Ravi Das Camp is about seven miles from the president’s palace in New Delhi. En route are the mansions where members of parliament live, guarded by armed soldiers in bunkers. The men who in December allegedly raped a young paramedic brutally enough to kill her lived in Ravi Das Camp, a slum reported to be as fetid and dehumanizing as the many others close to the homes and offices of Delhi’s political elite.
In a sense it is fitting that the alleged rapists and murderers lived within touching distance of our politicians. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, India’s political parties fielded 6 candidates charged with rape while 34 candidates were awaiting trial for crimes against women. In the state assemblies, 42 members had rape or associated charges against them at the time of their election. In all, according to a recent report published by the Association for Democratic Reforms, India has over 300 such politicians in power.
Is it any surprise that the men brutalizing a woman with a rusted rod thought they could get away with it? They may not have known there were 300 potential or actual rapists making the laws, nor the precise numbers that show the conviction rate for rape dropping from 46 percent to 26 percent over the last 40 years. But they would have known that it’s a pretty safe bet to rape a woman, scoot, and start the cycle afresh. Fifty percent of India’s population lives with this knowledge: its women.
In such a world, what woman can survive harm? There is not a single female friend of mine who hasn’t been molested. It’s called “eve-teasing” here, conjuring up images of dalliance under apple trees. Even 20 years ago, our journeys to and from college were daily nausea. We were used to having men brush against our breasts, grope, catcall, leer, and press their erections against us when there was no escape in the crush of a crowded bus. Sharp hairpins and elbows came in handy, but otherwise there wasn’t much help. We couldn’t have gone to the police, we’d have been laughed right out of the station. Yet we considered ourselves lucky. There were other women, those that were allowed to be born at all—India comes out tops in the female foeticide ratings—who were being beaten or burned or sold or raped.
Sections of India have transformed since, and the dead paramedic was an example of this change. She was the oldest of three children in a poor family with its origins in rural north India. The girl’s father has a low-income job at Delhi’s airport. Her mother was described by the newspapers as “rustic,” a “woman in denial” who kept asking when she could take her dying, virtually disemboweled child back home from hospital. They took out loans to pay for the education of their daughter, who begged to study further. Prioritizing a girl’s education would have been unimaginable in rural India even a decade ago. It is a new phenomenon for girls from the hinterland to leave home to work or study, to have male friends. Marriage is no longer their only possible future.
This kind of modernity provokes punishment. Flailing against the independence of young women are authority figures ranging from college heads who ban girls from wearing jeans to ministers who lecture working women not to be too “adventurous.” Often these strictures come from women. It is also routine for village councils in north India to ban women from using mobile phones because personal phones might encourage love affairs. These councils have been seeking amendments in the Hindu Marriage Act to support their atavistic views. Until the marriage laws are changed, honor killings are the councils’ favored standby.
Among the champions of these village councils is Naveen Jindal, a member of Parilament educated at Delhi’s best institutions and then in Texas. The son of a prominent industrialist and one of the poster boys of the ruling Congress Party, Jindal has assured village councils they have his support because they have been enforcing the law “since the time of great rulers like Ashoka and … always giv[ing] a ‘new direction’ to society.”
India is a “democracy.” It holds elections, it isn’t headed by a Saddam. Buddhism began in it and, although it’s next-door to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it has no Taliban. These cliches fog out a fact starkly apparent to all who live here, one that Jindal has understood: that India is as it has always been, a jungle made up of rulers and the ruled in which there are, in effect, no rules. A criminal ruling elite has engineered a system of undemocratic governance and judicial delays so ingeniously self-serving that it has been sustained for decades.
There was a nationwide howl of anguish last month from men, women, and even children who came out to mourn the paramedic’s rape. But the politicians stayed in their barricaded mansions. Protesters were battered with icy jets of water. The city’s center was cordoned off, its metro shut down. The gleam of hope in this darkness is the number of men who came out to protest and who shielded women from baton blows.
India’s thugs know they’re still safe. There have been 20 rapes in Delhi since Dec. 16, when the paramedic climbed into her last ever bus. One of the latest victims of rape is a 3-year-old infant in a playschool. We are waiting to see whether those in charge of this country will now stop telling us we had it coming because we wore skirts or stayed out too late or used make-up or had a boyfriend or didn’t marry at 16—and change themselves instead.