The light Jyoti lit
I was in Australia when my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter stream began getting inundated by news of a gruesome gangrape 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 friend 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 gangrape 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 J S Verma committee and pass, in a somewhat kneejerk manner, the well-intentioned but overcautious 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 socio-cultural 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.
By arrangement with Governance Now