Citizens united

Print edition : January 25, 2013

The vigil continues at Jantar Mantar after the cremation of the victim on December 30. Photo: Kamal Narang

Saying it with candles and flowers for the young victim, at Jantar Mantar. Photo: Kamal Singh/PTI

A section of protesters engage with the police at Jantar Mantar, the epicentre of the protests Photo: Kamal Narang

A young protester with a checklist for men. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

IN a city which has over the years earned the dubious distinction of being “harsh”, “crass” and particularly lacking in fellow feeling among its residents, the massive public outrage against a brutal act of sexual violence was indeed a scene to behold. The gang rape of a 23-year-old in a moving bus in South Delhi on December 16 galvanised a large section of residents of Delhi and the surrounding regions to take part in spontaneous protests across the city. They were organised in prominent open public spaces such as India Gate and Jantar Mantar and on the streets in the form of candlelight vigils, streetplays and silent marches well into the night. The protests do signal the emergence of a dynamic citizenry articulating its apathy towards the powers that be and directing its rage at the inefficiency of the government and the administration in curbing crimes against women.

A plethora of divergent, often contradictory, voices emerged from the protest sites as the protests were not organised around a central leadership or one set of demands. As one attempts to understand this dynamic, yet at times somewhat anarchic, process of the contours of a common citizenry being forged, the various strands of the protests need to be analysed adequately along with the larger implications of the demands that are being made. The most prominent site, Jantar Mantar, presents the divergence in the approach towards sexual violence and in the perceptions about the ways to combat it.

Features of the protests

The protests, which started at India Gate soon after the incident came to light, shifted to Jantar Mantar following clashes between the protesters and the police. Following the death of the victim on December 29, the protests intensified and were continuing at the time this article was written. They have seen the participation of hundreds of people from all walks of life cutting across the class divide, and they have been mostly peaceful. In stark contrast to the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare, which was termed predominantly middle class, these protests have witnessed participation also from the working classes across the National Capital Region.

This reporter spoke to people from a wide cross-section of society at Jantar Mantar, including a bouncer working in a Delhi hotel, a temporary worker in a small construction company in Bhiwani, a homemaker, and a yoga instructor. Kunal Kalra, a 24-year-old executive working with Amity University, who mobilised protesters to gather in large numbers following the death of the girl, said, “I spread the message to about 150 students I knew across Delhi. I urged them to cancel their New Year partying plans and come together at Jantar Mantar to light candles in memory of the victim.”

Sushma Soni, a homemaker from Rohini in West Delhi, expressed shock over the increasing incidents of violence against women across the country. Soni admitted that incidents of violence were taking place even within the realm of the household. On being asked for a solution to the problem, she put the blame squarely on the government and the police.

Despite the mostly peaceful nature of the protests, the narrative at Jantar Mantar was dominated by the idiom of retribution and vengeance and culminated in the demand for the death penalty or chemical castration of the rapists. In the absence of a central leadership, the most dominant voice heard at Jantar Mantar essentially looked at sexual violence as a problem of policing and administration and demanded quick-fix solutions. The demand for “justice” articulated by most of the people, while giving vent to their outrage and anger, did not talk adequately about the need to look within.

B. Sudarshan, a student who was visiting Delhi from Chennai, outlined the primary demands of the agitators. “We want justice for the victim. In this case, the perpetrators have admitted that they have committed the crime, then why can’t they be hanged? Also, we want to keep the issue alive through protests until we get justice,” he said. Sudarshan, who grew up in Delhi, admitted that the problem was not the lack of policing alone and that there was a need for greater gender sensitivity in public spaces in Delhi. However, these concerns were not voiced in terms of concrete demands in the protests.

Patriarchal notions

Interestingly, a section of the protesters, even while giving voice to their anguish at the brutality of the incident, could not conceal their patriarchal notions of women in presenting possible solutions to the problem. Bhoora Gurjar, a bouncer in a five-star hotel in Delhi, who managed to come for the protests even after working for 12 hours every day, said he was alarmed at the large numbers of “rich” girls coming to the disco at the hotel dressed in “skimpy” clothes. Bhaskar Anand, who works with a construction company in Karol Bagh, put the blame squarely on “Western” influence leading to “commodification” of women and called for a revival of “Indian” culture. Asked about what this revival meant in concrete terms, Anand said it could begin with the banning of sex education in schools, which was “corrupting” young minds.

