The subject does not come up at dinner tables. But it did on Friday evening when I was out with a group of friends. Someone had just met a visiting doctor who had been talking to other medicos.
The doctors in Delhi knew about the extent of injuries that a 23-year-old woman — in hospital in a critical condition after she was raped and brutally beaten — had suffered at the hands of her six assailants with iron rods.
The details I heard are too gruesome to be shared. All that I can say is that a senior doctor treating her was shaken beyond belief. In his 40-year-long career, he said, he had never seen a case like this.
I don’t know the doctors but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were present at India Gate on Sunday, shouting against a system that takes rape and assault in its stride. If someone told me that one of the doctors had destroyed public property, I really wouldn’t be shocked.
For all of us, there’s a breaking point. In many ways, the December 16 incident of gang rape and assault has been that back-bending moment. The crowds at Delhi’s landmark for valour, India Gate, are mostly men and women who have reached the end of their tether. I know that young colleagues of mine — who had probably never attended a rally in their lives before — were there in the crowd, saying “No More”.
On the India Gate lawns on Sunday, there were scores of youngsters who had gathered on a cold and foggy morning because they believed they could bring about change. Years of work by activists and others on issues that relate to violence against women — female foeticide, sexual harassment and domestic brutality, to name a few — had left them cold. Then one day, a young woman was raped — and they came streaming out.
The majority of those who had gathered there merely wanted to express their solidarity with the young woman who was first harassed along with her friend by the six men, some of them drunk, and then mauled. The women who were there have seen violence all their lives — in schools and colleges, on the streets, in public buses and, perhaps, also at home.
Most of the young people who were there didn’t have a charter of demands in mind. Also there, of course, were the bloodthirsty who wanted capital punishment or chemical castration for rapists.
But most of them had come together because they felt they couldn’t sit at home while the young woman battled for life.
Demonstrations — especially those that are spontaneous in nature — can turn violent. The demonstrators are angry, and they need to voice their fury. In these spontaneous demonstrations — and often even in organised rallies — there are those who cannot contain their anger. They break down barriers, they throw stones at police personnel and they burn down buses.
Of course, I am against violence, who isn’t? Ironically, the demonstrators are protesting against just that. There were, no doubt, people in the crowd who wanted to bring the administration to its knees. But in a public rally that has no clear organisers, you cannot keep the “goonda” elements out. They will be there, creating trouble, but they won’t bend the spirit of those seeking reform.
For long years, we were told that Indians were a phlegmatic lot, who let karma define their action — or lack of it. But across the country, more and more people are coming out of their houses to protest over issues that concern them. Four years ago, police firing on demonstrators prompted young boys in Kashmir to come out of their homes to pelt the police with stones. Four years earlier, in Manipur, old and young women took off their clothes to denounce the alleged rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman by paramilitary forces.
Who would send their children to the streets to take on the armed police? Which woman would strip in public? Who would — in the heart of the capital, in front of television cameras, surrounded by the police — face tear gas and water cannons? Only those, perhaps, who have reached their breaking point.