Jantar Mantar, December 30

For Anonymous

(Photograph: Ruchir Joshi)
(Photograph: Ruchir Joshi)

That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us. The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.

Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.

For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow. They turn away from all the places that have become shorthand for violence beyond measure, preferring not to know about Kashmir or the outrages in Chattisgarh, choosing to forget the Bombay New Year assault, trying not to remember the deaths of a Pallavi Purkayastha, a Thangjam Manorama, Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, the mass rapes that marked the riots in Gujarat. Even for those who stay in touch, it isn’t possible for your empathy to keep abreast with the scale of male violence against women in India: who can follow all of the one-paragraph, three-line cases? The three-year-old raped before she can speak, the teenager assaulted by an uncle, the 65-year-old raped as closure to a property dispute, the slum householder raped and violently assaulted on her way to the bathroom. After a while, even memory hardens.

And then you reach a tipping point, and there’s that girl. For some reason, and I don’t really know why, she got through to us. Our words shrivelled in the face of what she’d been subjected to by the six men travelling on that bus, who spent an hour torturing and raping her, savagely beating up her male friend. Horrific, brutal, savage—these tired words point to a loss of language, and none of them express how deeply we identified with her.

She had not asked to become a symbol or a martyr, or a cause; she had intended to lead a normal life, practicing medicine, watching movies, going out with friends. She had not asked to be brave, to be the girl who was so courageous, the woman whose injuries symbolised the violence so many women across the country know so intimately. She had asked for one thing, after she was admitted to Safdarjung Hospital: “I want to live,” she had said to her mother.

We may have not noticed the reports that came in from Calcutta in February, of a woman abandoned on Howrah Bridge, so badly injured after a rape that involved, once again, the use of iron rods, that the police thought she had been run over by a car. We may have skimmed the story of the  16-year-old Dalit girl in Dabra, assaulted for three hours by eight men, who spoke up after her father committed suicide from the shame he had been made to feel by the village. Or some may have done something concrete about these things, changed laws, worked on gender violence, keeping their feelings out of it, trying to be objective.

But there is always one that gets through the armour that we build around ourselves. In 1972, the first year in which the NCRB recorded rape cases, there were 2,487 rapes reported across India. One of them involved a teenager called Mathura, raped by policemen; we remember her, we remember the history and the laws she changed. (She would be 56 now.)

Some cases stop being cases. Sometimes, an atrocity bites so deep that we have no armour against it, and that was what happened with the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, the one who left a cinema hall and boarded the wrong bus, whose intestines were so badly damaged that the injuries listed on the FIR report made hardened doctors, and then the capital city, cry for her pain.

She died early this morning, in a Singapore hospital where she and her family had been dispatched by the government for what the papers called political, not compassionate, reasons.

The grief hit harder than I’d expected. And I had two thoughts, as across Delhi, I heard some of the finest and toughest men I know break down in their grief, as some of the calmest and strongest women I know called and SMSed to say that she—one of us, this girl who had once had a future and a life of her own to lead—was gone, that it was over.

The first was: enough. Let there be an end to this epidemic of violence, this culture where if we can’t kill off our girls before they are born, we ensure that they live these lives of constant fear. Like many women in India, I rely on a layer of privilege, a network of friends, paranoid security measures and a huge dose of amnesia just to get around the city, just to travel in this country. So many more women have neither the privilege, nor the luxury of amnesia, and this week, perhaps we all stood up to say, “Enough”, no matter how incoherently or angrily we said it.

The second was even simpler. I did not know the name of the girl in the bus, through these last few days. She had a name of her own–it was not Amanat, Damini or Nirbhaya, names the media gratuitously gave her, as though after the rape, she had been issued a new identity. I don’t need to know her name now, especially if her family doesn’t want to share their lives and their grief with us. I think of all the other anonymous women whose stories don’t make it to the front pages, when I think of this woman; I think of the courage that is forced on them, the way their lives are warped in a different direction from the one they had meant to take. Don’t tell me her name; I don’t need to know it, to cry for her.


Near India Gate, A Blocked Protest: notes on my city

(Note: There are so many ways for a city to exclude its citizens. Yesterday, talking to the police who were there to prevent this small, sincere band of protestors from marching up to India Gate, I asked a few how they felt about guarding the Gate from us–all 300 or so of the women’s rights activists, young students, men who had come out to register their protest along with the women, everyone who had showed up to ask for more freedom, more rights for women.

“Kya kare,” said one cop. “Waha VIP movement hi allowed hain aaj kal.” (“What to do, there’s only VIP movement allowed at [India Gate] these days.”)

The architecture of the India Gate area is classically imperial–the statute of George V used to look down that long vista towards Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Emperor of India should have been able to see the dome of the seat of power, except for an error in the plans by Baker and Lutyens; as you walk up Raisina Hill, a walk that every citizen was freely able to take not so long ago, before security barriers began to define Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhavan dips out of sight, the dome of power disappearing.

Some of the policemen were shyly embarrassed when they realised that the might of the state had been brought out against a scant 300 citizens. There were few political parties–the organisers had asked politicians to refrain from using their banners, not to use Gandhi caps or national flags, and not to make speeches: in the face of these restrictions, the party support for women’s rights melted away remarkably fast.