Sanjay Raina, a singer from Delhi, stressed the need for artists and singers to talk about issues of gender justice, but saw the problem as more of a security issue. “I feel like I have lost a sister,” he said, referring to the death of the girl. He added, “If a man wants to be with a woman, he should be man enough to woo her. It should not be too hard to convince a woman to be with you.” These statements fail to take into account the fact that women have an independent existence and a degree of autonomy. Also, the emphasis is more on the need for protection for women rather than on changing the dominant social attitudes of men.

Even as there is an unprecedented outpouring of rage in Delhi, the challenge is to channel this rage towards achieving the larger cause of gender justice. There is also a grave risk of reactionary right-wing groups appropriating the protests for their vested interests, especially given the fact that a lot of the rage is being framed around the very same idioms of violence it seeks to critique.

This reporter witnessed some of the protesters hurling sexist abuses at the Sheila Dikshit government. The outrage towards the police forces has also been expressed in sexist, misogynist language. This reporter was privy to a discussion among a group of schoolboys travelling by bus towards Jantar Mantar who used misogynist, sexist slang to describe the police manning the barricades.

Counter-narratives

There are saner voices, too, emerging from the protests. They point to the need for powerful social interventions to change dominant attitudes towards women. Speaking to this reporter, a group of young college students and working professionals gathered at Jantar Mantar on December 31 said they did not agree with the demands for capital punishment and chemical castration.

Meha, an independent film-maker, said, “I am for extensive workshops on gender sensitivity for both girls and boys and for the introduction of sex education at an early age. It is as important to introduce these processes as to demand justice for the victim. By only asking for the death penalty for the accused, you are narrowing down the scope of the movement.” Aanchal Sharma, a B.Tech student, said social constructs reinforced and gave a degree of sanction to women being reduced to commodities in their everyday existence. “While I was making plans to come for the protests, some of my guy friends chuckled and said they could join in as they may get to check out pretty girls assembled at the protest.”

Pallavi Gaur, a Delhi University student, said her parents were apprehensive about allowing her to go for the protests. “Social change is a process, not a revolution. Why don’t we see posters saying that no man should make a sexist comment or pass lewd comments at girls henceforth? There is a need to take responsibility as a society.”

Another mode of protest has emerged among student groups across the city, including silent marches, musical performances, street plays and theatre performances to induce gender sensitisation. The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University organised a protest march from Munirka bus stop to the DDA grounds, which saw a huge participation of people, including homemakers and children, from the neighbouring localities.

The memorial event for the young girl at the DDA grounds included performances by the musician Rabbi Shergill, the theatre person Maya Rao, a performance by Arvind Gaur’s theatre group Asmita and a Dastangoi performance. The Dastangoi performance, built around the art of story-telling patronised by the Mughal rulers of Delhi, spoke about sedition and condemned the action of a callous administration and government towards the protesters. Asmita took up the cause of harassment as an everyday reality for women in the city.

Speaking to Frontline, the advocate and human rights activist Vrinda Grover, who was present at the JNU event, said: “I do feel excited about the diversity of voices emerging out of the protests. People taking part in protests across the city include working professionals, housewives and working-class people. I saw a poster at Jantar Mantar held up by an old man, which said, ‘She died, I cried’. This is indeed the forging of a dynamic common citizenry. The challenge is to mobilise this anger into making concrete demands. A movement which is only based on demanding immediate action may be self-defeating as it will give the government an opportunity not to address issues of systemic changes.

This anger has to be translated into long-term commitments for gender justice.” Amar Kanwar, an independent film-maker, however, did not privilege one form of protest over another. He said: “I think we have reached a tipping point and it is interesting that diverse forms of protests spiralled out of anybody’s control. I see a change in the air. Change is not just revolution, it’s also when a 70-year-old lady comes out on the road and says that she’s put up with nuisance in public places all her life and now is the time to talk about it.”

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