On December 16, a 23 year-old woman was brutally gang-raped, within an inch of her life, in a public bus with an illegal license that was driving through the streets for half an hour, unnoticed. Like Khaled Mohamed Saeed and Mohammed Bouazizi, this young anonymous woman has become the emblem of an angry nation. For students in New Delhi, this was the last straw. Their anger is justified.
Their reaction is dangerous and misguided.In the past year and a half, educated Indians have been willing to come out on to the streets to demand harsher punishment and more severe laws. As a nation, we are angry. We have been angry for a terribly long time. Unfortunately, we have not directed our anger towards the construction of responsible social values. Instead, in the course of our anger, we are demanding the construction of a brutal and violent tyranny that will only continue to serve those who are in power at the cost of the powerless.
“We want justice”
For the past five days, young people in India have been demanding justice. They want justice today, now, right away; but what does this mean for them? A common demand is to institute the death sentence as punishment for rape. According to one female protestor, there is a demand to fast-track the trial and hang the alleged rapists as soon as possible. One woman demanded one month of continuous torture followed by hanging. A young man from the crowd asked for a law so fearsome that no one would dare assault a woman. Another man was angry at the Government for not being able to promise instant death, regardless of due legal process.
`The signal has been clear: a number of people are willing to come out on to the streets to face personal harm and cause injury because they believe the laws of this country are not brutal or fearsome enough. One protestor exclaimed that all women should be given the right “to kill those bastards,” referring to rapists. But who are ‘those bastards’? One of the accused appears to be the landless, homeless minor son of an alcoholic father. He supposedly left his small village and wandered into the city without opportunities, without an education, without even the faintest social net. I cannot help but wonder whether this man is the actual rapist in question. Was he simply picked up at random to quell the rising anger? This is not an inconceivable practice. The angry protestors want someone to hang for this incident. ‘Who’ seems to be only a secondary concern.
Pain all over
For the past few months, I have been hearing of another gang-rape through the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. A young Dalit woman was abducted and gang-raped by upper-caste men from the feudal Ror community. The young woman was abducted from outside her school, gang-raped, then asked to return every ten days to be gang-raped again. She was told that if she did not return, her parents would be killed. She did not return on the tenth day. After the twentieth day, her mother was gang raped and murdered. The girl’s helpless father approached political leaders for help. Since he is a nameless, faceless, powerless Dalit, the media did not even register his trauma. Despite tremendous efforts at the higest levels, there has been precious little action. Given the corruption of local officials, he wants the CBI to intervene and investigate. Yet, despite nation-wide protests against rape, even this seems to be out of reach for him. What is remarkable about this case is not so much the obvious brutality and neglect. What is astonishing is that a man who is shouldering the death of his wife and the rape of his daughter does not want vengeance. He wants the due process of law.
We are stuck in a brutality that we do not know how to escape. We cannot simply constrict ourselves to fighting for causes that effect our immediate interest. We must realize that in this nation, our interests are tied together irrevocalby. Yes, we are angry. Some even want death and torture. Yet it is not impossible, that for very different reasons, the rapists may have been angry too. Protestors are demanding a speedy trial and swift sentencing. These brutal rapists in question come from sections of our society where a fair trial, in and by itself, is a rare luxury. If we cannot keep calm and peaceful in the face of a brutal society, how is it that we expect that anyone else will? Given the scale of injustice that we allow, we should be grateful that our nation is as safe as it is. If it is safe, at all, it is only because of the extraordinary forbearance and nonviolence of the majority of the weakest and the worst off who are the constant recipients of injustice. People have been on the streets fighting in the name of an anonymous young student. What is little known is that this young student in question was the daughter of a loader at Indira Gandhi International Airport. In this unfair society, who else would fall prey to such brutality? The possibilities of her fate had been sealed by her household income before she even get on that bus on that fateful night.
The structures of governance in India are broken. No one will deny this. No one can deny this. Some even suggest they are damaged beyond repair. In the fifty plus years of our independence, we have strayed far from our mandate of self-rule and social reform. Instead, we have merely institutionalized the same feudalism that we fought against in the name of freedom.
It was only just over a year ago that another group of protestors gathered to fight against corruption. Like the protestors who gathered this past week, they too demanded stringent laws and more legislation. Like the protestors today, they wanted increased punishment and faster processes. Clearly, we all accept that corruption runs deep in our system. Yet, how is it that we recognize our system as corrupt but still expect that it will provide solutions?
