In the eight months between the fatal attack on a 23-year old physiotherapy student in Delhi last year and the August gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai, there was one unnoticed but significant gain for Indian women.
Political correctness or not, misogynistic and misplaced notions of modesty are featuring less in public discussions about keeping women safe on India’s streets. It is an advance from India’s customary shame-and-blame-the-victim approach to sexual violence.
More obvious signs of progress include the government’s decision to set up fast-track courts to try rape cases, higher prison sentences for rape and the criminalisation of voyeurism, stalking, acid attacks and the trafficking of women. The Delhi incident will be the first test of the new law.
In the aftermath of the Delhi rape, the Indian media has been keeping up a steady stream of reporting on rape cases: a nun in the eastern state of Odisha; a policewoman in Jharkhand, also in the east, and a Swiss tourist in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. India’s tourism ministry is launching an “I-respect-women” campaign. The police have become more proactive too, taking just 72 hours to find and arrest the five alleged perpetrators of the Mumbai crime.
So why do sections of the roughly 200-million strong middle-class remain profoundly dissatisfied?
Since the December incident, middle-class angst has been reflected in sporadic silent protests, vigils and social media campaigns.
Last week’s sentence – death by hanging for the four men (a fifth committed suicide in prison) and the earlier guilty verdict for the juvenile – has pleased few.
Many say they are angry about India’s “rape culture”, not just rape. Just days after the Mumbai incident, a female colleague of the victim discerned a deeply embedded gender bias that starts with Indian school textbooks, which portray women as homemakers and men as providers.
More revealing by far may be the unconscious limits of the protesters’ outrage. They seem bound by social class – their own and that of the rape victims. The preoccupation appears to be with the person and the place.
“When something like this happens in the part of the city that it happened, to someone like her, we’re all under attack,” lamented a woman journalist in Mumbai, 24 hours after the latest gang rape.
She could not have known that one of the alleged rapists would later confess to four previous gang-rapes at the same spot. All the victims were ragpickers, poor and vulnerable women whom the police thought “too scared to report the incident”. Surely it speaks volumes that no one rose up in horror at their silent victimhood.
One could argue that this is precisely the reason the outrage seems ever so slightly spurious, what VS Naipaul dismissed in a different context as a “vain and foolish” Indian middle class affectation.
Arundhati Roy, the writer and social activist, diagnosed it as far back as December: “We are having an unexceptional reaction to an event that isn’t exceptional. It’s really very sad, cause you know, it’s a terrible thing to say to such a tragic event … But the problem is that, why is this crime creating such a lot of outrage? It’s because it plays to the idea of the criminal poor … you know … the vegetable vendor, the gym instructor, the bus driver actually assaulting a middle class girl.”
Roy’s plain truths pleased no one, but it remains hard to argue with her basic premise. The Delhi gang rape was led by a bus driver. The other perpetrators were low-skilled and low-income. Unlike their victim, they were not members of India’s emerging middle class. Ditto for the Mumbai incident.
The protests seem selective in other ways too. They do not cover allegations that New Delhi looks the other way when its soldiers have their way with women in Kashmir, Manipur and Chhattisgarh, territories ravaged by insurgency, separatism and guerrilla war, respectively. There are many such cases, but none has more resonance than that of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama, who has featured in human rights reports for years.
She was taken from her home by Indian soldiers, who accused her of aiding insurgents in Manipur. A few hours later, her mutilated body was found by the roadside by people from her village. It was 2004, but in nearly a decade, there has been no retribution or remorse. As Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy explained, the new rape laws don’t cover such incidents, and “armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’ are still effectively immune from prosecution for rape and sexual assault”.
There is some reason to believe that middle class self-absorption has resulted in a myopic, shockingly unequal response to Indian realities, in matters of corruption and sexual violence alike.
In their new book, An Uncertain Glory, economists Jean Dreze and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen describe the inequalities as “making the country look more and more like islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.” Billionaires, fashion models, sports stars and film stars occupy a disproportionate amount of space in print and on television, and issues such as health for the masses account for less than one per cent of editorial space in Indian newspapers. This “inequality of articulation and attention” also affects attitudes towards the rape of women who aren’t middle class.
Some might say the Indian government’s priorities are reflected in the way its middle class protests. It is hard to believe that a great deal can change for Indian women until the calls for justice encompass all – and include demands for social justice.
Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer based in Haiti
On Twitter: @rashmeerl