The Long Night of December 16th

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HAS ANYTHING CHANGED? Protests mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape.
HAS ANYTHING CHANGED? Protests mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape.

Have the mass protests of last winter led to a more caring, women-friendly environment in India?

VANIT SETHI

Ayn Rand’s path-breaking play Night of January 16th called its jury from the audience to decide on a tricky murder case. In India, we’ll remember the 16th night of another winter month – December 2012 – for one of the most brutal gang rapes that took place in a moving bus on the roads of the capital city.

An incident that shocked the entire nation for its sheer brutality, brought thousands of people out on the streets in candlelight processions, and to brave the water cannons of the police in Delhi’s chilly nights.

It was a wake-up call for the people who decided they will no more remain indifferent to what’s happening around them, and speak out or even scream out against what they felt was going wrong in the country – and they felt a lot was going wrong.

While the gang rape did bring a lot of people together to fight for a common cause, it also brought out certain deep divisions within Indian society that exposed the different worlds inhabited by a wide spectrum of people – and the vastly different viewpoints and value systems they held.

In many ways, it pitted men against women, young against the old, urban versus rural, educated versus the illiterate, and liberal versus conservative. If they were two broad warring sides in this battle, you could say, perhaps, it was the young, educated, modern urban woman against the old, illiterate, conservative rural man – two diametric or polar opposites.

On a larger canvas, it was a Mahabharat between a young and modern, aspirational India against an old and rigid, fossilised Bharat. The social faultlines clearly revealed themselves. In the days and months that followed, it did seem that a tectonic shift was talking place within the country.

As night after night, the debates raged on news channels, it looked as if a massive social revolution was going to sweep India. But did it happen or did the frenzy die down as the days passed by?

The night of December 16th certainly threatened to upset the Indian mainland patriarchal social order. It exposed quite a few hopelessly outdated mindsets that still prevailed among large sections of society. From the president Pranab Mukherjee’s son, who called the protesting ladies in Delhi as “those dented, painted faces,” to the fake guru Asaram (now arrested on rape charges) whose notorious comment that the young girl should have called her rapists ‘brothers’ and begged them to let her go – a number of politicians, police officials and others in public life unwittingly revealed their prejudices, thoroughly exposing themselves for their outdated beliefs and value systems. It laid bare, very painfully, how far we still have to travel to become a truly modern, enlightened and civilized nation.

India – as a nation born on August 15, 1947 – did adopt a very modern and liberal Constitution, which was the handiwork of some very enlightened minds whose thinking was far ahead of their times. But as a country, India carries the burden of a 5,000-year-old civilization, which desperately needs a thorough overhaul.

For that, we need to systematically junk many of the old shibboleths that have been constantly fed to us from childhood by people around us. In fact, they are primarily responsible for the rising crimes against women.

One of these is the fondly-held idea or a firmly-held belief that ours is indeed a unique culture that needs to be preserved. First of all, what is it that makes us unique in any way? Many countries of the world find themselves unique – ask USA, Russia, China, Brazil, Australia, etc.

They will all say they are unique, as indeed they are! So, what makes us special, in any way? Yes, we are different from others, but certainly not special. This feeling of being ‘special’ prevents us from discarding many old customs that have outlived their utility.

One of these customs is the special status accorded to males in our mainstream Indian society, who are brought up on the belief that they are superior. These ‘pati parmeshwars’ are in fact absolute cowards and weaklings who think beating up their wives in a drunken state is a sign of masculinity. Who told them that gods drink and spank their spouses?

Junk this tradition of elevating ‘good-for-nothing’ men. They have to be told from childhood there is nothing special about them till they prove themselves to be real men – not by fighting against women but for women and with women – to begin with, in their own families.

And by the way, passing on the family name is not an achievement worth the Nobel, for heaven’s sake! The world is not going to end if your family name does not get passed on through a male heir.

Right from the day a girl is born, she is looked down upon in large swathes of our country because a huge dowry has to be paid to her useless would-be husband and in-laws (who could be rightly called outlaws). So, the whole problem is very conveniently nipped in the bud through sex-determination tests (which though illegal, are still widely prevalent).

And this happens to the greatest extent in the country’s most prosperous states – Punjab and Haryana. Junk this tradition of looking down on girls. They are weak because you make them weak. Make them strong and self-reliant, and they prove themselves better and more reliable than the sons.

Educate them and you educate the next generation. In any case, girls are surpassing boys in academic excellence, right from the school stage to the universities. Is there any field that is left unexplored by women today? Prize them and give them their due.

Women are not goddesses, just like men are not gods. If men can fulfill their desires, dreams and fantasies, so can the women. Stop imposing impossible demands on women – they are not responsible for the moral degradations in a society largely controlled by men. Junk this idea that the length of their skirts and the size of their shirts are responsible for the rising crimes in society, especially against them.

If depraved men go nuts on seeing jeans and skirts, instead of sarees and burqas, it is they who should be locked up in their homes, not the women. If they cannot behave in a civilized fashion while out on the streets, then their parents should put the curfew on them, instead of their daughters who will not whistle at strange men.

I think the two biggest beliefs that we need to junk in India is one that the villages are pure and the cities are corrupted. And two, that our culture is inherently superior to Western culture or any other culture in the world. Firstly, what is this foolish, romantic notion of villages as ideal settlements, popularised by old Bollywood flims?

I would go along with Ambedkar rather than Gandhi on this. The former believed villages to be the cesspools of backwardness, poverty, and illiteracy. He wanted cities to become the focus of attention as the ideas they generate promote progress, as opposed to Gandhi, who had this romantic notion about a pure and sublime rural utopia.

Secondly, let’s talk about the supposed greatness of Indian culture. One that allows unborn girls to be killed, one that burns brides for the greed of money, one that shames women further after they have been raped, one that starves young girls and fattens young boys.

But, we are superior to those Westerners who booze and party and indulge in free sex; whose women have as much right to enjoy sex as the men; and who can fulfill their every other dream without societal pressures. Right! No, no women cannot be given that freedom, they will spoil our culture and make it permissive, just like Western culture.

On a more serious note, have the mass protests of last winter led to a more caring, women-friendly environment today, one year down the line? The reality is that women feel even more vulnerable today than they felt, say 10 or 20 years ago, because the beasts in our society are taking advantage of the anonymity of our big cities to commit their hateful crimes.

In addition, our laws have been so lax, that they encourage the criminals to get away with rapes, if not murder.

Slowly, things are changing with stricter laws coming in place now. But just making laws is not enough – implementation is the key. Women are also coming out more in the open against their tormentors, whether they are their bosses or those in positions of power, as in the cases of Tarun Tejpal and Justice AK Ganguly, former supreme court judge.

More FIRs too are being registered by women in police stations. But clearly, much more needs to be done to make women feel completely safe and secure. I think we would have really progressed the day a woman feels safe to walk in any city in India wearing any dress she wants, at any time of the day or night, and with anyone she feels like. Until that time, we should not feel upset at being called ‘uncivilized barbarians’.

It is worthwhile to mention here that our highest court sentences a brutal juvenile rapist to just three years in a juvenile remand home, while the LGBT community has been told by the same court that they are ‘criminals’ if they indulge in ‘uncommon sexual acts’ even in the privacy of their bedrooms by mutual consent. Cry, my beloved country!

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Vanit Sethi spent around quarter of a century working with newspapers in India and in the Gulf before returning home to a more relaxed and peaceful existence in one of the prettiest parts of India. He loves music, food, writing and reading. This is first of his blogs for Clarion India

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