Some cops were angry, like the policeman who was talking into his phone as I passed by, passing him, passing the four trucks that held the water cannons: “There is a city beyond India Gate, and who’s supposed to police it,” he was asking, “when all of us are here? Guarding what?” What they had been brought to Feroze Shah Road to guard was the immaculate emptiness of Rajpath, that blank space at the heart of Delhi.

2012-12-27 15.14.08

If these protests are to go beyond the immediate cries for “justice”, a justice that veers between being the rough hanging justice of a mob as violent as its targets, and a more idealistic justice that asks only for women to be treated as equal, free citizens (yes, that enormous, preposterous demand), then it needs to abandon this city’s empty heart.

It feels so strange, to be told that Rajpath does not belong to its citizens; but through years of shifting its citizens around, to Welcome in the Emergency years, to Bhalaswa and Najafgarh in the slum-clearing years, Delhi’s had a lot of practice at telling its citizens that they don’t belong in many places. Perhaps the protests need to go to the many Delhis that never make it to the media glare, because they’re outside the zone of power and comfort: to Shahdara and the slums of Kusumpur Pahari and Bhalaswa, to Dwarka and to Shakarpur. Those Delhis matter more than Imperial Delhi; and they have a tolerance and a space for citizens that Imperial Delhi has long since forgotten.)

More posts:

On survivors and victims: the language of rape: Talking Rape

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour


The best of 2012: a personal reading list

These My Words: Indian poetry, curated by two of India’s finest poets

(Published in the Business Standard, December 25, 2012. I had limited space, so this is a very truncated list–fiction-heavy, with a strong bias towards Indian writing.)

On the power of words: Indian poetry seldom wins prizes or lands on bestseller lists, and yet the strongest, most radical and most powerful of contemporary Indian writing has come from its poets.

Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo’s anthology ‘These My Words’ heads my personal list of the best of Indian writing in 2012 . Coming after two big anthologies of Indian poetry in English, These My Words takes a broader approach. De Souza and Silgardo, trenchant poets, mistresses of the biting, precise line themselves, have put together the definitive collection of Indian poetry, across the ages, across Indian languages. They arrange poems by theme—love and desire, bhakti and devotion, political poetry—which makes These My Words both a pleasure and an education to read. Don’t miss this.

On the family: From Tolstoy’s unhappy families to Tagore’s broken nests, the domestic sphere has held a special attraction for male writers. Jerry Pinto’s sensitive and honest account of dysfunction and love in Em and The Big Hoom was one of the most moving novels of 2012. Pinto honed his language through the practice of poetry. Manu Joseph honed his spare and never self-indulgent prose through journalism. In his second novel, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People, he writes with cruel and compelling clarity about the high cost of living with the silences and omissions of the average Indian family. Both novels, aside from the writers’ gifts of craft and technique, address potentially brutal subjects with a rare empathy.

On morality: All of Katherine Boo’s work on poverty, in the US and more recently in the slums of Bombay, rests on a belief that clearly struck some readers in India as radical: the poor are not unlike you and me. “Nobody is representative,” she said in an interview to Guernica, “you try to let the reader have a sense of this person and soul, as a recognizable human.” Boo continues to spend time with the residents of Annawadi. Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, the result of her years of work, has the potential to change the way poverty is understood and thought about in India.

On being human: One of the most striking passages in Benyamin’s Goat Days (translated from Malayalam) is a section where the protagonist, a migrant to the Gulf in search of work and better opportunities, finds himself identifying with the goats he’s supposed to herd more than with the humans who own both the goats’ lives and his own. If there is such a thing as a great Gulf novel, Goat Days, with its compassionate understanding of the dark side of the economic migration story, is a contender; but it goes beyond, to ask what separates the animal life from the human one. The barrier, it turns out, is dangerously thin.

On another India: The myth of “village India” as a simple, sweet place has long since been exploded by writers from Rahi Masoom Raza to OV Vijayan. Gogu Shyamala, writing from rural Andhra Pradesh with sly wit and incredibly powerful lyricism, creates unique and unforgettable stories in Father May Be An Elephant, And Mother Only A Small Basket, But… She recreates the caste tensions and the deep political fissures in people’s everyday lives, with humour and dark irony.

On memories and absences: All of MG Vassanji’s work should be required reading for those interested in the gap between official histories and unreported histories. The Magic of Saida, his most recent novel, explores migration—contemporary, to Canada, ancient and forgotten, as in the history of east African migrants—and memory. “The past is a dangerous business… it is best to keep it buried,” says one of his characters. With tremendous control and fluent storytelling, Vassanji brings up the bodies.

On invisible cities: Behind the big, popular city narratives, there are less well-known, often more disquieting stories. Janice Pariat’s Boats On Land is not a fiction writer’s travelogue into Shillong, but like any good story-teller, she brings her city alive along with her characters. Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi) tells three subversive stories about the underbelly of the city, focusing on Jamunapaar, far away from the protected cocoon of South Delhi.

On the past: In Clay and Dust, a wrestler whose powers are in decline meets a courtesan whose days of glory are in the past. Musharraf Ali Farooqui never over-embroiders his tales, letting his characters breathe and tell quiet, unforgettable stories. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King is in a completely different vein, but his history of Afghanistan, drawing on the account of a key battle and on Shah Shuja’s memoirs, makes the complex geopolitics of the country far more understandable.

