JAIPUR, INDIA — A horrific, sadistic crime against the vulnerable shocks a nation. Television stations cover the story 24/7 and newspaper headlines are in bold caps. People talk about little else and all agree this can’t be allowed to happen again.
I’m speaking not about the United States after the mass child murders of Sandy Hook, but about India three days after a brutal gang rape in New Delhi. The details are grisly. Last Sunday night, a 23-year-old woman studying to be a paramedic entered what she thought to be an on-duty charter bus with a male friend; in fact, it was being taken on a drunken joy ride by one of the company’s drivers and a few friends. They began harrassing the girl immediately (“Eve teasing” it’s called here) and when her companion objected he was savagely beaten. The girl was raped repeatedly, then beaten with metal pipes, for over an hour. When the drunkards had had their fill they tossed the victims off the bus to die.
If I turn on the television in my hotel to CNN I see a nation in mourning. Lines of people filing into picturesque New England churches for funerals, friends and neighbors embracing. In interviews parents express their shock (“they’re just babies!”) and fears for their own children, while psychologists give counseling advice. It’s a familiar American ritual that follows the same script whether the disaster is natural or man-made. I imagine that back in the States, nightly news programs are hosting debates over American gun-control policies in which everyone agrees how hard they are to reform. Hopes are being expressed that this time will be different and that perhaps some marginal changes in our insanely permissive laws will be made. And maybe they will, though everyone knows that they will do nothing to change the gun culture that makes such incidents so depressingly frequent.
How different has been the Indian reaction to the gang rape. Major cities are packed with demonstrators blocking traffic, drumming, singing songs, and getting hosed down by police for their efforts. As I write, I’m watching coverage of an enormous vigil being held in Delhi’s India Gate, the large public square at the end of the Lutyens mall. Demonstrators are demanding immediate police and government measures to protect women, increased punishments for the crime (many are calling for the death penalty, a few for castration), and an end to indifferent prosecution of offenders. (One reporter stated that there were 1.5 million rapes in India over the past two years, and only about 32,000 convictions, figures I am unable to verify but which have been repeated.) The rage of those interviewed—women, men, activists, members of parliament hoping to improve their parties’ chances—has been intense. Theirs is a democratic anger.
There is, I’m told, a background to all this: frustration with rising crime rates, especially in Delhi, rampant police corruption and arbitrariness, and the pettiness of parliamentary politics when India faces significant domestic challenges. But whatever fuel was there to be sparked, it is bracing to see people take to the streets, not to defend narrow interests or ideological obsessions, but to defend the public good. The land of Gandhi has not lost its willingness to mobilize and put pressure on those in authority, even when it sometimes makes the country nearly ungovernable. The same cannot be said of the land of Martin Luther King. I would be surprised to learn on my return that a mass demonstration is being planned on the Washington Mall; that’s no longer how we deal with issues like this. We light candles, we hug (lots of hugging on CNN), we pray. We triple-lock ourselves into our homes or gated communities, accompany our kids to schools they could easily walk to, and load them down with helmets, and knee and elbow pads, before taking a bike ride. Yet when they do manage to get out, they find themselves in places where adults openly display their handguns in holsters.
Save the children? No, we prefer to mourn them. We are as resigned to the status quo as the sadhus of Benares are to the cycle of birth and death before they reach moksha. Contemporary Indians apparently have a very different idea of what it means to be a citizen.