December 2013: The case that horrified the nation continues to play a pivotal role in the discourse around gender dynamics today.
I was in Australia when my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter stream began getting inundated by news of a gruesome gang rape in Delhi. And that’s how I first heard of her in mid-December last year, 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, brutalised by six men in a bus moving through South Delhi in the evening while her fiancé was restrained, dumped on the road with her entrails hanging out for all the world to see. We have developed such a thick skin about crimes against women that nothing really shakes us out of our apathy anymore… But something big had happened; something big was happening. As she lay fighting for her life in the hospital and after she died in Singapore, India was afire with anti-misogyny/rape rhetoric and protests, our society and governance under intense public and worldwide media scrutiny.
Social media has reduced us to being armchair activists with ADHD and goldfish memories. That this incident is what comes to mind when you talk about or search for ‘Delhi gang rape’, in a city where gang rape is nothing out of the ordinary, shows just how extraordinary this particular case has been. Why? Because, as much as the cultural right wing has always tried to put the responsibility for sex crimes on the victim, this one was faultless—she wasn’t Western cultured with ‘loose’ morals, she wasn’t in a shady place at an unsafe time with unknown men doing questionable things. Also because the rape was horrific, and exposed the monsters among us as well as the indifference of the people who just let her lie there, dying on the street.
She was christened ‘Nirbhaya’, fearless, for resisting her attackers thereby angering them in to the vicious violation, and for wanting justice till her dying breath. And when her parents chose to reveal her name and, thereby, themselves, in light of the overwhelming support, they absolved her of the blame and shame we impose on victims of sexual assault. In the public (and not just media) outcry against the misogynistic statements that have become par for the course from our political leaders after any incident of sexual assault—protesting women were called “dented and painted” by our President’s son—we tried to establish boundaries of political correctness and point out attitudes we would no longer tolerate.
It was the veritable tipping point. Under public attack, the government was prompted to institute the JS Verma Committee and pass, in a somewhat knee-jerk manner, the well intentioned but over-cautious Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, widening the definitions and increasing punishment for sexual harassment of all degrees. What’s interesting is to observe the nuanced impact the incident and its ongoing fallouts are collectively having on the public mindset.
In Delhi earlier this year, I was driving home from a friend’s at 3 AM when I noticed that I had a flat tyre on the Delhi-Noida Toll Road. As it is, the city brings out a primal fear in me, a remnant of the horrors I faced living there for six years as a free-spirited young woman before leaving a decade ago; now, my worst-case scenario is imprinted with images of gruesome rape. Along came a manager in a patrol car, who not only arranged for a puncture-walla but stayed by my quaking side until he arrived and the deed was done. I thanked him profusely, and told him that I felt doubly unsafe since the rape. “Uss ghatna ne shehar ka naam bigaad diya,” said this lovely gentleman, refusing a tip, “Aur aadmiyon ka bhi.”
He is right, on both counts. On a recent holiday to Israel, my sister-in-law Ami met a man from Bethlehem in the war-torn West Bank, who said he would like to visit India “but it is too dangerous”! And that men are under siege is obvious, as noted in Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s eloquent piece on the Tarun Tejpal issue. Not only are accused instantly and easily presumed guilty as per the law, but men in general are also demonised, leading many lovely ones to scurry about, ashamed and defensive. “I wish I could do something other than just trying to be an example,” lamented my friend Vishal Mohandas. “Though I am tired of being tried for crimes I would not commit.”
Although this is a pity, my counterpoint is this: while any sociocultural paradigm change is in progress, it is natural to veer the other way, to err on the side of extreme caution, before water finds its level. Take the anti-dowry laws, for instance. Necessary though they have been, in the last decade the Apex Court has repeatedly acknowledged their misuse, and the Law Commission of India has proposed amendments to dilute them. Besides, such a miniscule percentage of sexual harassment actually gets reported, let alone punished, that it’s unfortunate but a few good men may bear the brunt of a skewed legal environment that assumes their guilt. ‘For greater good’ is not apology or explanation enough for such wrongly accused men whose lives are essentially ruined, but there is solace in the fact that, eventually, a guilty verdict requires proof (and I am inclined to trust our judiciary for the most part).
At the time the country was in the throes of hysterical anger last year, a few people involved in the discourse on rape wondered whether the incident would actually do a disservice. Rape is rarely this dramatic, perpetrated by strangers or horrifically fatal. Henceforth, would anything less be considered insignificant, culturally and to the unenlightened officers manning the neighbourhood police thana? Would the fatigue of watching and hearing about increasingly graphic assaults deaden our palates to the more mundane?
Perhaps. But no amount of mundane 'eve teasing' or train groping, that is a regular part of our lives and our newspapers, has succeeded in outing the country’s sexual harassment pandemic in a significant way. This case has provided impetus to the problem-solving cycle: more than ever before, we’ve been actively engaged in identifying and defining the problems, and forming cultural and governance strategies to deal with them.
Of this upheaval and introspection is born Nirbhaya, a play by internationally acclaimed playwright and director Yael Farber. In the weeks after the incident, Mumbai-based actor Poorna Jagannathan asked Yael to create a new work that would continue to shatter the silence on sexual violence in India. “The Delhi rape was the catalyst,” says Poorna. “I had a huge epiphany: it is silence that contributes to violence.” We are told not to speak up: “We’ve got to do and say something to create a culture of accountability and be a part of the solution.” The seven-actor play premiered at Edinburgh Fringe 2012 to rave reviews, and is expected in India next year owing to a super-successful crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. Ankur Vikal, the sole male actor in the play, asserts: “There is a healthier dialogue now, people are speaking more honestly about the gender dynamic. Understanding the perpetrators—who they are, why they do what they do—is an important step.”
There are many takeaways from the Delhi rape. Ankur is most inspired by Jyoti’s heroicness, her attempt to seek justice even in the ICU. But, like all sexual violence in a culture that puts the onus of her safety on the woman alone, my friend Ruchi laments that the fear psychosis has resulted in parents who are ultra-paranoid when she’s out at night. As for me: if we retain the momentum, continue this conversation that we started a year ago and follow it through to its logical end towards a non-toxic cultural environment, I feel Jyoti wouldn’t have died in vain.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in December 2013.