Delhi is a difficult city, as harsh and extreme as its weather. It is a city where the most powerful and the most wretched both reside, and in between the two extremes lies a vast, swirling middle class to which I and the protesters laying siege at India Gate belong.
It is our class that defines this city — we can be kind sometimes, but we are mostly callous; we can reach out to others on occasion, but are usually selfish; we witness injustice every day but indifference is our default mode.
But the horrific gang rape of a young woman and the brutal violence inflicted on her and her friend last Sunday night was too much for even this city to take. It triggered something elemental in us, and brought to the fore all the simmering fear and anger, the frustration and helplessness, the sense of isolation and the desire for solidarity that flows subliminally and continually just below the surface of this gargantuan and complex metropolis.
It is only natural, therefore, that the unspeakable brutality of this incident — which took place in south Delhi and not in some nameless slum and to a young couple who were returning home after watching an English movie in a multiplex and not to some villagers in Uttar Pradesh or Haryana — sparked profound outrage among the middle class, and brought the city’s well-heeled onto the streets.
Others joined them — political parties and civil society activists and men of all hues — but the lead was taken by students, predominantly girls, from the better-off sections of Delhi society. Something momentous seemed to be happening, something cathartic — a city long used to violence and intimidation and intolerance was seeking a new Delhi.
So why do I feel no sympathy for the protests any more? Why do I feel more despondent about my city’s future today than I did when the news of the hideous rape came out a week ago? Why do the protesters make me more sad than hopeful?
Not because some “hooligans” tried to jump the barricades and threw stones at the police, not because politicians “hijacked” the agitation, not because the usual suspects — Baba Ramdev, Arvind Kejriwal, V.K. Singh — used it to further their anti-government agenda. But because the protesters themselves displayed levels of hate and rage and self-righteousness that can only exacerbate, not heal, the wounded psyche of this city.
The six men on the bus that night, drunk out of their minds and driven insane by rage and lust, behaved like monsters. To demand their arrest and speedy trial, to call for quick and deterrent justice in all cases of rape and brutality is all too understandable.
But what explains the nauseating posters held aloft by many of the protesters seeking the public hanging or stoning or castration of rapists, with graphic pictures to make their meaning clear? Or the incessant sloganeering against the police and the government as though they alone were responsible for everything that went wrong and we as a society shared no part of the blame?
Of course, Delhi — as indeed the rest of the country — deserves a more efficient police force, a more speedy justice system, a more caring government. But the ethos of a city is made by its people, the values of a city are those of its denizens, the culture of a city is built by the men and women who daily traverse its streets, rides its buses, come together for work or leisure.
Sadly, the protests brought to the fore the ugly underbelly of our urban middle class — we seek vengeance, not justice; we harbour anger, without compassion; we hit out at others, never look into ourselves.
Last Sunday’s horror may have been a particularly perverse aberration but low-grade violence and intolerance and callousness is a constant background buzz in this city. Women are particularly vulnerable targets but they are not the only ones at the receiving end. It is a city where might is right and no one stands up for the other.
The rage of young college girls at India Gate this week caught the attention of the nation. But when I ride the Metro, I often see them comfortably ensconced in the reserved ladies compartment and it is rare for them to ever give up their seat for a woman much older or frailer than them. Last week, a colleague saw a visually impaired girl standing on the platform of a Metro station and offered to take her to the ladies compartment. She refused — the general compartment was much better, she said, for the men at least gave her a seat; the women never did.
It is this “each one for himself or herself” mentality that makes the city a harsh place to live in where people in cars deliberately drive over monsoon puddles to splash mud over pedestrians, where residents of gated colonies often regard plumbers and electricians and vendors as quasi-criminals, where waiters and toll booth attendants are routinely abused, if not shot at, by men and women with more money and power.
Delhi needs better-lit streets and bus stops, a more efficient and reliable bus service, a more vigilant police force and a more efficient judiciary. But what it needs most of all is more compassion and understanding, more sharing and less inequality, more introspection and less finger-pointing.
By directing all our anger at the “ugly politician”, by throwing stones at the police, and by our shrill cries for violent retribution, we have shaken the system all right. But we lost an opportunity to look within and shake ourselves out of selfishness and apathy.