On ideas of India: For two sharp, well-considered and divergent takes on India, pick up Ramachandra Guha’s Patriots and Partisans, and Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography. Guha’s latest collection of essays looks at the threats to the idea of India, from a rise in religious rightwing fervour to a somewhat shaky liberal intellectualism. Eck’s beautifully considered map of a pilgrim’s India gently but persuasively argues that faith as it is practised goes far beyond the aggressive simplicities of the politically religious.

Talking rape


Survivors, not victims:

This goes beyond semantics. The rape victim, in the minds of many Indian families and some of the media, is expected to suffer a kind of death along with her rape. It is not the violence that people are thinking about, when they say “her life is over”, of a rape victim; it’s the fact that she was stripped, exposed to strangers, and in their terms, dishonoured by the sexual assault. There is also a commercial devaluation: in families that see women as property, this woman, the rape victim, has suddenly been reduced to a person of no value on the marriage market.

This is very different from the reality of the rape survivor. In the best of all cases, the rape survivor is the woman who knows (or intuits) how common this kind of violent sexual assault is, and who makes the decision to move beyond shame, guilt, loss and everything else the world around her demands that she should now feel. The rape survivor reclaims her body, gives it the care and attention it needs, acknowledges her injuries but is not defined by them, acknowledges her rape but does not let her life be defined by an act she did not want and would have rejected if she had been allowed the choice. The rape survivor reclaims the right to be happy again, to heal, to have crazy, passionate sex again, to be interested in all that interested her before the rape, to develop new interests and passions, the right to feel whole again, the right to live fully and freely again.

The rape survivor is not necessarily just the brave woman who acknowledges her rape, tries to bring her rapists to justice, gets what help she needs and moves on with her life. The rape survivor is also the domestic worker who can’t grieve for herself and her injuries because she has to get into work the next day, the sex worker who can’t report her rape at the police station because she’ll run the risk of being raped by more policemen, the Dalit woman in Haryana who has no privacy after being violently raped because everyone in her village knows who did this to her, and how. Many rape survivors don’t have a choice in their bravery; the circumstances of their lives force upon them the basic courage it takes to get up the day after you’ve been raped and make rotis, go to office, go to the construction site where you have a hard-won job, look after the children, clean someone else’s house.

Given how commonplace sexual violence against women is, and given that we don’t expect the figures to drop drastically soon, it makes much more sense to acknowledge a basic truth—many women and some men will experience sexual violence in their lives. Instead of pretending that this is rare, or only talking about the worst instances, or talking only about how to prevent violence, important as that is, we need to talk about how to live your life well, even if you have experienced assault and violence.

We need to look at the many, many women and men who have moved on from the violence they were subjected to, and reshaped their lives; and we need to stop telling survivors that they’re on their own in this process of reconstruction. If so many women are going to experience or witness sexual violence in their lives, we also need to find ways to talk about what this does to us—we need to be able to speak openly, without fear of being judged, about our own experiences.

(I’ve said this before, but there is no acknowledgement or understanding of male rape; the ritualised sexual assault of men during college ragging rituals, for example, is normalized, seen as commonplace, the trauma rarely discussed. The male survivor of sexual violence in India is shamed and silenced in a different, but equally effective way.)

Men, not brutes:

One of the points I tried to make in a recent piece, ‘Executing The Neighbour’, was that rapists and the men behind sexual violence are not beasts, brutes or monsters. You will come across the occasional psychopath, the truly twisted horrorshow man who has a bloody chamber in his house filled with the corpses of his victims. But what we collectively find hard to accept is the banality of brutality, the unremarkable every-day quality of violence—perhaps because we are so silent about the violence that seems to run through the veins of many Indian families.

Most rapists know the women they have chosen to rape. What the NCRB statistics say, with stunning clarity, is that the average rapist is someone who is considered family, or a friend, or a neighbour, or a close acquaintance. Rape by complete strangers accounts for less than 9 per cent of all reported cases. The monster, the beast, the brute in the remaining 90 per cent of reported cases of rape across India: he’s familiar, one of us.

This is frightening to accept, just as it is frightening for people to start acknowledging that even violent rapes—the ones with the iron rods, the knifes of nightmare, the razor blades, the sharpened sticks shoved into women’s bodies—are often perpetrated by very ordinary men. The more we call rapists monsters and brutes, the less we acknowledge where rape comes from.

Equally troubling, we should not set up a hierarchy of violence and rape, where the media, and all of us, start to count bruises, start to discuss rapes in terms of competitive damage. That, in turn, diminishes the many, many rape survivors who were terrorized by the threat of force or violence, but who do not have injuries or scars to show. It diminishes all those survivors of sexual violence who never consented to what was done to them, never agreed that their bodies could be used that way, but were left without visible marks of assault.

