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ASKING FOR THE WRONG RIGHTS

- Even after the Delhi gangrape, questions of justice and the role of the media remain unresolved

Since Independence, the hope for a mass movement in India has produced either guerrilla protests or television reality shows. We have had a confused (and mostly fantastical) patriotic surge under the guidance of Anna Hazare, but that too lost steam pretty quickly. Until recently, it almost looked as though Indians are an inherently content people, and no amount of discomfort — in the forms of poverty, bad governance, corruption and crime — can manage to wake us up. Then, something happened.

India suddenly reacted, spontaneously, consciously and forcefully, to the rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi. The protests that were ignited across the country, and especially in the cities, suggest that this was not a reaction to an isolated incident. Rather, the incident — which was a perfect symbol of a society turning savage — represented the larger cancer that has been eating into the country’s integrity.

So is this the Indian Spring, then? The reality seems to be otherwise. While the protests are still on in many forms, one can sense that their intensity has been diluted.

Why did this happen? True, it was mostly the urban middle-class that led the protests, but even then they were an unprompted, and instinctive, reaction to injustice that could have spread wider. The reason they didn’t has to do, perhaps, with the nature of the incident that triggered them.

Rape, in most societies, is still a complex matter to deal with. There are questions — regarding both the victim and the perpetrator — that legal systems yet need to answer clearly and uninhibitedly. In the case of the Delhi rape, the protests have been useful, irrespective of how much hope for justice they have actually awakened. The people’s anger has given some glimpses of our society’s raw response to violence against women — which otherwise mostly remains hidden behind a facade of political correctness.

For one, the banners and slogans at the rallies and the candlelight marches (and related posts on social networking sites) show that a large number of people want strict punishment for the rapists. Strict, in this context, has come to mean cruel: two punishments widely suggested were hanging and “chemical castration”. It is a prevalent view that such vindictiveness will act as deterrent for future crimes. But the psyche behind the demand for capital punishment shows that the keyword here is revenge. Eye for an eye: death for rape.

Apart from the humanitarian debate around capital punishment, and the question whether such punishment at all acts as a deterrent, the logic behind the demand equates rape with death, or, in fact, suggests that rape is worse than death. This position, in itself, makes the victim of sexual violence even more vulnerable to prejudice.

There have been other demands too. Some protesters, less revengeful, wondered about ways to prevent rape. Ways suggested have ranged from the absurd (the victim should have begged before the criminals or prayed to god) to the defensive (helpline numbers, pepper sprays, female taxi drivers). And a few have suggested that prostitution be made illegal and pornography be banned in order to lessen the rate of sexual violence in society.

Even without going into the debate on banning prostitution or pornography, it is clear that these two suggestions, on the periphery, relate to the ‘objectification’ of the female body. The logic is — if women sell their bodies, they become objects; if they reveal their bodies in front of the camera, they become objects. And therefore they become vulnerable to rape. It is amazing how excitement can obscure a simple point. It is not the woman’s exposed body that objectifies her; it is, rather, the perspective which sees a woman’s revealed body as an object of sexual gratification that makes her a victim of abuse.

So much has been said and suggested, yet, India has found it hard to consolidate its rationale and purpose regarding this issue. So the Indian Spring still deludes us. If we had wanted to free women rather than to protect and lecture them, perhaps winter could have given way to spring.