Rape of Draupadi: Why Indian democracy has failed women

Indians pray to goddesses in temples, but “abuse women in the domestic sphere”, notes author.

Despite the fact that women have "significant political clout" in India, men who commit violence against women "get away with murder"; the laws against rape are not strict enough [AFP]

Horrific crimes are not new to India. The capital of the largest democracy in the world, New Delhi, has been conquered many times over by successive waves of invaders – their paradigms of conquest were always different. 

On August 15, 1947, New Delhi became the capital for the seventh time when as the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said we will endeavour “to wipe every tear from every eye”. Sixty five years later, we have a new paradigm now, which is called globalisation or liberalisation.

After independence, the first wave of global change that has swept India started in 1991 with the opening of economy, media and the zone of the family. New Delhi seems tantalisingly seductive and open to the possibilities of the new world order – foreign investment, women working, call centers, outsourcing, fast cars, late nights, discos, parties, new friends, hypnotic dreams – melting into delirium and wanton madness. 

You can feel it in the air – there is a buzz in the major Indian cities. A new Indian dream is emerging – the spiritual East is taking in the intoxication of the materialistic West. It is bound to lose its moral compass. 

Now, more than 20 years after liberalisation, predictably, a dangerously psychotic nightmare has shattered the sweet dream. The nightmare has a new look and feel, a veneer – after all we’re living in a neon-lit-bright-media-driven-post-modern-age – yet the rudiments of the horrific scenes in the nightmare are as old as the Indian psyche.

On December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old woman was dishonoured and brutally gang raped; the cultural idea of izzat or lajja , honour or shame seems to have been completely thrown out of the window. Young and old are asking themselves, “Where is my India?” For the sake of her privacy, we don’t know the girl’s name, but in my lexicon she could be called Draupadi, the queen of the Pandavas, the daughter of the king of Hastinapur, near the actual site where Delhi was first constructed. 

The story of Draupadi is the central narrative of the founding of early India. At a time like this, it has to be repeated as a moral legend :

“Draupadi, heroine of the Mahabharata epic, is bold and forthright even in adversity. Her husband Yudhisthira succumbing to his weakness for gambling, stakes and loses all (in a rigged game), including his wife. Draupadi challenges the assembly and demands to know how it is possible for one who has staked and lost his own self to retain the right to wager her.

Duryodhana, the winner of the bet, insists that Draupadi is indeed his to do with as he pleases and orders that she be disrobed. Furious at this insult to her honor, Draupadi loosens her coifed hair and vows that she will not knot it again until she has washed it in Duryodhana’s blood. As she is disrobed, the more her sari is pulled away the longer it becomes. It is this event which turns Draupadi from a contented, but strong willed wife into a vengeful goddess.”

Our real-life Draudpadi was an unmarried, impressionable, young medical student, who met a tragic end at a hospital in Singapore. It is now in the hands of her protectors – the “real men” of India – who must deliver her justice. 

Will the real Pandavas of India, please, stand up? Where are the “real” and “honourable men” of India? 

Or, as Guru Dutt asked poignantly in Pyaasa more than 50 years ago, “Jinhe naaz hai hind par woh kahan hain? ” If Indians are fed-up and tired of asking this question, then the world and the Indian diaspora must remind them again and again that they are inheritors of a great civilisation.

India’s new gamble on globalisation

India has made a new gamble – just like the one in Mahabharata – by hitching its wagon to the liberal forces of change. Many have argued that India did this belatedly, after five arduous seven-year plans of development, which left its industries uncompetitive vis-a-vis the rest of the world. India should have liberalised earlier, shortly after independence, which wasn’t to be. The socialist hold on the Indian mind was too strong, especially after years of colonisation to liberalise sooner. 


  Indian policeman killed by violent
New Delhi protesters

Be that as it may. The decision to open up the Indian economy, society and culture has been made. It’s game-set-match and there is no turning back now. 

In the new India as in Shah Jahan’s ancient Delhi, people seem genuinely happy, full of enthusiasm, busy rebuilding their lives and improving their lots according to the new paradigm of development. The new paradigm says “profit is better than poverty”, “greed is good” and “chasing after material wealth” is not antithetical to the traditional Indian values, which preach that “one should do one’s duty, not worry about the fruits of one’s labour”. 

As a result, women have rightly acquired more power because they are working outside the home, earning more money and raising children in the modern nuclear families. The traditional family has broken down, to some degree, as “the couple” or “the jodi” in a marriage has assumed more importance over the joint family. Women feel empowered at home and may be at the workplace, but are they safe? Has the rapid pace of change in women’s lives left men bereft to idle mischief? Has the men’s inner world matured with the changing current of the times?

Increasingly, men from rural areas are moving to urban areas for employment – truck drivers, bus conductors and busboys – folks who may not have the psychological timber to withstand the daily insults of city life. Mass movements of labourers and migrants from outlying areas of New Delhi are flooding the city in search of greater opportunity, chasing the neon-lit flashing signs of the city – Chinese restaurants, Audi models, Delhi Daredevils – perceptions blurring reality. It is in one such suburban area that the heinous crime took place.

With the access to mass media – opening the floodgates of different languages and cultures – Indians are open to Western influences, both enlightened and perverse (from Masterpiece Theatre to Baywatch and Temptation Island ), but very few have actually stopped and understood the challenges underfoot. Middle class Indians are swept up by the larger undercurrents, they seem unable to fully understand, let alone control; even the all-powerful central government cannot marshal the resources to contain the criminals or the peaceful protesters.    