In so many accounts of rape in India, especially, the man or men who rape have the full sanction of the community behind them. The gang rapes of women in times of communal riots; the almost ritualized rapes of Dalit women and women from lower castes because their men, or they, need to be taught a lesson; the custodial rapes, the rapes of women by men in uniform as a way of establishing dominance over the clan, the village, the community. All of these acts of violence are carried out with the approval and the collective silence of the wider community, just as child abuse (according to a 2007 survey, 53 % of Indian children of both genders have experienced child abuse) is carried out with the help of the collective silence of the family.

Most rapists are ordinary men. Many, like the politicians who have chargesheets against them, are men in positions of power and respect; or like the men who handed a woman around to be raped again and again in the Suryanelli case in Kerala, are “family men”. Perfectly ordinary. Perfectly respectable. Perfectly protected, because we don’t want to open up that can of worms; that comes too close to home.

Also: this violence has a cost. We’re not studying male violence enough, but how healthy do you think men can be if they inherit their fathers’ anger and pass it on to their sons? Perhaps this is why so many young men, in particular, are standing up and saying, Enough. Perhaps we need to hear from more men, young and old, about why they reject the rape culture around them, and why they have walked away from violence in their own lives, choosing other, better ways to live and love.

Some years ago, Sampath Pal, the founder of the Gulabi Gang, told me about how she had found the strength to start this movement of women who wore pink saris and beat up the men responsible for domestic violence. (They do broader work on a range of women’s rights issues now.) Her own passion was matched by her partner’s belief that she was right; he was ostracised by his village, and chose to support Sampath Pal rather than go back to his community.

I often think of men like him, or like Bhanwari Devi’s husband, who went with her to the police station after she was gangraped in 1992. He stood with his wife all through, rather than with the village that had first ostracised her for speaking up against child marriage, and then punished her with that chilling gangrape, the one committed with the blessings and knowledge of the community.

A few days before this December’s protests from young, urban Delhi at India Gate, the Times of India carried a small item. The Meham khap, one of the largest and most powerful of the Haryana village panchayat councils, announced that it would revert to the old methods of punishing boys and men accused of rape and sexual assault. It asked that families boycott the accused, and their families.

Perhaps this will work, perhaps not. It could, however, challenge the idea that the rape survivor is the one who bears the shame of the rape. Nor is the Meham khap’s decision a sudden flash-in-the-pan—over the last few years, Meham’s citizens appear to have expressed a collective anger over rising instances of sexual assault against women. The khaps have been in the news for more controversial pronouncements—bans on mobile phones for women, on various grounds, restrictions on meetings between young men and women—but the Meham khap’s decision signals some change.

Religion and tradition:

 If the family is one major site of change, religion and tradition form the other front. Religions can empower women—take Sikhism, the first major world religion to proclaim that women were equal to men, with souls of equal weight—but religious practice is another matter. If we’re serious about “stopping rape”—making sexual violence against women unacceptable, then one way to start might be to reject traditions and practices that denigrate women.

If your religion tells you that women must fast for men, but men don’t have to fast for women; that women are not welcome as leaders of the faith, or in the shrines and sanctums of faith; that women count for less than men, do not accept this blindly as a matter of duty. Every major world religion has gone through cycles of reform, and the lines of control have often shifted. Embrace that part of your faith which tells you to celebrate the strength of women and their equality with men; do not accept any prescription from any faith that tells you that a woman’s basic human rights are less important than religious practice.

The same applies to tradition, which has been used to justify everything from dowry to honour killings. The simple test for anything that is said to be the custom of the country: does it humiliate women? Does it threaten their wellbeing or their safety or their lives? If so, don’t support it.

Protesting injustice, expressing anger: these are important. But if Honey Singh’s vile pro-rape lyrics and Bollywood’s continued packaging of women’s bodies aren’t challenged as well, there’s little point to holding up placards asking for change and justice. Yes, the government and the state must change; but it can’t be only the government, only the state.

If you really want a system to change, start by changing the way women are treated every day, in their homes, in their workplaces, by their families. That kind of revolution, in our daily lives and behaviours, is much harder to bring about than passing a law, or setting up fast-track courts. It’s also more lasting.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour

At the heart of Delhi, no space for you


What do they want? (Home Minister Shinde, of the students)

The students in Delhi who were protesting on Saturday didn’t know exactly how to get to what they wanted. Some thought that the death penalty and castration for rapists would do it, some thought appealing to the people in power might do it, some thought telling the police off would do the trick.

They wanted safer streets. They wanted the police, and their parents, to stop telling them what to wear, when to go out, which friends they should be with, how to behave. Many of the young men wanted no part of a system—a system they recognized clearly, though they didn’t call it “patriarchy”—that took in boys and men, and spat them out the other end as rapists and abusers. The girls and young women out there wanted, as many banners said, respect and freedom, not protection; they really, really wanted to be treated equally.

They may have been confused, but they were articulate in their confusion. The only problem was that they were articulate in a way that baffled those on Raisina Hill—the government officers in North and South Block, the parliamentarians to the right of the Hill, the police officers who formed that thin khaki line in between the protestors and their state. They had no leaders. They had no urgent list of demands to be met, because they were not politicians with an agenda to be haggled over. “I thought this was what you were supposed to do,” said one 17-year-old girl to me. “Go out into your public spaces and express your opinion. We want lots to change about how we’re treated, so we’re here to say that.”

