Last December, I was one of the many people across Delhi (and indeed, the country) who went out to join the protests in the wake of the brutal gang rape case of a young Delhi girl. The young woman, who later lost her life due to the fatal injuries she sustained, sparked a visceral response that was rare for a country where you sometimes can’t help but be amazed at the stoic acceptance of so many ills.
December 29, the day she died at a Singapore hospital (and the day I finally couldn’t help but be part of the protests), felt like a day of personal mourning—as if somebody we knew and loved had been lost. Yet Jantar Mantar, the iconic Delhi landmark where protests often take place and which was the nerve center of the movement in December, was only part-spontaneous. Powering the movement were a handful of committed gender rights activists and NGOs.
The images from the protest seemed so much more amplified on our television sets, as all the major broadcast network stations covered the story for nearly two weeks. This kept the issue alive and pressured the government to take action, which mainly meant improving policing and setting up a committee to introduce a stricter anti-rape law. It was clear that editors of India’s major media organizations had decided to make this an issue. And, just this time, it seemed worthy, courageous and important for them to be more activist, less purely journalistic—to err on the side of passion, and to lend their voices to transforming a ghastly incident into a powerful movement.
Still, even then many doubted whether this national focus on the issue of the treatment of Indian women would lead to any real change, or if “pop demonstration” was merely a global fad. Undoubtedly, in the aftermath of an equally brutal gang-rape of a young photojournalist in Mumbai last week, change clearly seems to have eluded us. The fact that this time the scene of the crime was Mumbai, a city considered India’s safest urban center for women, brings home the point that things across India have gotten worse, not better. In the past, traveling from Delhi to Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata felt incredibly liberating. But now even these cities have lost that air of safety.
While they still feel safer than Delhi, over the past year a general feeling of being on guard among women has become a reality in Bangalore and Mumbai as well. Our newspapers are full of stories of other crimes against women. A journalist I know has put a Google Alert on the words “rape” and “India,” and says the daily dose of inhumanity he’s forcing himself to read has confronted him with how bad things really are, and how much more needs to be done.
It’s tough to spot a silver lining in any of this, and so easy to dismiss the solidarity the country felt when that young girl in Delhi lost her life. Many seem to fear that even anger seems wasted. Is there no hope of ridding India of the national shame of being so unfriendly a place for its women?
I can’t help but disagree with the skeptics. Of course things haven’t really changed on the ground. Of course the task seems daunting, and so often, impossible. But we need to get much angrier before we even think about stopping. And, here, the screaming media headlines, emotional television tickers and heart-wrenching columns make a difference. At least more rape crimes are being brought to light and reported—a small, painful victory. At least our media has taken off the cloak that shrouded stories of sexual incest and misconduct at work and at home. And at least there is demand for more sensitization of the police force, and for stricter, speedier justice.
Hopefully, many families are beginning to be conscious of how they raise their sons. To many, this might seem like clutching at straws. But confronted with the treatment of women in India, we need to keep both our anger at a boil and our hopes alive.