Though they championed a worthy cause, the forces behind the anti-corruption movement possessed remarkably little understanding of either the law, legal procedure or the practical realities of the exercise of power in government. Thereby, they engaged themselves in a serious attempt to construct a draconian law. This past year demonstrates that these demagogues, their ill-conceived protests and the slew of legislation they give birth to have no impact beyond blocking-up an already clogged system. If this small but vocal group succeeds in implementing their misguided sense of justice, in this same corrupt and unpredictable system, an innocent can be framed and charged with rape, then swiftly put to death. Whether this week or last year, illegitimate leaders with inadequate capacity are emerging under the banner of legitimate public unrest.
Why do we continuously insist upon giving more power and greater license for violence to a system pitted against common men and women?
The central problem is this: the young people who stood in Vijay Chowk are demanding that the same feudal brutality that has protected the rich for far too long should protect them too. I do not blame them. The system seems to offer no other recourse. The essence of their demand is straightforward. Like everyone, they want to feel safe. In a brutal, unpredictable and uncontrollable system of governance, they want their square inch or comfort. In such a system, is more violence the solution?
Surely, if our previous struggles with the British administration demonstrate anything, it is that this system, still governed by the 1935 Government of India Act, can only be defeated through nonviolent methods of structural, social, religious and individual reform. From elitism, to feudalism, to caste discrimination and economic, educational and vocational inequality–everything has to change and it has to change quickly.
In 1915, M.B. Dadabhoy was deeply concerned about “the whole question of Indian anarchism.” He points to two key factors for anarchy in India: “autocracy and persistent disregarding of public opinion by Government.” Dadabhoy was astute and far sighted. He quotes a contemporary article the Anglo-Indian Journal :
“No thoughtful mind can regard other than as a failure of statesmanship the attempt to repress anarchism by police methods. Such measures…only and often aggravate the disease they are devised to cure…convulsion cannot happen unless there is something gravely wrong. Anarchism apart, Indian unrest is not a thing of the past. There is discontent in the land-it may be sullen and silent, but albeit deep and widespread. Can it be that it is absolutely without reason? -that it derives its sole vitality from the mischievous activity of the professional agitator, the led-astray fanatic and of the secret conspirator, without there being any real or imaginary grievance of the people for a foundation?” (National Archives of India, New Delhi)Nonetheless, Dadabhoy find optimism in “the foundation for the hope for a gradual and complete suppression of Indian anarchism by wise and far-seeing statesmanship for which Englishmen have always been distinguished.”
We know how this story ends: By 1930, during Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha, in a secret letter the Collector of Ahmedabad writes: “Owing to their persistent efforts the position in the City is becoming worse since people daily see the influence of Government reduced by incessant attempts to bring Government servants into contempt. The situation to-day in Ahmedabad differs from that which prevailed in 1921-1922 in that the movement is now permeating a much greater part of the population whereas eight years ago, it was restricted to one or two sections.” (National Archives of India, New Delhi)
These words are just as applicable today as they were nearly a century ago. Only, this time around, our ending might not be so happy. If the patterns of 1915 hold true in 2013, then we are in for a rough and dangerous ride in the next fifteen years. Crime records 100 years ago show unprecedented levels of violence. Gangs of thugs that included educated and wealthy men–sometimes up to twenty at a time, were looting and murdering. Some did so in the name of freedom, others in the name of freeloading. By 1927, the situation had reached such a height that the Central Government of India was hanging approximately 3 people a day. (National Archives of India, New Delhi) If we look back at the timeline from the last century, M.K. Gandhi should have already been on his way. He came and went–more correctly he came and then was forced to leave. We must take up his weapons of nonviolence and social reform and begin serious attempts to understand his methods.
If we simply seek to change the law, nothing will change. Asking for a law to keep society under control provdes a false sense of immediate gratification with absolutely no long term impact. Asking that the state sanctify the highest level of vengence will ensure that we become an even more vengeful society. This vengence will breed more violence–state sponsored and otherwise.
Lakshmi Gopal practices photographer and studies political philosophy. Her interests are at the cross-section of philosophy and society. Her academic research focuses on the socio-political implications of philosophical frames and the impact of abstract frames on the creation of social orders. Her photographic practice parallels my scholarly research and seeks to provide a visual study of the social impact of dominant philosophical frames as well as a chronicle of the defiance of hegemony.