For Residents Only

Delhi is the city of warning signs. Do not park here or your tyres will be deflated. This space for residents only. Some signs are unspoken but understood: do not attempt to come out into (male) streets, or you will be raped. One sign is always understood, in this city of power and gated communities: all “public spaces” exist at the pleasure of the state, and the state may withdraw your rights to “your” space at any time it chooses.

The students saw Raisina Hill as a public space. But over the years, the Hill has become less and less public. Boat Club demonstrations have retreated further down Rajpath. The public has access to Raisina Hill chiefly on Republic Day and Beating The Retreat, when it may watch tanks, fatuous floats and folk dances, and military bands. For the rest of the year, Raisina Hill is used exclusively for the entry and exit of government vehicles, Parliament vehicles, even though there was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case. Each of the radial roads that span out around Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament and North and South Block has slowly been closed down, or become increasingly policed.

The public, the citizens in whose name the powerful run the country, have been pushed down Rajpath. At India Gate, they can have an illusion of public space—balloon sellers, boating, candyfloss and golgappa sellers, a few photographs against Amar Jawan Jyoti. But larger and larger parts of Rajpath have been annexed for official purposes only.

The students didn’t know that. They thought that the correct way to approach those in power was to come to them, and to sit at their doorsteps, waiting for them to step out and say hello. But on December 22nd, when the protest was still peaceful and still belonged to the students, most officials in North and South Block chose to use the back way home, around Rashtrapati Bhavan, down North and South Avenue. Not one of them thought that they might want to step out of their white Ambassadors, and take that short walk up to the yellow police barricades, just to see for themselves how dangerous these young protestors, chanting their slogans, might be. The Home Minister, Mr Shinde, said today he didn’t think government should be expected to run around meeting its citizens—what if, he implied, others protested, demanding meetings?

Imagine that. What if those in power actually had to spend their time meeting their citizens, listening to their grievances? Do we not know that government has more important things to do than to talk to us?

The students thought Raisina Hill was for everyone. Today, nine metro stations have been closed, to prevent protestors from using Rajpath—the King’s Way—and this has been justified by the violence created, not by students, but by political cadres, by faceless men attracted by the presence of TV cameras, happy for a chance to smash something up in front of an audience.

Lutyens’ Delhi sits safe and sanitized today, in the circle of those nine metro stations where no ordinary citizens will be permitted to get off the trains, go upstairs into their city. The bungalows of ministers and government officials, the prime minister’s house, the offices of North and South Block, the Hill and all it stands for are encased in their own, private bubble of security, emptied of mobs, protestors, aam janata.

The students have been asked to take their protest somewhere else, somewhere out of sight, preferably. Women in this city are often asked to step back, to not use public roads or transport after dark, to stay away from roads, parks, metro stations, bars, parties, malls, schools, places where they might not be safe. In this city with its broad avenues (in Lutyens’ Delhi, if not in the newer colonies and in neglected, invisible West and East Delhi), its planned open spaces, there is little in the way of public spaces for women, for the young, just as little as there is for the poor. These protestors will eventually be shunted around the city, asked to protest here, and there; just as we ask women not to do this, not to do that. It’s always framed as a question of someone’s safety, never as a question of your right to be free and safe in public space.

What wasn’t being said

 At the embryo protest on the 22nd, there were many issues that stayed unspoken and dormant. Were the students aware of the wider issues surrounding rape—the silence in families and homes, where women are most vulnerable to being sexually assaulted, the deliberate, centuries-old practice of using rape as a weapon to keep Dalits and lower castes in line, the innumerable instances of custodial rape and rape by military forces and the police in areas where they were supposed to be serving the people? Would they have been as exercised, as angry, over the many rapes of women in the slums, of homeless women—and if not, were they prepared to ask themselves why? Were they engaged in the debates over the death penalty, the reasons why so many people are opposed to capital punishment?

Were the students aware of the extent to which child abuse and violence in the Indian family affect both men and women? Was there an understanding and a sense of solidarity among the students of the far more severe and lethal violence meted out by the state against young adults and protestors in Kashmir, in the North-East? Were there broader issues underlying women’s rights, or the politics of violence, that might have emerged?

Perhaps those 10,000 students who came out of nowhere on December 22 didn’t care about these issues, or didn’t see the connection, for instance, between Honey Singh’s vile, pro-rape rap songs and the violence they were protesting on the streets; perhaps at least some of them did.

Talking to just a few students and protestors, you see a spectrum of views: some are very politically aware, some just want to see a rapist hanged and don’t really care about the wider context. But what they seemed to want was to be allowed to occupy this space while they expressed their feelings and groped their way to a different understanding of the city around them. Perhaps that occupation would have led to more and more political conversations, of the kind that often does happen on college campuses. Instead, they were routinely patronized, by a state that didn’t seem interested in what they had to say, by politicians who didn’t bother to sit down with them and listen, and by a city administration that treated them as a nuisance, squatters to be evicted.

On the 23rd, when the city administration shut down Metro stations, it effectively prevented students from reaching the city centre. It did not prevent organised (and sometimes highly politicised) students’ unions from bringing in their NSUI and JNUSU and BJP students’ wing and AISA agitators; it did not prevent random hooligans from gleefully wrecking the protest; it did not prevent political cadres from showing up to mug for the TV cameras.

