For the second time in two years, India has witnessed an upsurge of spontaneous public protest. If the earlier one was against the all-pervasive corruption in public life, this time the anger has been directed at the government’s inability to check increasing number of rape cases across the country.
The blood-curdling gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a quasi-public transport bus in New Delhi last week proved to be the tipping point, with students, office-goers and the normally political reticent sections of the middle-class striding out on to the streets of the capital city in disgust over the inefficiency and insensitivity of the federal administration.
While incidents of rape by themselves have always occurred, what is new is the wide coverage of these cases on 24/7 television news channels, bringing the gravity of the crime into the living rooms of the otherwise cocooned middle-classes.
Preceding the Delhi rape have been a series of similar high-profile cases in the neighbouring state of Haryana and in major metros, including Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore, which had possibly acerbated the feeling of insecurity and helplessness among large sections of the people.
The underlying desperation in the protests in New Delhi reflects a worrying factor over not just the security of women, but an overall slide into a state of administrative vacuum. For instance, the gang in the bus robbed a traveller some time before the physiotherapist and her male friend boarded it. The traveller who was robbed complained to the police, but they did not bother to act on his complaint. If they had done so, the rape could have been averted.
One should not be surprised if there are no real reasons for the police inaction other than one of disdain, or, in popular lingo a “chalta hai” attitude.
Similar protests across the country
That public endurance is giving way to anger can be seen by similar protests in tandem against other instances of rape in the north-east state of Manipur and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Manipur’s capital Imphal, a journalist was killed when police opened fire during a street protest against the sexual assault on a film actress by a separatist Naga militant. In Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai, popular film stars led mass protests over the rape of an 11-year-old girl in Nagapattinam district.
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One needs to juxtapose the issue of rape and the perception of state inaction with the near-absence of governance and rampant corruption to understand the latest upsurge. Add to this the notoriously slow pace of the judicial process and you have an explosive cocktail.
Not only that, in the New Delhi mass protest, people do not seem to have a clear idea on where to head next or what mass action to take in the absence of a leadership of any kind. No wonder there have been a slew of emotional but extreme demands, ranging from castration to death penalty for rapists.
The New Delhi gang rape may have been the lowest point in recent memory in the context of gender justice in the country, but there have been several instances preceding this. In July this year, a girl was molested by a mob on a busy street in Guwahati, the capital of Assam in India’s north-east. The act was uploaded on social media sites by the perpetrators who made no effort to hide their identities. The state administration had to be goaded into acting against the accused.
Earlier, in February, when a woman in the eastern city of Kolkata was raped and she went to the police to complain, the state government turned against her. The then newly-elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, termed it a conspiracy to besmirch the reputation of her government. In a number of rapes that followed, the Banerjee government cold-shouldered the complaints alleging that it was a conspiracy by the opposition Left parties.
Indian women are being targeted in other ways too. In several parts of the country, there is an increasing trend among college managements to restrict jeans and T-shirts and force students to wear traditional attire. In 2009, in the southern city of Mangalore, a mob affiliated to the right-wing Hindutva parties attacked women in a pub on the grounds that it was against Indian culture.
In the northern state of Haryana, the traditional khap panchayats (council of village elders) have ruled against women in several instances of marriage, cohabitation and on occasions even attempted to rationalise rapes.
In one case, a state minister said it would be better for women to be married off at 16 (under Indian law, for women 18 is the minimum age for marriage) to make life safer for them. He withdrew his comments after widespread protests.
Intolerance within the establishment
The Indian ruling establishment, meanwhile, cornered and cowering over the widespread criticism it has had to face from civil society, media and activist organisations like Anna Hazare’s Anti-Corruption Front, has not reacted to set right inefficiency that has plagued its governance, but against those who have managed to bring it to public notice.
"Interestingly, the intolerance within the establishment runs across the country irrespective of which political party is in power."
In the first such acts of intolerance, in June 2011, the Delhi police in a midnight swoop broke up a proposed peaceful mass demonstration and hunger strike against corruption at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi. The judiciary later indicted the police for the use of excessive force on a peaceful democratic protest.
A couple of months later, the Delhi police arrested the anti-corruption icon, Anna Hazare, on the eve of his hunger-strike only to find that the move had boomeranged badly. The police and by extension, the government, was lampooned in the media for their bumbling ways.
But the state did not seem to have learnt its lessons. Earlier this year, police in high-profile Mumbai city arrested a cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, for drawing cartoons mocking the functioning of Indian democracy. Sharp protests forced the government to release the cartoonist and drop all charges against him.
More recently, the police in Thane, a Mumbai suburb, arrested two girls for posting a comment on Facebook, criticising the closure of the city following the death of Bal Thackeray, chief of the local Hindutva-affiliated party Shiv Sena. Again, following an outcry, the girls were released and charges against them dropped.
Interestingly, the intolerance within the establishment runs across the country irrespective of which political party is in power. In July, in Mangalore, where the pub attack had happened earlier, Naveen Soorinje, a journalist for a regional television news channel, filmed a brutal attack by a mob affiliated with the rightist Hindutva parties on a group of unsuspecting girls and boys celebrating a western-style birthday.
The police did not stop at arresting the accused. They promptly prosecuted the journalist too alleging that he instigated the attackers. At the moment, the journalist is in jail and his appeal is pending before a local court.
Interestingly, irrespective of the politics and the ideology of political parties, the government at the centre and the ruling dispensation in several states are finding themselves on the defensive. And, without exception, they are using the police to put down dissent with totalitarian force.
In the latest instance, the violent reprisal by the police on a large spontaneous peaceful protest of well-meaning students of the capital’s prestigious universities and colleges is a confirmation of the perception that “something is rotten in the state of Delhi”, to quote one tweet among many that have peppered the social media landscape.
KS Dakshina Murthy is an editorial consultant with The Hindu, based in Bangalore, India. He has written extensively on the US invasion of Iraq and West Asian politics.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.