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AN URGENT CALL TO ACTION

Over the last few months, the growing sense of dismay that is overwhelming India has touched us all in some way. Nevertheless, I was counselling my more vociferous friends a week back that, as children born around the Independence era, we should applaud the enormous progress that India has made in just the one generation of our lifetime, accepting with humility that there were many areas where we should have made greater impact. Watching yesterday’s and today’s youth protest on Raisina Hill I appreciate how wrong I was. We have lost touch with the generation which it was our duty to protect. Sadly, it took a terrible, painful crime perpetrated on a young girl to bring about this awakening.

Travelling from Dehra Dun on the train to Delhi en route to Calcutta a couple of evenings ago, I could not help overhearing the conversations of a young parliamentarian among the passengers, holding forth to fawning admirers on the likely results of the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, completely oblivious to the storm of protest brewing in Delhi, the city we were soon to reach. Protected as he was by a gun-toting bodyguard on a public vehicle, is it any surprise how distanced he was from issues that were tormenting the electorate, which it was his duty to represent?

A couple of decades ago, I happened to be in Central London when unprecedented riots broke out in protest against a tax proposal which was regarded as unjust in favouring the rich over the poor. A ‘cavalry charge’ by the mounted police I witnessed that evening in Trafalgar Square to break up the protesters was reminiscent of the opening sequence from Doctor Zhivago, of imperialist authority trying to crush genuine grievance. The last two days’ excessive police action in Delhi’s prime government area, that of using water cannons and tear gas on protesters whose average age was probably below 30, falls into the same category of events I have seen recently in public squares of Cairo and Athens. As in Trafalgar Square two decades ago, they were all portents of governments which had lost touch with the sentiments of the people that they were elected to represent.

Why is all this happening? The answer lies partially in how often, if ever, we have met our member of parliament or member of the legislative assembly, or to what extent we would approach them for solace in the event of any problem. Or whether we know of any occasion when they have voiced our concerns in Parliament or in the assembly. They see nothing and hear nothing beyond a sanitized India which is presented to their atrophied senses. Beyond party-dictated rhetoric, they have lost the ability to gauge the injustices to which an increasingly aggrieved public opinion is responding. The lines of communication have become seriously clogged and increasingly, the public perceive them to be complicit with criminals, more aligned to their interests than to those of the the truly aggrieved.

Sadly, they win because public opinion fades. In our cushioned comfort relative to current Egypt or Greece, protest movements dim. Students return to their campuses, housewives to their domestic routines, the candles go out, the television talk shows change topics, actions move to the sloth of committees, and the injured as well as the injustices are forgotten.

Will the current protest against atrocities upon women be any different? The risk is that artful politicians, aided by hooligans not necessarily of their choice, will hijack a genuine plea for justice, and students will not have the guile to prevent this. Before that happens, let us hope that some level of integrity will move the government towards delivering a credible and lasting solution, not a knee-jerk cry for vengeance either by castration or hanging, not a solution just for the capital or metropolitan cities, but aimed at preventing the daily horror of unreported rape and molestation in towns and villages which do not make headlines, often of children who will be traumatized for ever. Punishing the guilty should be an effective deterrent, commensurate with the greater and primary need to prevent such crimes in the future.

While the government promises to tinker with the law, we need to recognize that the problem starts with mass media like the cinema which focus on molestation and rape as titillation without any heed to the encouragement it gives to barely-literate minds, especially when inebriated with alcohol, high on drugs, or merely driven by lust. Ban those for a start. And posters of bleeding women and accusing pointing fingers, often with uniformed policemen with guns in the background. It is incongruous that you can legislate against showing cigarette-smoking on film but not the display of violence against women. Ask psychologists to get into the minds of convicted rapists and understand what will deter and prevent future copycat crimes. For 65 years we have been indolent, patronizing and prejudiced, so err now if necessary on actions towards prevention and leave the fine tuning for later. But do something now.