He took his time. The prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, had not, for a long eight days, felt the need to speak to a hurt and angry people protesting on the streets of Delhi against not just the rape and torture of a woman in a bus last Sunday week but also generally against women’s lack of safety in the capital. In that, Mr Singh is a perfect upholder of the country’s institutional traditions: the justice system, for example, creaks forward with agonizing slowness. Maybe Mr Singh’s disinterest stemmed from the fact that there was no political colouring to the original protests; those who took to the streets spontaneously were just girls and boys next door. Why bother? It would seem that the leadership is incapable of gauging the dangers hidden in a wide-ranging apolitical protest. Indian politicians are unable to hear anything but their own and their boss’s voices; they are deaf to both the anguish and the harsh judgment that the people voice. Democracy is a hard act to engage in, too hard for Indian politicians anyway.
The substance of the prime minister’s message to the nation is another manifestation of disinterest. He shares the people’s anguish, but violence will achieve nothing — after all, trying to reach leaders ensconced behind closed doors only leads to young people being beaten up by the police. Everything will be done for the protection of women and children, he said, a women’s helpline set up, buses properly monitored, more police put on the streets and, best of all, the most recent case will be disposed of quickly. He could have been reading from a list of promises at least 20 years old, or older, it would have made no difference. These are sentences mouthed repeatedly over the years, especially after particularly hideous crimes against women; the fulfilment of the promises remains elusive. Although some politicians have expressed a willingness to sacrifice a part of their huge security retinues so that there can be funds for more police on the roads, such pious sentiments are likely to fizzle out. And why should one rape case be fast-tracked through court? What happened to the repeatedly touted programme of fast-track courts for all cases of violence against women all over the country? The prime minister’s response incarnated precisely the betrayal the people’s protests are targeted at. The government would be truly foolish not to pay attention to what they are saying.