Wednesday, 26 December 2012

GETTING HOME

(This was first published in The Main Point on 26 December 2012.)


I came back to Delhi from travels elsewhere on Christmas eve. The roads were windswept and foggy and, unusually for any Indian city, almost deserted. Through a drive of about 20 kilometres, there was not a single pedestrian for long stretches. There were fewer than usual cars, hardly any auto rickshaws. Enormous state transport buses sailed past with no occupants other than the driver and conductor.

In response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi on 16th December of a young student, the state had taken several steps, the results of which I was witnessing from the window of my taxi from the airport: the Delhi metro, by which an average of about 1.8 million people travel every day, had been shut down; the state had cordoned off the entire central vista of Delhi where the protesters had been attacked the day before by the police, with water cannon (in freezing December weather), tear gas and batons. It had also set in force something called Section 144, which makes it punishable for more than five people to gather anywhere.

Gandhi described British colonial rule over India as ‘satanic’. It is hard to find any other word to describe the way India is ruled now.

The daily violence against women in India is nauseating enough but people are yet more livid because of the state’s routine indifference to it. The Home Minister has said that if he went to meet the protesters at India Gate today, as was being demanded, he might some day be asked to meet ‘Maoists.'  Both he and the police commissioner justified the violent action against the thousands of students agitating for justice, claiming that the protest had been taken over by hooligans.

The prime minister made a brief statement *eight days* after the rape. It was delivered in his usual robotic manner, successfully dispelling the notion that he had any capacity for  human anguish. The PM is not given to making speeches, he is said to be a reserved economist. Not many days before, he had addressed industrialists – for about twenty minutes. It appears pretty clear what he feels passionate about, if anything.

Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did not mean she should have been out at midnight. (Factually too, this was wrong. She and her friend had got on the bus at 9.15 pm, after waiting an hour for other public transport.) This is not unusual. After almost every rape that makes it to the headlines, someone in power usually chastises the victim for going out/ dressing too provocatively/ staying out too late. A survey in June 2011 named India (alongside Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Congo) as one of most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. As a woman you know the truth of this every day on the streets of Indian cities, particularly Delhi.

I came to Delhi at 26 for a job, a migrant, just as this young woman is. My housemate, also a migrant, a student from the north-east of India, would tell me she was molested almost each time she stepped out in public transport and was often flashed. We’re used to being groped in buses, leered at on the streets. It’s normal for cars to slow down and for sleazy men to roll down windows and invite us in when we’re waiting for public  transport. We are used to walking with our arms close to our bodies, making no eye contact with men. We don’t stroll, we walk quickly to our destinations. If it’s after dark we try and have someone we know accompany us home. Even so, when we get home safe we count ourselves lucky. Of course many girls and women aren’t safe in their homes either.

It’s impossible to feel remotely celebratory on Christmas day knowing that a young woman who came to Delhi merely to train as a physiotherapist is now on a ventilator in a hospital not far from my house. Most of her intestines have been removed because six men, not content with shoving their penises into her, used an iron rod. They carried on torturing her with the rod even after she fell unconscious from the agony. Then they threw her and her friend, whom they had also beaten unconscious, out of the road and drove away. The woman and her friend were naked and bleeding. That was how they remained at that roadside for the next hour until the police reached and covered them with bed sheets borrowed from a hotel nearby.

Transport restrictions make it hard to reach central Delhi where the main protests are. But in my neighbourhood today, there was a procession of men and women. Not a big one that would stop the traffic, just about thirty or so people holding lit candles and placards, shouting slogans seeking justice. If there is no metro and the roads are blocked by riot police there is no choice but to decentralize the protests. The tragedy is that the Indian state has perfected a system of delaying justice so infinitely that while most of the world thinks of India as the world’s largest democracy, it is actually among the world’s largest and most corrupt tyrannies.