Far from the center of the city, in an industrial area, on the first of January each year, the theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam) anchors a remembrance celebration. In 1989, they performed at that very place for the election campaign of Ramnand Jha, a Communist candidate for the post of councilor in the Ghaziabad City Board. As they began their play, the Congress Party backed candidate Mukesh Sharma arrived on the scene and asked for the play to be suspended. Safdar Hashmi, age 34, one of the actors and a well-known Communist artist, asked them to take another route. Iron rods and firearms answered Hashmi and the actors who then fled the scene. Sharma’s men followed, killing Hashmi and Ram Bahadur. The troupe returned to the spot the next day and finished their play, Halla Bol (Raise Hell!). For twenty-four years, Janam has been back to Ambedkar Park to continue this remarkable tradition. Delhi’s cold and fog did not stop them this year, surrounded by the workers of the neighborhood, joined on stage by allied artists and by Communist activists. Their play this year, The Great Indian Circus, was wry – a critique of contemporary India’s infatuation with Growth and Commodities, social forms that shine on television but are tainted in the working-class neighborhoods such as Jhandapur, where the celebration occurs.
To leave the park where the celebration occurs, one walks down a narrow road surrounded by lively shops that retail simple goods and services. It opens out onto the main road, the storied Grand Trunk Road, the long artery of trade and migration that knits Bengal to Kabul. Here industrial concerns stand at attention on both sides of the GT Road, a line of smokestacks and barbed wire fences, with groups of workers either on break or between shifts huddled in the cold at tea and snack shops. The Central Electronics firm takes up a city block. I stopped outside the Times of India printing press, where I intended to hire a cycle rickshaw to take me to the Delhi Metro. A group of men, some workers at the press, were chatting about the gang rape that had taken place some weeks before and whose horrendous violence led to the death of the 23 year old victim. One man, who must have been in his 50s, repeatedly wondered who these men were who had raped the woman. He oscillated between a progressive stance (“what kind of men are they!) and a reactionary one (“they must have come from outside Delhi!”). The populist position regarding the type of men that must rape a woman has begun to suggest that the death penalty for rape, or castration of rapists, would be an adequate deterrent. This man, who worked at the press, did not believe this was the correct approach. He mused about the decline in the social fabric and the growth of the assumption that men could do what they want with a woman’s body.
None of the men blamed the woman. This is at variance with the attitudes of the Delhi police officers, for instance; an investigation by Tehelka found that a plurality of them believe that women who try to file rape cases are either immoral (guilty of loose behavior) or prostitutes.
The gang rape was particularly horrendous, which is perhaps why it struck as deep a chord as it did amongst the city’s population. The young woman did not come from the preserves of the rich nor from those of the powerful. Her family comes from Ballia, an impoverished area in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Her parents (who come from the backward caste Kurmi community) had mortgaged their assets to send her to school to fulfill her dreams of a medical profession. “My brother’s entire salary was spent on educating his children so that their aspirations were fulfilled,” Lalji Singh, a primary school teacher and the woman’s uncle, told Omar Rashid of The Hindu. She and her friend went out to watch Life of Pi, and then were abducted by a group of men on a tear – their neighbors later said that they knew that the men were up to no good (later, guilty for having been unable to do anything to control these men, one woman told the Guardian’s Jason Burke, “we are good people”). From Ravi Das colony (RK Puram), Ram Singh (33), a drunk bus driver led the pack, including his brother Mukesh Singh (26), Akshay Thakur (26), Vinay Sharma (20), Pawan Gupta (19) and an unnamed minor. Police incompetence allowed them to flee from a burglary, and police incompetence allowed an unlicensed bus with illegal curtains and tinted windows to drive around while the men beat the woman’s friend to unconsciousness, assaulted her with their bodies and iron rods and battered her to pulp (she died later in a hospital in Singapore). The six men are of course the perpetuators, but complicit in their crime is police incompetence, a culture of impunity and the general allowance of masculine violence.
