Since December 16, a day that is now seared in national consciousness, and December 29, when many of us felt we had lost a member of our own family, millions of words have been spoken and written on rape, on sexual assault, on women’s safety, on the attitude of Indian men. Thousands of young women and men have come out on the streets to demonstrate their anguish at the absence of justice for Indian women. Passion, anger, rhetoric, argument, posturing, empty promises, brute force — we have seen it all in this fortnight.
The despair at the State’s silence is justifiable. But the hope lies in the fact that even if the rulers are deaf and have lost the ability to speak words with meaning, the people have found a voice. Never before has the issue of violence against women been such a dominant topic of discussion.
Even in the 1970s, when the then nascent autonomous women’s movement launched its campaign to change rape laws following the custodial rape of a young tribal girl, Mathura, by two policemen in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, the response was tepid compared to what we have seen today. This was not just because the issue was rape of a tribal girl, far removed from our urban sensibilities or that the perceived levels of violence on the streets in the cities were lower than they are today. The absence of 24-hour television to amplify the protests could have contributed.
I believe the real reason was that most people would not accept that women’s rights are human rights. There are many in this country who still refuse to acknowledge this. Yet, thanks to the determined campaigns by women’s movements across the country, there is a break in this wall. Laws have been amended. Women are more visible in decision-making positions although nowhere near what is needed. And most importantly, a generation of young women has grown up believing that they are entitled to the same rights as men. While our generation, the mothers, sometimes chose to keep quiet and tolerate, this generation, our daughters, will not. They want their voices to be heard, they have better and more effective media with which to make their views known, and they firmly believe that in a free country they should not be denied these rights. That is the change we witnessed when we saw thousands of angry and determined young women holding placards, facing water cannons, suffering the lashes of the police lathi. It is something that cannot and will not be easily reversed. The silent rulers sitting in their soundproof offices in Delhi need to recognise this.
On a personal note, I saw this change in the response to my last column “What’s wrong with Indian men?” (Sunday Magazine, December 23).
In the past, whenever I have touched on the subject of violence against women, I receive at least a dozen vituperative emails from men berating me for being a “feminist” (which I am proud to declare that I am) and generally ticking me off for not understanding the “plight” of Indian men.
This time, I received almost 70 emails, the majority of them from men, most of them quite long and thoughtful. Space does not permit me to quote from some of these submissions but it was evident that every one of them had thought hard about what needed to change in the attitudes of men to prevent occurrences like the one that triggered the current outrage. The one I quote below reflects some of the sentiments expressed:
“I write not only as a 21-year-old man of young India, rather more as a man of the concerned India. Witnessing the recent events that have shook the nation, I’m only left with the option of asking myself, where is Our India? I was a part of the protests that took place at India Gate. I saw things change in a matter of minutes. We were not a part of any group or political organization; we were just a spontaneous gathering of young citizens of India asking about our rights and questioning the people in power. I would also like to make a point that not all the people were actually concerned on this sensitive issue. But then, where do these things end? Will they end by bringing in tougher laws, or making public speeches assuring that ‘someday’ things will change? I have now started doubting the future of my nation. We have to go beyond the social barriers that have hindered the growth of our society for the past many decades. Has our country fallen so deep that a rape case is needed to awaken us?
We proudly call ourselves the largest democracy in the world, but I think we all know what the reality is. In this male chauvinist and egoistic society I am ashamed to call myself a man. Our country is in a dire need of a revolution which not only changes people in power, rather their thinking. One after which the men of our society at least start respecting the wombs from which they are born. But the question still remains, HOW?”
This young man’s views reflect the churning that has begun. For it to continue, we have to move beyond slogans to working out the concrete steps that must be taken — making the criminal justice system more responsive, changing the sexist attitudes among politicians, in the media, in our school texts, in our films, at our work places and refusing to give up fighting for change, even within the confines of our inefficient and limited democracy.