Monday, 31 December 2012

My Goodbye to the Braveheart

The sun stayed away and a biting icy wind blew as the family members of India’s Braveheart collected her ashes from the crematorium at Dwarka where she was cremated yesterday under a blanket of fog and policemen.
As I reached the crematorium, the first sight that met me was khakhi uniforms of the police. There were ten of them from constables to the assistant commissioner of police, Dwarka. Two constables stood guard at the gate as the family members performed rituals at the platform where she was cremated, not allowing anyone inside. Apparently, the police had kept watch all night as well.
The police outnumbered the others present there, six journalists (four of them photographers) and a couple of others who appeared to be with Congress MP Mahabal Mishra. Mishra was  was there helping the family, coming out briefly to discuss various arrangements with the ACP, especially about facilitating the family’s travel to Varanasi. 
Soon the girl’s family came out with the urn wrapped in a white cloth. It was a very small group, less than ten of them.  `The ashes should not be taken to the home,’ Mishra explained to them as he instructed police officials to make arrangements for the urn to be kept at the police post in Dwarka Sector 1, close to Mahavir Nagar, where her family stays.
The family looked at us gathered there. Perhaps they were wondering who we were and why we were there. The expression on one young boy’s face – a mixture of bewilderment and grief.
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to them. After all, I was an interloper in their grief.
So why did I go?
When news of the girl’s death broke, I had posted on Facebook that I hoped the media would give her family privacy and not hound them during the cremation. But the manner in which the cremation was orchestrated by the police and the government angered me. Pressuring the family first to cremate her in Ballia, and then to cremate her before dawn (against Hindu custom where it has to be done after daybreak) just so that people don’t come to know (even as political heavyweights attended the funeral) disgusted me. She was a victim of utter indignity before she died. Couldn’t she have been given some dignity in death?
One battle that all women who complain about any form of sexual harassment wage is that of being labeled as the problem. By first making her father issue a statement asking for calm (when the protests were going out of hand), then taking her to Singapore and then cremating her in such a hush-hush manner, the government and the police sent out only message - that she and her dead body were a problem that needed to be disposed off without a fuss.
I went today to say in my own way that she was not a problem. To salute her.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Particular and the General

It often happens that a particular incident turns the much-needed spotlight on a larger issue that has been swept under the carpet for long. The brutal gang rape in Delhi on the night of December 16, whose victim is now unfortunately dead, did that to the issue of safety of women and laws relating to sexual violence.
There are the stray voices asking why the rape of a girl in Delhi should do this, and not the many rapes in other cities or in the deep, dark interiors of the country. There are also people saying where was such outrage during the Gujarat riots when worse was being done to women.
That is not a relevant question. There have been other shocking rapes in Delhi earlier – the gang rape by members of the President’s bodyguards in Buddha Jayanti Park, the rape of the medical student in the afternoon in a Mughal monument on the busy Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, the abduction from Dhaula Kuan and gangrape of a call centre employee – but they have not evoked the reaction that this one has. The `why now’ does not matter. What does matter is that the issue has been highlighted as never before and the focus on it should remain.
But when the particular and the general start getting mixed up, there’s a problem. There is serious danger of that happening in this case.
Let’s take the particular in this case. A girl was brutally assaulted and raped in a moving bus on the night of December 16. Her male friend was also beaten up badly. They were stripped of their clothes and dumped on the road.
The crowds thronging Vijay Chowk and India Gate started with calls for justice for the young girl and steps to ensure safety of women in Delhi in future. All the rapists were arrested in less than a week (four of them within twenty-four hours). The case was given to a fast track court, which is to hold hearings on a daily basis. Now after the girl’s death, they will also face the charge of murder.
The government also announced some steps to ensure safety of women in Delhi – more policing, more buses at night, removing dark films and curtains from windows of buses and making it compulsory for them to keep lights on inside at night. Three police personnel who had been on duty that night were suspended. A man the rapists had robbed earlier that evening had approached them and they had brushed him off. If they had acted, that young girl would not have been battling for life. So they were rightly punished.
The particular incident, therefore, has been addressed.
So why are protestors out there demanding justice for the braveheart, death for the culprits? I’ve got bizarre sms-es saying the culprits should be hanged by the end of the year.
So then we are told that this is about the larger issue – harsher laws, better enforcement, changing the medieval mindset, judicial reforms, police reforms. Sure that needs to be put into focus. But it can’t be done overnight. The protests will help if they keep the pressure on to get these issues addressed, as they must.
But why make it a Congress issue? Why ask for chief minister Shiela Dixit to resign? Why mock Manmohan Singh for not shedding tears like Barrack Obama did after the school shooting in the United States?(Let me hasten to add that I am no supporter of the UPA government or of the Congress party.). How will this larger cause be helped if police commissioner Neeraj Kumar is sacked?
They may currently be the symbols of al that is wrong with the way women’s issues and law and order issues are handled. But concentrating on attacking them will take the focus away from the need to address far more fundamental issues.
We need to separate the particular and general for any lasting solutions to emerge from our anger.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Stop this hysteria

