Here in New Delhi, the guesses have already started. A week? A fortnight? A month? The guesses are about how long it will take for the petering out of the Indian middle class’s fury over the death of the young woman who died after being gang raped and tortured in a moving bus in the Indian capital on Dec. 16.
The apparent cynicism behind such guesses may not be appealing – even the cynics are hoping they are wrong, such has been the impact of the rapists’ monstrous inhumanity – but it is justified.
There is no doubting that the woman’s suffering has revolted Indians. There is no doubting the anguish of the demonstrators who have come out to tell the political class that they want a new kind of government, one that that is responsive and efficient. Nor is there any doubt that the heartfelt desire for change is real.
But the experience of the past few years shows that middle class anger can collapse just as quickly as it erupts. After the 2006 train blasts in Mumbai in which 200 commuters died in a series of seven explosions over 11 minutes, the city’s middle class raged for days, flaying politicians for failing to provide security on public transport, for being pathetically unprepared, and for having intelligence services that were a joke.
Many candles were burnt, but after a few days the revulsion faded. The politicians went back to business as usual. No lasting change was pushed through.
Two years later, the city and television viewers around the world watched in horror for three days as terrorists in 12 co-ordinated attacks took over the Taj Mahal hotel and other places in the city, killing 164 people. Again Mumbai’s middle class poured out onto the streets with candles. They swore that things had to change, that corrupt politicians had to start providing better government instead of just enriching themselves – and they pledged that any candidate in elections who did not have a clean record would be rejected.
But just a year later, when Mumbai voted in state elections, the turnout in south Mumbai – where the elite and middle class live – was just 42 per cent, as opposed to the 90 per cent turnout in poor areas of the city.
Very few of the protesters stood for election as they had suggested they would. Where they did stand, they lost their deposits. Voters basically re-elected the same old rascals.
Since 2008, India has been mired in one corruption scandal after another, including the infamous Commonwealth Games. For a while last year, the new anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare seemed to herald a new beginning. But after the initial surge of middle class enthusiasm, that too fizzled out.
This time too, the political class is banking on this short attention. While the middle class screams for chemical castration or the death penalty, politicians are crouching, waiting for the storm to pass. The cry for extreme punishments is an easy demand to make but it’s no solution.
Rape in India is the culminating act of a chain of violence against women which begins in the womb – female foeticide, a subservient status for girls in families, poorer nourishment than their brothers, less education, less medical treatment, early marriage followed by domestic violence, and sexual harassment in public places at all times.
How will all these evils be tackled? On this, the middle class is less vocal. After all, when women are groped or ogled on buses, how many male passengers come to their rescue and confront the culprit? How many of the male demonstrators out on the streets since Dec. 16 would speak up in such cases? About 10 days before the Delhi rape, a young man in Mumbai was stabbed to death when he tried to stop men harassing a girl on the street. No one joined his protest.
How many of the demonstrators have spoken up in their own families against female foeticide, which everyone knows is practised just as much in south Delhi, home of the elite, as it is in villages? And how many of the demonstrators feel the same outrage when a low caste woman is gang raped and left for dead? These rapes get no more than a ‘news in brief’ item in the papers.
The lessons that need to be learnt from this tragedy demand a far greater effort than passing a few new laws. They require examining aspects of Indian culture – religious texts, mythology, popular culture – to see what breeds misogyny.
For another, the middle class needs to stop averting its eyes from the horrific squalor in the urban slums that surround its homes. If anything can dehumanize anyone, it is the ‘rooms’ in which the rapists lived, rooms unfit for a rat.
Although it’s not possible to prove any causal link between their savagery and their sewer like living conditions – and it must be said that most poor Indians in slums miraculously manage to conduct themselves with dignity and decency – when people are forced to live like cockroaches, their fear of the law and compassion for others are going to be damaged.
Politically, a test of the middle class’s ability to sustain its anger is coming up soon. Voters go to the polls for the Delhi state assembly elections in November. If they reject all candidates with dubious backgrounds or criminal charges pending against them, then it’s possible that this incident will become one of those that can change a nation’s destiny. If voters elect the same old unsavoury characters, it’s plus ça change.
Amrit Dhillon is a journalist based in New Delhi