It did, however, manage to shut down and silence the students who’d started out with no agenda, beyond the simple one of wanting to be heard. At the heart of the city, at the heart of power, there was no space for them.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour

India Gate, Dec 23: photos

TV cameras at India Gate this morning
TV cameras at India Gate this morning

The presence of the media inevitably changes the nature of protest–Kashmir and the North-East are invisible because they’re not on TV, as many pointed out yesterday, but Delhi’s protests will always attract full coverage. That also changes the nature of a spontaneous protest: everyone from casual gawkers to politicians really wants to see themselves on the nine o’clock news.

Though there were many families, students and mother-daughter pairs present, the crowd this morning was significantly more organised, from the JNUSU and AISA to the BJP’s student wing. Baba Ramdev was supposed to be on his way, because of course *that’s* what yesterday’s young protestors had secretly wanted all along–Baba Ramdev! Riding into Delhi on top of a bus! The solution to the problem of sexual violence against women in India that none of us had been bright enough to dream up!

On a side note, by making it difficult for students and young men and women to reach India Gate after the Metros were shut down and roads cordoned off, the Delhi government may actually have allowed the protest to be taken over by political parties of all stamps.

Students, towards the back of the protest at India Gate. Most of them walked down from distant Metro stations.
Students, towards the back of the protest at India Gate. Most of them walked down from distant Metro stations.

Despite Section 144 being in place, we weren’t stopped as we walked down with about 700 activists and supporters from Nizamuddin towards India Gate this morning. Police allowed protestors to knock over barricades at India Gate and move towards the centre, only firing teargas and using the water cannons a little later, when some protestors started throwing traffic cones and slippers around. The water cannons and the teargas hit a lot of the more peaceful protestors, unfortunately. But the impression that the police had been asked not to over-react was very strong.

The police lines at India Gate, though my sense was that they'd been instructed to go relatively easy on the protestors.
The police lines at India Gate, though my sense was that they’d been instructed to go relatively easy on the protestors.

Perhaps because it was a smaller crowd today–about 2,000 when we left–the teargas shells found their targets much more easily than yesterday.

Teargas shell, from the first teargas firing.
Teargas shell, from the first teargas firing.

Short of riot situations, I’d never seen the roads around India Gate so eerily silent and empty. At the India Gate-Akbar Road crossing. Students were walking down from various Metro stations, undeterred by the fact that Central Secretariat and other stations were closed, many cheerfully talking about how they’d get there in time for the post-lunch “protest session”.

Update: By evening, the protests had turned violent, sadly, with some protestors blaming political parties and “outside elements” for introducing aggression into what had been, on Saturday, a peaceful protest.

Sanitising the area: empty roads around India Gate.
Sanitising the area: empty roads around India Gate.

Notes from Raisina Hill


“We want justice! We want justice!”

I went to the protests at Raisina Hill expecting very little. Despite the anger over the recent, brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old by a group of six men, who also beat up her male friend, protests over women’s violence in the Capital have been relatively small.

But the crowds walking up the Hill, towards the government offices of North and South Block, from India Gate are unusual. It’s a young crowd—students, young men and women in their twenties, a smattering of slightly older women there to show their solidarity, and it’s a large crowd, about a thousand strong at the Hill itself. There are two small knots representing student’s politicial organisations, but otherwise, many of the people here today are drawn together only by their anger.

Many say it is their first protest, but “this time was too much”. The women spill over with articulate indignation about how tired they are of being targets of violence—not free in the streets, not free at home, says one. The men talk about how they don’t want to be seen in the same light as rapists; one young student talks about how helpless he feels when his women friends/ relatives are targetted. As more and more join the crowds, I realise that many of the students come from Faridabad, Ghaziabad, outside the insulated circle of South Delhi colleges. Almost all of them heard about the protest on Facebook and Twitter, or from friends—not through the mainstream media.


“Hang the rapists!” “Castrate Men Who Rape!”

Many of the protestors are volubly, enthusiastically for the death penalty, some demanding mob justice. “Give us those six men, and we’ll show them what pain is like,” says one lovely young girl, holding up a “Death To All Rapists” sign. Her friend breaks down when she talks about how she’s followed the progress of the survivor of the recent gang-rape in Delhi: the brutality of the rape (the rapists savaged the woman so badly with an iron rod that her intestines are permanently damaged) has become a kind of uber-nightmare for many. None of them have thought the implications of capital punishment through: this is a from-the-gut, emotional response.

Along with the “Death To The Rapist” chants,  the “We Want Justice” refrain that runs through this morning’s protests, there’s also a swell of anger against the government and against politicians. Sheela Dikshit, Sonia Gandhi, the Home Minister—the crowd calls, again, and again, for them to come out and address people. They may not know exactly what they want—safer roads? An end to violence against women? Death to rapists?—but they really want someone to talk to them, anyway. “Come out from your safe offices, your safe cars, come out and see how we live,” says one woman. It’s picked up by many others.


“Don’t kick it back! Don’t let them blame us!”

