The clay-caked hands of a protester in New Delhi on Saturday. A few protesters covered themselves in clay, blindfolded themselves, held weighing scales and raised placards seeking justice. (AFP)
New Delhi, Dec. 29: I learnt at the barricades today that the personal is the political. So I am culpable. Culpable of the gang rape and murder of a co-citizen.
I am culpable because I am a man. Because I have encouraged lewd jokes, sexist jibes and dirty talk about women.
I am culpable because I don’t dare to stop the flurry of bad language around me every day, in almost every gathering, that have to do with genitalia, of wanting to do this to someone’s mother or someone’s sister, knowing fully well that it is not for the motherhood or the sisterhood but in the full knowledge that whoever she is, she must be a woman.
So I will say today from the police barricades of New Delhi and from among the tens of hundreds who walked on, sat on and slept on the roads and sidewalks of Jantar Mantar, that I am culpable of nurturing the environment and climate in which such torment can be inflicted on a girl.
I am culpable because as a student in Calcutta’s Jadavpur University, I once cracked a lewd joke on an eccentric teacher who was so deeply engaged in scholarship that she did not care what she wore and how she looked.
I am culpable because I have shouted at my mother during quarrels, more than once: “Why are Bengali women so difficult?”
I am culpable because I have girlfriends who have taken abuse in male company that I could not strike out against not only because I was scared but also because I thought it was the done thing to meld into the environment.
So today at Jantar Mantar, I walked around looking for answers. Most over there were looking for answers themselves. It did look like men had outnumbered women in the many huddles from the crossing at Parliament Street right up to Kerala House. The huddles were discussing what to do next. What do I do to myself?
The huddle I watched most closely was the most rumbustious. A group of young men mostly in their twenties.
They were shouting the loudest. Around four in the afternoon, as they gathered and accosted a police officer with abusive slogans, a bottle fell out from someone’s bag and broke on the road.
The smell of cheap whisky wafted at that barricade and the protesters dispersed. Earlier in the afternoon, that same group had rigged up a loudspeaker and said it was going to Sushil Kumar Shinde’s house to demand the home minister’s resignation.
Most of the crowd ignored them, assuming that they were in Jantar Mantar to provoke trouble. These men were not looking for answers, having resolved that they shared none of my sense of culpability.
At a huddle under a tree, Yogendra Yadav, social scientist and guide to the Aam Aadmi Party, talked of inviting suggestions for what is to be done. He told the men and women around him that it was important to stay networked and they debated forming a forum of the disparate groups.
Near the crossing with Parliament Street, members of the CPM’s All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) held a black badge demonstration and Brinda Karat accused the government of hoodwinking the public.
Between this group of the Left and another, also of the Left, I met Nidhi, who came from Greater Kailash-I with her daughter who will be old enough to vote in 2013. She had tried to calm down the gang that dropped whisky on a mournful gathering.
“We really need a strong leader to find a way out because right now we are all directionless,” she said.
A fellow-traveller herself who has hit the streets but does not know where to go. So I asked if she meant a strong leader like Narendra Modi?
“You see, it is really for them to decide” — and she pointed to her daughter. “We have never given her any reason to be communal but then she is from a different generation — they do not know of the (demolition of) the Babri Masjid (1992) or of 2002 (the Gujarat riots). If she thinks Narendra Modi is the man to vote for, she will.”
In the largest of the huddles, mostly of members of the CPIML (Liberation)’s front, the All India Students Association, the boys and girls had kept up a steady sloganeering. The rhythmic chants to the beat of two tambourines was drawing a large crowd that I was scanning for a familiar face. A woman walking from huddle to huddle with a placard that read “shamed” hanging from her neck crossed my path again.
The discussion here was whether the students should break the police barricades and head to India Gate tomorrow. But the debate on the fallout and costs of taking on the police was going to be long.
Beyond them, near the television outdoor-broadcast vans, the men and women who had gathered were demanding a “funeral with full state honours” for the girl who died this morning far away from home in the Singapore hospital. But the streets here are fed up with the tokenism of symbolism. That is why Jantar Mantar is today such a venue.
The hypocrisy of the demand is too much to digest. For four days now, I have had an understanding of just how skewered the girl was. There was a Safdarjung Hospital doctor at a gathering I went to earlier this week who is the friend of a friend.
Even through the tragedies of personal and professional life — I have covered three wars — that have by now put so much iron into the soul, that narrative of the girl’s torment sits on me like a heavy burden of guilt.
Among the lost faces of Jantar Mantar today I have been looking for one to share that burden with. In Jantar Mantar and on television, for three days now, a phrase that has been overused is “change the mindset”. But it has to begin with me.
It might, indeed, save me — menfolk like me — from wallowing in the depravity that we make. It might save me because it will make me more equal and not the ogre that I feel I have become.
So, at dusk, I crossed a line I have set for myself in journalism. Be the interested observer, not the story. As the candle-lit procession silently set out from Jantar Mantar I joined in as one of them.
And then I saw her at the barricade in front of Parliament Street police station. She was among the silent protesters. We were together for years. No longer so. But I want to tell her most of all: yes, I am culpable.