January 6, 2013 6:51 pm

India finally speaks about sexual violence

The tragedy of one woman has resonated deeply, writes Supriya Sharma

Four months ago, a 16-year-old girl was raped by a group of boys in a village 100 miles from Delhi. She survived but her father ended his life, fearing a lifetime of “humiliation”. The family’s tragedy made it to the news not because it was traumatic but because they were Dalits, a low-caste group, while the boys were Jats, a higher caste. The case played to an old script in India, where rape turns newsworthy only when it reflects the country’s larger social schisms.

That script was shredded last month. A 23-year-old woman walked out of an evening at the movies with a male friend in Delhi and straight into the hell of a bus where she was raped repeatedly by a group of men, beaten with iron rods and left to die on the street. The next morning, as the news broke, no one asked which community she or the rapists came from. All that mattered was that a young woman had been brutalised half an hour away from the prime minister’s house. The assault was so bestial her intestines had turned gangrenous. She could not be saved.

While the woman struggled for life in a Delhi hospital, outrage had built up outside, ending with a lockdown in the heart of the nation’s capital. It began with college students marching peacefully on Delhi’s avenues on a cold Saturday morning. They walked up Raisina Hill, the seat of the Indian government, built by the British, and ran into a wall of teargas shells and water cannons reminiscent of colonial clampdowns.

Watching the images on television I felt compelled to rush there, not to cover the protest as a journalist but to join in solidarity. As a schoolgirl, each time I took a bus I used to steel myself against the many invisible hands that crawled out to paw me. Now older, I still walk the streets warily past sundown. Every woman I know – old, young, middle class, affluent, poor – has endured the same harassment or worse.

Little surprise then that many like me found the sight of young women and men standing ground together at Raisina Hill exhilarating.

This was no ordinary protest. It was the coming of age of the post-liberalisation generation, the children of the 1990s who were inventing a new grammar of protest, aided, like elsewhere in the world, by social media. Having sent in the police, the politicians stayed away. Not a single leader found the gumption to engage with the teenagers. Politicians in India are used to addressing big crowds, but as many tweeted “not one they had not paid for”.

And yet, this episode has offered a chance for precisely that: a national conversation on something that so far only one half of Indians spoke about and then didn’t speak about enough. In fact, women do not even constitute a half of India’s population. For every 1,000 men we have just 914 women.

In a country where an unborn girl faces the threat of annihilation, why did the tragedy of one woman resonate so deeply? The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with the multiple empowerments under way in India: of women, of youth, of the middle class. This was visible in the village where a Jat girl, a schoolmate of the victim, shared information on the men from her own community accused of rape, choosing sisterhood over caste.

Until it was cut short, the life of the 23-year-old woman contained the same kernel of promise: she was bright enough to inspire her father to sell his small parcel of land in the village to fund her college education.

Even the most cynical of urban, affluent Indians could not look away. India’s urban middle class is notoriously apathetic. It safeguards its hard-earned prosperity by cocooning itself from the country’s daily cruelties. It can be berated for not caring about sexual violence in the conflict zones of Kashmir
and Chhattisgarh, but, as the recent events show, it has at least begun to care about what happens in its cities.

Would this new restlessness of the middle class go beyond expressions of outrage and pose a deeper, more sustained challenge to the detritus of Indian politics? Would the young find the courage to question misogyny in their own families?

The day the 23-year-old woman passed away, thousands turned up to light a candle in her memory. An old man quietly held up a banner that said: “This is the first time I have felt hopeful in a long time.”

The writer is a correspondent with The Times of India

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