It remains to be seen how this phenomenon of public activism will translate in the political sphere. Unless this outpouring of outrage over the Delhi gang-rape can be channelised politically, the change that many of us hanker for will not come. The crowds might be politically alive, but they are not politically aligned or active, says Sushant Sareen.
The massive outpouring of outrage on the streets, not just in Delhi but also many other urban centres around the country, by the 'mango people' over the bestial gang-rape in the capital city has left the political class completely nonplussed.
Until a few years ago, the only demonstrations in Delhi that used to shake the ruling class out of their somnolence were shows of force, either by political parties or by farmers groups. But since the Jessica Lal murder case, a new phenomenon is being witnessed: the demonstration of street power by ordinary, middle-class people demanding justice from an insensitive, uncaring, callous and venal political system.
This was a class of people which was increasingly seen as a selfish and self-serving bunch which had steadily distanced, if not divorced, itself from the workings of the political system. Since they largely also comprised the non-voting class -- most would take off for a long weekend holiday during elections or prefer to stay at home on election day -- the political class simply ignored them.
In turn, these people, constantly cribbing, complaining and cursing the system, made their own arrangements: private schools, private security in gated colonies, private transport, private sources of electricity (inverters and generators to get around power cuts), and what have you.
But now things seem to be coming a full circle. The non-voting class is staking its claim and displaying street power to demand action and accountability from the political class on a range of issues. In this sense, the demand for justice for the gang-rape victim and the clamour for stronger laws and stringent punishment against perpetrators of crimes against women is a continuum of the anger that was witnessed during the anti-corruption agitation last year, and before that in the protests following the 26/11 attacks where a Mumbaikar held aloft a poster which summed up the national mood: A Nation of Lions led by Donkeys!
The ruling establishment -- politicians and babus -- of course have responded to this demonstration of people power in their own typical and tired and tried manner, which in a word can be described as meaningless symbolism. Basically, this means make some empty gesture to defuse the public sentiment.
No surprise then that we have bizarre, even stupid, suggestions coming from the political class which only highlight the sheer bankruptcy in their thinking, if not also the total absence of any sense of proportion. An unseemly competition is on for who can come up with a more idiotic recommendation. A demand for awarding the victim with the Ashok Chakra was matched by a demand for either naming a law after her or making a monument in her honour. Someone wanted a state funeral for her only to be countered by some other luminary who came up with some even more bizarre suggestion.
Even the media lost all sense of balance and perspective. A sort of deification of the victim was attempted almost as if she was some avatar of Joan of Arc or the Rani of Jhansi. A virtual urban legend was being manufactured by the media attributing qualities and virtues to the poor victim who was at the end of the day just a normal person who became victim of a terrible crime.
True, she showed remarkable grit and bravery and her spirit to survive was commendable. But more than the fight she put up, it was the horror of the crime, the brazenness of the criminals, and most of all their bestiality that brought the people on to the streets.
This is precisely why, even though the public activism needs to be celebrated and cherished because it inspires hope of change and hope of a better and safer future, a reality check also needs to be sounded.
Equally important is the need for some introspection among lawmakers, media and 'mango people', not the least of which is that had the six accused been sons of powerful politicians or some rich businessmen who could twist the system, hire the best lawyers, and generally stall the wheels of justice, would they not have escaped punishment?
How do we ensure that rich and politically well-connected people don't get away with such crimes? After all, running over six pavement dwellers is not a small crime -- remember the supposedly open-and-shut BMW case? And had the media and public activism not raised hell, wouldn't a certain Manu Sharma, Santosh Singh and other such low-life characters also have escaped justice? Obviously, it isn't always going to be the case that there will be public demonstrations on every rape or murder. Therefore, the system has to be reformed in way that fear of and respect for law is firmly established.
Harsher laws and stricter punishment, including the death sentence, for rape and other criminal and sexual assaults against women are certainly required, but form only one part of the reform agenda. There is also a case to be made for shifting the burden of proof in such cases on the accused.
In addition, severe penalties need to be imposed on officials who are guilty of either not registering the cases in time or carrying out shoddy investigation in these cases in order to let the accused go scot free. Speedy trials, water tight definition of what constitutes crimes of rape and sexual assault, changed processes and procedures for dealing with such crimes are all welcome.
At the same time, care needs to be taken to ensure that these laws and procedures are not misused as in the case of anti-dowry laws or the SC/ST act. Without adequate safeguards, these tougher laws will become an instrument for vengeance and harassment.
The media played a sterling role in highlighting the crime and giving voice to the agitating crowds. But the media also needs to ensure that it doesn't give the oxygen of airtime or print-space to misogynist politicians. If anything, these characters need to be named and shamed and campaigns need to be carried out against them, including in their constituencies. Such sustained targeting will ensure much better and more gender sensitive behaviour from the politicians.
Police officers also need to be held accountable for any crimes against women in their jurisdiction. They also need to be made to understand that if on their watch they turn a blind eye to such crimes, then similar crimes could happen to their loved ones under someone else's watch.
The example of the police sub-inspector who was shot dead by a low-life politician in Amritsar because he protested against the harassment of his daughter is just one example. Another example is that of the daughter of a senior IPS official who was molested in Lucknow by the sons of some powerful politicians. Moral of the story: you don't stand up for someone else's wife, daughter and sister, no one will stand up for your wife, daughter or sister.
For the 'mango people' the simple lesson is that scrupulously following traffic laws is the basic building block of good law and order. Today you flout traffic laws -- jump red lights, go on the wrong carriageway to take a short cut, drive drunk etc -- and think that you can bribe your way out and generally treat the law as an ass and the police-officer as a buyable commodity who should be treated with contempt, then tomorrow a Ram Singh will not just get the same idea but even think he can get away with rape and murder. Bottom-line: get the basics right, other things will follow.
The political class needs to wake up to the new and emerging reality of India -- a vocal and assertive middle-class which until now had been ignored. It is no longer good enough to wash hands of a lawmaker accused of serious crime by saying that he hasn't been convicted by a court and is innocent until proven guilty.
Nor is it any longer acceptable to ignore the comments of people like Sanjay Nirupam, Botsa Satyanarayan or Abhijeet Mukherjee, not to mention the collection of obnoxious characters in the Haryana cabinet. Political parties must demonstrate their seriousness and sincerity on the issue of crimes against women by taking action against these people.
Finally, it remains to be seen how this phenomenon of public activism will translate in the political sphere. Unless this outpouring of outrage can be channelised politically, the change that many of us hanker for will not come. The crowds might be politically alive, but they are not politically aligned or active.
The real challenge for the political class will be how they can convincingly articulate, assuage and address the sentiments of the people, something that it has until now singularly failed in doing. More than anything else, this is a disturbing sign of the deepening disconnect between the state and society.
Sushant Sareen is senior fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.