In 2012 alone, more than six hundred rapes have been registered in the Delhi region. This is the tip of the iceberg, as most rape allegations are either suppressed by family pressure or unrecorded by hostile policemen. As Subhashini Ali, the president of the All-India Women’s Democratic Association put it, “Most of the rapes that occur [in Delhi] are of minors, of poor women daily wage-earners, and women working as domestic help. None of these facts, however, seem to have made the slightest impact on those charged with guaranteeing the security and safety of women and children and, when they fail to prevent a violent attack from occurring, additionally charged with bringing the guilty to justice. They, however, continue to hold on strongly to the prejudiced view that women themselves are responsible for the violence that they are subjected to. This can only increase both the insecurity and the incidence of violence.”
The government was wrong-footed, with the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his normal wooden style unable to connect with the popular mood, and with the Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit booed when she arrived at the protest site in central Delhi. Communist leader Brinda Karat told me that the aftermath of the gang rape “shows the utter disconnect between the government and the people. It shows an utter lack of accountability because not one single top police official has been punished, although they were clearly responsible for the non-implementation of measures which could have saved the girl.”
The massive protests in Delhi and across the nation focused the eyes of the media on the epidemic of violence. On January 1, for instance, the Hindu’s inside pages carried stories with the following headlines:
“Woman stabbed to death allegedly by ex-friend.”
“Brother of molestation victim arrested on rape charge.”
“Teenaged boy arrested for insulting woman commits suicide.”
“Probe ordered into protester’s allegations.”
News of such violence is now routine. So too is anger, so too are the attempts by seasoned activists to try and shape the moment toward justice for women. Young people filled the streets, with women’s organizations and student groups providing organized shape to the carnival of grieving anger. Karat, who was amongst the crowds from the first day of the protests, pointed to the presence of young men on the streets. They “challenged stereotypical notions of Indian masculinity linked with aggressive misogyny. When young men come out in the streets asking for justice for women it is an indication that women’s assertion and movements for equality have made an impact.”
It took fourteen years for Safdar’s killers to be found guilty in the Ghaziabad court. On November 3, 2003, Mukesh Sharma and his twelve compatriots (two had already died) were sentenced to life in prison. It is not likely that those accused of the gang rape will have to wait so long to be sentenced. The appetite for justice in this case and for wider reform of the procedures in rape cases is now much greater. However, the braying for blood in this case obscures the wider problems and could just as well sideline any fundamental transformation of the legal system. Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that the victims need “certain justice, not extreme justice. More courts, more judges” and a legal system that works closely with “women’s groups and civil rights groups.” The conviction rate of rape cases is only 26%, itself an immunizer to rapists against fear of prosecution.
Activist Kamla Bhasin told Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan of Vice that India needs a “cultural tsunami. Indian laws are amongst the best in the world, but they’re not implemented. We have to change thinking. Take little boys. They’re not born rapists. But within 12 years, the neighborhood, family, Bollywood are all telling him, ‘You have a penis, you can do it, baby!’ We are producing rapists like a factory. We need to stop that factory.” In 2011, there were 21,000 recorded rapes in India, with five every two hours.
At the Safdar remembrance, a poster hung beside the stage with lines from Janam’s celebrated 1978 play Aurat (Woman) written by Safdar and Rakesh Saxena. The play opens with the six male actors and the one female actor reciting a poem by an Iranian feminist,
I too am a worker.
I too am a farmer.
My body is a picture in pain.
The fire of hatred burns me
And you shamefully declare
That my hunger is imaginary
That my nakedness is a dream.
A woman whose importance
Cannot be described by any word
In your obscene language.
The woman steps away from the circle made by the men. She makes her own road. At the end, she picks up a red flag, announcing her intention to walk toward a better world.
At Jhandapur and along the GT road contradictory cultural imaginations jostle for that future. There is violence, rooted in histories of caste hierarchy and in misogyny – vicious, spectacular violence. There are also other traditions, not all of them self-conscious enough or courageous enough to pick up the red flag and openly challenge the system. There are the printers from the Times of India, whose words only enter the pages of the bourgeois media if they spit on the paper as it rolls off the presses. There are also the ordinary men and women who are disgusted by what they see around them, the riot of aspirations conjured up by neo-liberalism, whose inability to match these new desires leads to extreme forms of social dislocation and to violence along conventional social hierarchies.
“Anger can become self-indulgence,” Karat warns. More is needed: genuine reforms of the police and of the legal system and a reversal of the tidal wave of neo-liberal economic and cultural practices that constrain vulnerable communities and incubate unachievable frustrations.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press).