and alleviate the associated apathy and antipathy. In the aforementioned Geeta Chopra case, angst and grief gripped the nation as today. As with the braveheart, even then the police had ample opportunity to abort the crime, if not pre-empt it.

A prime minister dripped with regret then, another does so now. The same fault lines were identified, the same solutions proposed. A generation later, India is only worse off. Teenagers were brutalised earlier, now even four-year olds are not spared. If something has changed, it is society’s mores. Alcohol is peddled by cricketers through surrogate adverts that leave little to the imagination. Films depict binge drinking by both sexes, and its aftermath. Whether pornography induces rape is hotly debated. While the explicit causation may be hard to establish, pornography is widely believed to objectify women. Some kind of restraint seems called for, but who will bell India’s glitterati?

The writer is a freelance journalist.