The police attempts to disperse protestors thrice in the morning. I miss the first lathi-charge/ tear gassing, but the next two happen shortly afterwards—on what seems like scant provocation. Right at the front, holding the protestors back, a line of young boys and girls reminds everyone to keep it peaceful, to keep it down. “Say whatever you want to say, abuse as much as you want, but no violence,” says a student who’s as much of a leader as this spontaneous, leaderless protest has had. Earlier that morning, some members of the crowd smashed the window of a Delhi Police bus, and apparently that led to the first lathicharge and teargassing.

When four boys start pushing out another of the Delhi Police buses, other protestors immediately stop them. “Don’t give them an excuse!” one calls, but it’s too late. The bus has been rolled back into place. But the water cannon starts up and the teargas shells start bursting, as the police decide that’s the best thing to do with a bunch of young protestors who’re clearly trying to keep it peaceful. We cover our faces with shawls, hankies, and run for it, shells bursting around us. When one of the boys lobs a shell back, he’s yelled at: “Don’t kick it back! Don’t let them blame us!”

The third tear-gassing is equally unwarranted: the police open up the barricades, leaving a tempting gap, and when protestors start to move in (and therefore technically towards Rashtrapati Bhavan), out come the cannons again and the teargas shells. But though the crowds disperse, they keep coming back. The mood has changed slightly. There are more calls of “Delhi Police Hai Hai!” and in a silent shift of tactics, the crowd does its best to bait the police. “Stones are being thrown at the police,” one over-excited reporter says, and he has it wrong. What some of the protestors were throwing were coins, taunting the police: you don’t do your job well enough to keep us safe, perhaps you will if we bribe you. Every so often, obeying some unspoken signal among themselves, the protestors amiably give the cops the finger.

Some boys climb up the lamp posts, holding up their slogans: Hang Rapists, Stop Violence, Respect Women. They’re received with loud cheers, and then an even bigger cheer goes up when one young woman scales a lamppost. Soon, all five of the ornate iron lamp-posts in the park near Raisina Hill have been taken over by young women, sending out sincere if mixed messages. One of them, a fiery shouter of slogans, holds up bangles in the direction of the police, sending out a message that may be singularly unfeminist, but that is also very clear: you should wear these, like weak women, because you can’t do your job, which makes you weak, like women. Seekers of metaphor and symbol would have a field day with this.

The protest stays calm and peaceful, settling down into a kind of rhythm, with separate knots performing their versions of homely street theatre, till about 2:30 pm. By that time, the sting of the teargas has left most of us, and I am recognising, with some surprise, just how safe I feel in this crowd, safer than I have ever felt in any public place in Delhi in decades.

Afternoon: a different crowd

But the crowd is changing, fast, and in unpleasant ways. The students, and their spontaneous protest, form a small wedge at the top of Raisina Hill, flanked by long lines of police and media. Behind them, swirling in eddies through the body of the protestors, are packs of activists, beginning to catch up to the televised, pulsing energy of this particular protest. I see cadres from all kinds of political parties, many of them, like the Shiv Sena, not known for their interest in women’s rights or women’s issues, here just to barrack the government and soak up some TV time. Loose knots of gawkers are beginning to stroll in, attracted by the tamasha—TV crews, out at India Gate on Saturday—and the composition begins to change, radically. If there were as many women as men during the first part of the day, now the back end of the protest, near India Gate, seems to have mostly men—few students, by the look of it.

However confused the protest of the morning was, it was also impressive in its own way—and moving, to see so many young people come out for a cause they felt strongly about, even more moving to see how caring they were of each other. “Do you need water?” the boys had asked, their own eyes streaming. “We have a little extra water,” women had said, sharing what they had with the other girls who’d been teargassed. “Here, take my scarf, take my handkerchief, cover your face.” All through the morning, there’d been that little ripple through the crowd: Is everyone all right? Is everyone safe?

By afternoon, that has changed. I’m at India Gate when the crump of the teargas shells starts up again. The cries of “We want justice!” still echo up Rajpath, but now groups of activists are performing for the TV cameras; the political cadres mug for their audiences; and back at the Hill, what started as a spontaneous gesture of solidarity from a bunch of unrelated young people with no agenda of their own has become yet another mixed, messy business. Not one politician, not one government official, came out on the ramparts of North or South Block to talk to them this morning; and if anyone does, later this evening, they’ll be talking to a completely different crowd. I hope the curiosity of the idle won’t last, and that other protestors from Delhi, who care about the issue more than about being on TV, will join this young, impassioned group.

In one of my favourite moments from the day: just after the first teargassing, as we tried to help a girl who was retching from the gas, her friend stood up and said, “So yeh hai Dilli Police ka motto, With You For You Gas You Always!” “Yaar,” said another girl, “what a bunch of losers they are. Total losers.” The refrain got picked up by the crowd. It may have been the first time in Indian history that a group of protestors responded to being teargassed by giving the police the bird, and chanting: “Losers, losers, tussi loser-log hai!”

It’s a pity, because this bunch of protestors had something interesting about them. Their messages were mixed, and lacked the coherence you’d get from the average activist group, but their energy and will to at least try and make a change was unmistakeable. They have a lot to say for themselves, and though I hadn’t planned to spend my Saturday morning on Raisina Hill, I’m glad I went.


