Up in arms

04.23.134:45 AM ET

India’s Rape Epidemic: No End in Sight

As the country struggles with another gruesome rape—this time, of a 5-year-old girl—Dilip D’Souza asks what it will take to stem the violence.

No, I don't think there is an end to these godawful rapes anywhere in sight. (Monday April 22 headlines: “Three more minors raped in Delhi, protests snowball” and “Brutality in MP village, 4-yr-old raped.”) No, I don't think the protests against the police and politicians will change anything. Because I think the real problem is simultaneously wider, deeper, and infinitely more intractable than the police can ever hope to address, even if they were so inclined.

Intractable, because the real problem is us. My fellow Indians and I and our attitudes toward the people who surround us. It's the way we consider our fellow citizens. It's the attitudes that permit a grown man to believe he can rape a 5-year-old and insert objects into her vagina. It's what allows cops to imagine an acceptable response to this outrage is to offer the family 2,000 rupees—less than 40 American dollars—to go away, along with the reminder that they should “be grateful your daughter is alive.” It’s what governs the thinking of judges who, in deciding rape cases, advise the woman to marry the man.

It is those attitudes that worry me. Almost more than these awful rapes, they make me wonder where this country has reached and where it is going.

Last week in Jaipur, a father and his young son sat on the side of a busy road. Beside them lay his wife and daughter, dying after an accident knocked them off their scooter. Even in the grainy CCTV footage, he is visibly distraught, pleading for help. Yet over a period of 10 minutes, nobody stopped to help him. Not one person. Cars and trucks drove past, even swerving left in that characteristic way of Indian traffic faced with an obstacle, going way out of their way to evade him. What’s in the minds of people who see such a scene through their windscreen and then turn away to gauge how far they can swerve?

That incident set off echoes in my mind from a dozen years ago. Late one monsoon night, heading home after a late flight, I came across a man lying on the side of the highway, unconscious. He was the driver of a rickshaw, hit a few seconds earlier by a passing cab and thrown on the road. A few of us took him to a hospital nearby, where the doctors tried hard to revive him. In vain, though. Hours later, early in the morning, he died without having recovered consciousness. While we who had taken him there struggled to comprehend this, one of the nurses there suddenly popped up in front of me. “See?” he said, loud in the morning stillness. “He’s dead!” And here he pointed directly at me. “You just wasted your time, bringing him here! You should have left him on the road!” What’s in the mind of someone who believes that taking an accident victim to hospital is a waste of time?

The attitudes I am talking about are embodied in these two incidents, and in any of plenty more that take place every day. I remember them when my 79-year-old mother has to cross the road to reach home and cars actually speed up to prevent her crossing before they pass and she has often to leap nimbly out of the way. Or when the lawyer for actor Shiney Ahuja had this to say in court about the woman who accused Ahuja of raping her: “She belongs to a lower caste, which is aggressive by nature, and she wouldn’t have submitted herself so easily. They are known for being aggressive.”

So commonplace are such incidents that they don’t even excite comment, except possibly from columnists who fear for their mothers’ lives. And this is the context that, to me, has always shed the most light on our now nearly daily diet of gruesome rape headlines. Because underlying it all is a sense that, well, these things are nearly OK, and come on, it’s somebody else's headache, and you know what, maybe she was asking for it anyway.

Though of course you have to wonder in what way 3- and 4- and 5-year-old girls are “asking for it.”

And when you put them in that context, when you shed that light on them, you start to understand both the magnitude of a certain impunity that suffuses this land, and what we can do about it.

The latest rape in Delhi has politicians predictably pointing fingers at each other and has set off another round of angry protests directed against the police and administration. (“Another” because of the enormous protests in the wake of the gang rape in a Delhi bus last December.) All of which is probably worth doing—well, I'm not sure about the finger-pointing—but as we all also probably know well, none of it is likely to stop rapists. After all, what could the police have done to stop the young man who locked his neighbor’s little girl in a room, had his depraved way with her, and then left for his distant hometown, assuming she would die there? Nothing. (“Is it humanely possible for a policeman to prevent a case like this?” asked Delhi’s top cop on Monday.) What did he have to fear? Nothing.

In that void, the specter of what we face.

And yet in that void, too, the glimmer of what we can do. It’s futile to argue for a change in mindsets of men who choose to rape. You don’t reach out to men like that, you shun and punish them. But it is by no means futile to argue for a change in other mindsets: of judges, of motorists, of passersby, of neighbors, of us all. You and me, you know?

Think what might have happened had someone heard and acted on sounds from that room where the man was doing his worst with the little girl. Maybe there were no sounds to react to, I don’t know. But there is plenty of evidence that when faced with such stimuli, enough of us choose to ignore them, even go out of our way to pretend they are not real. And on that evidence, I think it is entirely possible that the girl was in fact crying out and nobody paid attention: not my problem, you see.

Example: the roadside scene in Jaipur.

What I’m arguing for is a change right there. Call me naive and foolishly idealistic, sure. There are times that call for being that way and this is certainly one. If we are able to progress to a point where the average person’s automatic impulse is not to look away, but to stop to help a desperate father and his dying family, I think a lot of things will change. Because that will mean we are actually aware of and even looking out for our fellow citizens.

I think judges will understand the horror of suggesting to a victim that she marry her rapist. I think it won’t be considered a waste of time to help a grievously wounded man. I think cops might hesitate before suggesting to a brutally violated little girl’s parents that, well, at least she is alive.

And yes, I have a personal stake in this: I think car drivers grown up on that kind of thinking will actually stop for my 79-year-old mother.

I yearn for that moment. Until then, we’re afflicted instead by this little truth I stumbled on some weeks ago: pick your favorite search engine and type "rape <an Indian state>." Click through to "News" and you will most likely find a case or three from that state within the last month.

Go ahead, try it. Tamil Nadu. Gujarat. Himachal Pradesh. Rajasthan. Maharashtra.

You got it. No end.