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AGONY AND ANALYSIS
- Steps and changes to counter violence against women

The nation is mourning the death of a young woman. This is the least that can be done by the people of this country, especially men who have become callous towards different forms of brutality to which women are subjected here. Agony is getting expressed and rightly so throughout the country. We need to hear the voices of women, especially young women, who are saying clearly to our collective shame that they do not feel safe here. This is the time to express agony. This is also the time to engage in introspection. We need a clear analysis of the situation if we wish to find lasting solutions.

Let us first be clear about the facts. In what is now being mentioned as the 2012 Delhi gangrape case, a young woman was beaten and gangraped in a bus in Delhi on December 16, 2012, when she and a male friend of hers boarded the bus in South Delhi late in the evening. Both she and her friend were beaten with a blunt instrument, suspected to be an iron rod, and after the rape was committed, they were thrown out of the moving bus. A passerby found them on the road, the police were informed, and both of them were taken to a hospital. Such was the brutality of the beating and the rape that the victim had to be put immediately under emergency treatment. Even after the best that was done for her medically, her condition remained critical. She was taken to Singapore for further treatment and she died there on December 29, having fought bravely for her life.

These facts have to be seen in the broader perspective. Rape has become a common crime against women in this country. Even after the public outcry at the gangrape of the young woman who is being called Nirbhaya, the fearless, newspapers are full of further rape cases, including in Delhi, a city that is being described as the “rape capital”. Other atrocities against women include bride burning, honour killing, forced prostitution, and acid throwing. The picture of Archana Kumari, a victim of acid throwing by a stalker, which appeared on the front page of this newspaper, is telling. Coming to Jantar Mantar to express her agony, she said: “I am sick and tired of what men do to women and how no one stops them. I wanted to show everyone that I am not yet dead. I can protest.” International concern is being expressed at the manner in which women are treated here, with appeals to make the lives of women “safe and secure”. The demand to bring perpetrators to justice has come from within the country as well as outside, including from Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, who has clearly conveyed that “violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated”.

It will require an intensive inquiry by sociologists and other social scientists, including social psychologists, to find out why India, with a tradition of worshipping female deities, subjects women to such degrading brutalities. A ready view is that the country in moving forward finds itelf in a situation where the agrarian order is disintegrating without the urban order being properly in place as yet. Progression is accompanied by regression.

I wish to put forward two limited points here. One of them relates to governance. As far as the Delhi rape on December 16 is concerned, let us remind ourselves that the bus in which the rape took place was taken over by six men, including a minor, who ran it as they wished. How is it possible that in the heart of the capital such an act could take place? What were the police doing? This is a straightforward case of the failure of police action that needs to be investigated locally. There are then bigger issues of governance involved. Are our acts and procedures adequate for safeguarding women? Are even the provisions that are there on paper implemented adequately? Why is it that a review of our criminal law, for its effectiveness in protecting women, has not been completed so far? Why must there be just a knee-jerk reaction, not systematic effort, to deal with the problem? These questions point towards a failure of governance that involves both the legislative and the executive branches of the government. The role of the police, in particular, is questionable in this context. It is said that not all cases of rape are reported, among those that are reported not all are investigated, and among those that are investigated not all are brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Actual culprits as well as potential ones tend to think, therefore, that they can get away with, literally, murder.

My other point relates to values. In a country that is mad about movies, we need to ask what kind of values are communicated by them. In a perceptive article, Swaminathan S.A. Aiyar has argued that Hindi films sanctify pestering and stalking of women. Film after film, from the time of Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, film heroes have suggested by their actions that to win a woman one has just to pester them long enough. A woman’s ‘no’ can be turned into a ‘yes’ by the sheer tenacity of this imposition (think of Vyjayanthimala’s resigned concession Hoga, hoga, hoga in Raj Kapoor’s song Bol Radha bol, sangam hoga ki nahi). Films in regional languages are reported to be even worse. What message does Amitabh Bachchan, for example, give in his song Jumma chumma de de?

I do not agree with Aiyar when he says that item numbers and rape scenes are not the main problem, for cabaret dancers and villains are not role models. He overlooks that these item numbers do not any longer belong to women identified as vamps but are increasingly performed by reigning film stars who seem to be competing with one another in lewdness. Think of the Sheila and Munni comparison in which it was openly debated whether Katrina Kaif had outperformed Malaika Arora Khan. We can recall the notorious Choli song of Madhuri Dixit and the Kajra Re song of Aishwarya Rai. We need to understand what an item number is. It is typically a dance-and-song performance that appears in a film without any relation to the film story. A scantily dressed woman generally titillates ogling men by her provocative song and suggestive movements. The choice of the term ‘item’ itself carries derogatory implications. These item numbers are copied and performed not only in bars but also in social gatherings, including during ‘cultural’ functions, as, for example, the ones that are put up by different puja committees in Calcutta, notably after the conclusion of the Durga Puja.

We need to ask ourselves what price we are paying for elevating mere entertainers to the rank of icons. I recall the day of the passing away of Kanika Bandyopadhyay, one of the greatest Rabindrasangeet singers who was blessed with a beautiful voice and the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore himself. That day Hrithik Roshan happened to be visiting Calcutta. I discovered to my dismay that his occasional visit attracted greater attention than the passing away of a true cultural personality.

What is to be done? Going by the restricted argument presented here, we need to tighten our governance, make it more responsive, control negative influences, and promote positive influences that must be rooted in the family, the neighbourhood, and the school. I am also clear about what is not to be done. Serial bad news is bad for bad news, for one replaces the other from public attention. Such events give adequate material to our public figures, especially politicians, to engage in a tamasha, farcical spectacle, that Indian public life has been reduced to during these years. This tamasha must stop, for it adds to the agony.