Sunday’s gangrape incident in Delhi is so appalling that it’s easy to go over the top in reacting to it. It makes one feel angry, helpless and extremely vulnerable.
But I am tired of seeing hysterical crowds screaming about death penalty, castration and demanding that everyone from the police commissioner to the chief minister resign.  
The main target of public ire is the police. There are calls for the police commissioner to be sacked. He has to explain to the High Court why the bus passed five police pickets without being stopped. One lawyer is planning to initiate action to ensure that policemen who were on duty on the stretch that the bus drove on that night are penalised. CPM leader Brinda Karat is also the same.
But this is one case where the criticism of the police is totally. Here’s why.
One, there was nothing – absolutely nothing – to arouse suspicion about the bus and the horror being perpetrated inside. It was a luxury bus, with tinted windows and drawn curtains. That’s quite normal. So how can anyone, police included, know what was going on inside? It probably was being driven in a way that it doesn’t attract attention. That could be the reason why the bus passed five police pickets without arousing suspicion.
Two, the police acted promptly once they were informed about the incident. No one is saying there was any delay in the police reaching the scene where the girl and her friend were thrown out of the bus. The bus was traced within hours and four of the rapists were arrested within twenty-four hours. What more could the police have done in this case?
In fact, the real indictment should be of the public. According to a story in yesterday’s Indian Express, when the police reached the spot where the girl and her friend had been thrown out, they found people just standing around, looking at them. “Not one of them took off a jacket or piece of clothing to cover the victims. There were women in cars that had pulled over but they did not approach the victims,” a policeman was quoted as saying.
When people scream into television cameras that women are being raped every day and the police is not doing anything to check it, do they even know what they are saying?
Even as people rallied at India Gate, protested outside the Police Headquarters and the chief minister’s residence, a three-year-old girl was raped in a playschool by the husband of the woman who ran it. In an overwhelming majority of cases, rapes are committed by people known to the victim. A neighbour/colleague/classmate who offers a lift. A family friend/relative who drops in home. A teacher in school or college. How can such rapes be prevented? Who can anticipate them to prevent them from happening? What is important to see is if the police acted promptly in each case. If it did not, then, by all means, ask for action against the police.
Preventing rape cannot be a police responsibility alone. It is also about having well-lit roads. It would make far more sense for resident welfare associations to fight for roads around their colonies to be well-lit, instead of lighting candles for the victim.
Preventing rape is also about good public transport. Why did the girl and her friend board that bus, which was not a regular public transport vehicle? Let me make an educated guess. There is no bus from Saket (where they had gone to see a movie) to Dwarka. So they took an auto-rickshaw up to Munirka from where there is a bus to Dwarka. Given erratic bus timings and the fact that it was getting late, when a bus taking passengers for Dwarka came, it must have been a blessing in disguise at that time. It would be far better for Brinda Karat to press for a proper and reliable public transport system that can ensure that Delhi-ites can travel safely at any time of day. Let’s just keep aside the inconvenient fact that women are groped and molested even within buses in broad daylight for the time being.
Preventing rape is also about each one of us being alert. But we are so inured to irregularities happening around us all the time that we just don’t react. So a bus not authorised to pick up passengers openly does so; we see it and keep quiet. Even if the bus had been driven in a rash manner, that is so common a sight that nobody would have thought of informing the police.
Above all, we don’t want to get involved. Even if someone had seen something amiss, they would have preferred to look the other way.
Perhaps the only person who made sense in the charged-up crowds at India Gate protesting the horrific gangrape was a young long-haired man who asked – can all of us who are gathered here take a pledge that the next time any of us see a woman being harassed, we will not remain silent and will go to her help?
This was perhaps one of the few voices to articulate what is being lost in the hysterical responses across the country – that all of us are responsible for what happened that day.
But it is so much easier to take one day off, scream at rallies and blame the Authorities and the System for everything, isn’t it?