NEW DELHI, Dec 31, 2012 (AFP) – Horror at a deadly gang-rape that appalled the nation has turned to anger in New Delhi, where a leaden-footed government is accused of being out of touch and out of ideas in handling its latest crisis.
On Sunday evening, as dusk descended on an area of the Indian capital where protesters have assembled daily since the December 16 rape of a 23-year-old medical student, a group ran through the crowd with an effigy. It depicted Sheila Dikshit, the 74-year-old chief minister of New Delhi blamed by many for failing to prevent Delhi becoming known as India’s “rape capital.” The victim was repeatedly raped and violated with an iron bar on a bus before being thrown off the moving vehicle.
She suffered horrific injuries and died last Saturday. “Tomorrow it could be my sister or me,” Soumya Tandon, a 26-year-old marketing executive, told AFP. “I take a bus from near my office and every day my mother is worried if I will reach home safely. Why should we live in constant fear?” Under the watchful eye of hundreds of riot police, Dikshit’s effigy was burnt to cheers, underlining the ugly mood among young urban voters who are increasingly vocal in denouncing their leaders as too old and too complacent. “We are the future of this nation, they need to connect with us,” said 32-year-old Mayuri Goswami, a chartered accountant carrying a banner that read “Time to engage, not disconnect. Wake up, leaders”.
“They need to involve us more, try and understand our emotions and anger,” he said. Dikshit, who once said a female journalist murdered in Delhi should not have been so “adventurous” as to be out on her own late at night, is not the only target amid a chorus of calls for change.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an 80-year-old former academic who struggles to connect with voters, called for “dispassionate debate” in a brief statement after the woman’s death as the nation was consumed by grief. As politicians of all stripes struggled to measure the mood and find the right language, the Minister for Women Krishna Tirath failed to make herself heard.
Heavy-handed policing and insensitive comments only stirred more anger. The president’s son, Abhjit Mukherjee, called the protesters “painted ladies”, while others blamed provocative clothing and suggested withdrawing skirts at school to curb harassment. Another protester’s poster took aim at Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old “youth leader” of the ruling Congress party who is expected to be a prime ministerial candidate in 2014 national elections.
The aloof Oxford graduate — the latest in the Gandhi political dynasty — has made few public comments on the crime, which brought simmering anger over widespread abuse of women to boiling point. “I am not Rahul Gandhi. I have guts to save my sisters,” read one banner. Commentary on the victim’s ordeal has tended to place the assault at the centre of forces churning up one of the world’s most diverse countries. Economic growth of nearly 10 percent over the last decade has led to hectic urbanisation that has brought changed moral codes and lifestyles, a more global outlook and globalised trends, as well as simmering class and gender tensions.
Many reasons have been posited for the assault, a commonplace crime in India. A recent poll found it to be the worst in the G20 group of nations for women because of infanticide, child marriage and abuse. Analysis has focused on India’s deeply patriarchal society, in which misogyny runs deep and women are at best second-class citizens and at worst mere objects to be owned, enjoyed or abused by men.
But did the country’s gender imbalance as a result of female foeticide play a role? And what about frustration among young Indians in an increasingly sexualised society? “In our attitudes to sex, we are midway between the liberal democracies of the West and fundamentalist Islamic societies,” wrote Palash Krishna Mehrotra, author of “The Butterfly Generation”, this week. In the “old versus new” narrative, most analysts agree that the scandal highlighted the growing battle line between young middle-class urban India — the future of the country — and a government still run by men of pensionable age.
Madhuresh Kumar of the non-profit National Alliance of People’s Movement, says the protesters represent a new kind of movement which is urban and rooted in globalised, aspirational India. “This class was till now complacent in its material prosperity,” Kumar told AFP. The millions who protested last year, when anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare ignited a national campaign against graft, had a similar profile. Then as now, a political class seen as unable or unwilling to improve India was widely pilloried as failing to respond to a young population yearning for wealth and security.