Thus, one may be inclined to write-off this horrific rape as an “outlier” incident, a “tipping point”, or worse, the reflection of a few degenerate and demented minds, not reflective of the malaise of the Indian body politics, but that would be a grave mistake. Larger structural forces underlying here suggest systemic failures in Indian society and culture that have sent shockwaves around the world. 

Powerful women fail to protect innocent girls

How is it possible in a country which boasts to have so many women politicians at the local and national level that young ordinary girls feel unsafe on the streets? This should boggle the rational mind of most feminists in India or the West, but policymakers are still groping for answers in the dark.

Indira Gandhi ruled for almost 15 years with an iron fist. Her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi is now the head of the coalition government that runs the country. The chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, has been a leading politician running metropolitan Delhi since 1998. We have had powerful women chief ministers in the north, central and south of the country. Yet, the fate of women has not improved, arguably, it has become worst. 

Women in India have not been able to organise a liberal movement akin to the women’s suffrage movement in Western cultures. Why don’t Indians ape the goodness of the West, while borrowing every sensational script from Hollywood about an affair, a murder, or a rape? Clearly, the big names of Bollywood are to blame here for importing the debauchery of the West, while passing over thousands of years of civilisation development which has made western culture the envy of the world. 

Indians pray to goddesses in temples, but abuse women in the domestic sphere. They elect women to powerful political offices, yet mistreat young girls in public. Indian women participate in the genocide against female foetuses because the male dominated culture sanctions it. Thus, despite the fact that women have significant political clout in India, men who commit violence against women get away with murder. The laws against rape are not strict enough.

The list of recent rape cases is chilling. A blogger, Nilanjana Roy, observed recently :

“Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.

For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow.”

Yet, the painful suffering of an anonymous girl has broken through the great wall of shameful silence. When I asked Sudhir Kakar, the renowned Indian psychoanalyst, about the root causes related to pressures of globalisation and how the recent improvements made by Indian women seemed to have been drowned out by this gruesome crime, he agreed that the battle for globalisation was being fought on the woman’s body. Women’s body is the Kurukshetra, as it were, where the battle for new India is being waged. This girl is just the latest victim. 


 101 East – Unintended consequences:
India’s rape crisis

“India has adopted the perversions of the West, without the moral compass, the strong laws, or the gender equity of Western societies,” Kakar said. The deeply held cultural idea that human body is divine has been completely violated with a crass importation of the body as simply a thing to be used and discarded.

The six rapists assaulted the girl on a moving bus, beat her boyfriend and dumped them off the bus. The police, according to many reports, took more than an hour to respond, while the bystanders stood watching and did nothing to help. “With her death, India has died today”, thousands of protesters have been openly crying for help, with a clear sense that their politicians have failed them again. 

When law enforcement is complicit

Tehelka , a political magazine, found in a sting exposé that the policemen and other law enforcement authorities tend to blame the victim in instances of rape and sexual harassment.

When Bhalla and Vishnu interviewed more than 30 senior cops in the Delhi-NCR region, they found “more than half had shockingly ugly views on rape victims. This is the face of law exposed. How can the system effect justice through men like these?”

A police inspector reportedly said :

“Go to a pub in Greater Kailash, South Delhi, where there’s free entry for girls. You’ll find those who want to do ‘it’ for a thousand rupees. They’ll drink and also have sex with you. But the day someone uses force, it’s rape.”

Another police inspector similarly claimed:

“Girls from Darjeeling and Nepal have come here for business purposes. They go with men for money. Later, when the money is not sufficient, it becomes a rape.”

Is the behaviour of policemen at all surprising when the culture of rape is rampant among politicians themselves? Globalpost says:  

“According to mandatory self-declarations filed by candidates with the Election Commission and tabulated by National Election Watch, India’s leading political parties have offered tickets to 27 candidates accused of rape and a whopping 260 candidates facing charges for crimes against women, ranging from assault to harassment over the past five years. As a result, two members of the current parliament and six members of the various state legislative assemblies are facing rape charges, while 36 others face charges for lesser crimes against women.”

Women politicians do not “blow the whistle” on male politicians for the fear of retribution and reprisal. With the changing gender roles, women feel they have to walk a tightrope where the laws are not strong enough to fully protect them. There is a clear sense that the Indian democracy has turned into “a gangster nation”, where the organised criminal mafia runs the country, as depicted in a new genre of Bollywood films.

Thus, the perennial question has to be asked – “Who will protect Draupadi’s honour?” Will the debasement of women continue unabated as it has for centuries? How long can Indian women withstand the crimes on their bodies? Is the Indian experiment doomed because half of its population is never allowed the basic dignity and freedom accorded to a human being?

While the Indian nationalists, such as Raja Rammohan Roy, Mahatma Gandhi and Dayananda Saraswati made the national reform for women an integral part of the struggle for independence, there is no such nationalistic fervour evident in India today. Indian powerbrokers seem either blindly oblivious or simply intoxicated with their newfound wealth and place of power in the globalised world to keep sacrificing girls and women to achieve growth and development at any cost.           

If even after such horrific events, no legislative change is brought about and law enforcement cannot safeguard women, then Indian democracy is apathetic and doomed to fail – truly “an area of darkness” as Naipaul said 50 years ago. Recall, after almost a year of protest, we still do not have an anti-corruption Lokpal bill passed in India. It is the responsibility of Indian diaspora to not support the wrongheaded pursuits of Indian politicians financially or morally, who are simply rape-enablers. A horrific rape did take place in Delhi, but more importantly, Delhi is being raped.        

Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next book on President Obama , Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published with Routledge Press.