More pictures from the December 22 protests:



Teargassed; this was a slightly watery-eyed shot :)

Teargassed; this was a slightly watery-eyed shot:)

Flag-raising ceremony, lamp-post version.
Flag-raising ceremony, lamp-post version.

The women took over lamp-post duty from the men in short order.
The women took over lamp-post duty from the men in short order.
This sign said it all.
This sign said it all.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour



Executing The Neighbour

(Published in The Hindu, December 20, 2012)


Like so many other men and women in Delhi, my friends and I kept a quiet, helpless vigil on Tuesday night for the young 23-year-old woman in Safdarjung hospital. All day long, on TV, in private conversations, on social media, the demand for justice was voiced, with rising anger and with grief. Over the last few years, the anger over the way we treat our women in India — killed before birth, starved and neglected as babies, denied education, respect, safety, freedom, brought up to be bartered into marriage, beaten, raped, burned — has been escalating, becoming more open. Sexual violence, the safety of women on the streets and in their homes, a media focus on one horrifying gang-rape after another: all of these have become mainstream news, at least in urban India.

When I think of that young girl, fighting for her life after sustaining severe injuries when six men in Delhi raped her and assaulted her male friend, I also want justice. Like many Indians, across the board, I want those men to be jailed forever, so that they can never hurt another person again; a base but very human part of me would like them to suffer as much as they made that woman suffer.

But when the conversation moves, as it does so frequently these days, to the question of the death penalty for rapists, I find myself unable to want that kind of vengeance. There are the practical reasons: aside from reasoned opposition to capital punishment, there is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty will act as a deterrent. There is the strong possibility that it would make an already low rape conviction rate even lower, since judges would be unwilling to hand down such an extreme sentence except in the worst and most brutal cases.

Then consider this: in the two-week period before this brutal gang-rape, a number of rapes were reported from Delhi and the neighbouring State of Haryana. They included the rape of a five-year-old girl by a local temple priest, the rape of a nine-year-old by a neighbour, the rape of a 20-year-old girl who was initially too scared to report her neighbour, the rape of a 70-year-old woman in Haryana by a young relative. These incidents — women raped by neighbours, relatives, people who know them — are far more common than the gang-rapes, horrifying as those are, that draw intense media scrutiny.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau data for 2011, most rapes are not committed by strangers. “Offenders were known to the victims in as many as 22,549 (94.2 %) [of all cases reported in India in 2011],” says the NCRB report. “Parents / close family members were involved in 1.2% (267 out of 22,549 cases) of these cases, neighbours were involved in 34.7% cases (7,835 out of 22,549 cases) and relatives were involved in 6.9% (1,560 out of 22,549 cases) cases.”

These statistics have been remarkably consistent over the years: you can say with confidence that on average, 90 per cent of rape cases in India are perpetrated by people known to the victim, from their neighbourhoods — perfectly ordinary uncles and brothers and fathers. (We aren’t discussing male rape here — because there are very few statistics available for survivors of male rape. It’s one of the least discussed crimes in India.)

And there are other, more clinical questions to ask those who support the death penalty. What about custodial rapes, and rapes by serving army officers and military personnel? The soldiers accused of rape in states Such as Kashmir and Chhattisgarh — if those accusations are true, shouldn’t the death penalty apply to them as well? The eight men who raped a Dalit woman in Haryana this year in October, who took cellphone photographs as trophies: death for them, too? All of those implicated in the rapes of women from the lower castes, in every State from Haryana to Madhya Pradesh to Bihar: if we could, would we send them to the gallows along with the Delhi six?

So if you agree that the death penalty should apply to rapists, be consistent about it, and prepare for the consequences. The people you’ll be hanging, more than 90 per cent of the time, won’t be strangers, the gangs of youth whom we can safely think of as marauding outliers, the threatening outsider beyond the threshold of our homes.

Swinging from those gallows, you’ll have local shopkeepers, tutors, friends of the family. In 2011, if you’d had capital punishment for rapists, that would have been 7,835 neighbours, 1,560 distant unclejis and mamajis and 267 fathers, brothers, grandfathers and cousins on death row, plus thousands of family acquaintances and distant colleagues. And that’s without adding in the policemen, the army officers, the paramilitary troops and the odd politician playing out caste wars on the bodies of women, whom we’d discussed earlier.

It’s going to be a long queue of familiar faces, the queue of those we want to hang for the act of rape. I wish I could believe that this sort of mass public execution — if we agreed that this was the way forward — would do more than slake our collective need for vengeance.

I wish I could think that public hangings would miraculously solve the problem of violence against women, but I don’t believe in fairy tales. Hanging the neighbour will not address the clear and present need to examine how violence works inside our own homes, within our own families.

We all want justice, and we desperately want this assault on women to end. I know that I want my niece, and every young girl in India, to grow up without the fear that stalked my generation of women. I know that I want them to have the freedom and the equality that so often eluded us, one way or the other; if we had it in our homes, we lost it when we stepped out into the wider world. If we fought for better working conditions for office-goers and domestic workers, women still often went back to face cruelty and fear in their own homes, where they should have felt safe and free. I would like this generation of young women to feel more than safe; I would like them to feel that they have the right to live with freedom, and to be treated with respect wherever they might be.


More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape