NEW DELHI – Horror at a deadly gang-rape that appalled the nation has turned to anger in New Delhi, where a leaden-footed government is accused of being out of touch and out of ideas in handling its latest crisis.
As dusk descended Sunday on an area of the Indian capital where protesters have assembled daily since the Dec. 16 rape of a 23-year-old medical student, a group ran through the crowd with an effigy. It depicted Sheila Dikshit, the 74-year-old chief minister of New Delhi who is blamed by many for failing to prevent the city from becoming known as India’s “rape capital.”
The victim was repeatedly raped and violated with an iron bar on a bus before being thrown off the moving vehicle. She suffered horrific injuries and died Saturday.
“Tomorrow it could be my sister or me,” said Soumya Tandon, 26, a marketing executive. “I take a bus from near my office, and every day my mother is worried if I will reach home safely. Why should we live in constant fear?”
Under the watchful eye of hundreds of riot police, Dikshit’s effigy was burned to cheers, underlining the ugly mood among young urban voters who are increasingly vocal in denouncing their leaders as too old and too complacent.
“We are the future of this nation. They need to connect with us,” said 32-year-old Mayuri Goswami, carrying a banner that read: “Time to engage, not disconnect. Wake up, leaders.”
Dikshit, who once said that a female journalist murdered in Delhi should not have been so “adventurous” as to be out on her own late at night, is not the only target amid a chorus of calls for change.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an 80-year-old former academic who struggles to connect with voters, called for “dispassionate debate” in a brief statement after the woman’s death as the nation was consumed by grief.
The brother of the murdered victim said in an interview published Monday that he will not rest until her killers are hanged.
“The fight has just begun. We want all the accused hanged, and we will fight for that, till the end,” he told the Indian Express.
As politicians of all stripes struggled to measure the mood and find the right language, Minister for Women Krishna Tirath failed to make herself heard, while heavy-handed policing and insensitive comments only stirred more anger.
The president’s son, Abhjit Mukherjee, called the protesters “painted ladies,” while others blamed provocative clothing and suggested withdrawing skirts at school to curb harassment.
Another protester’s poster took aim at Rahul Gandhi, 41, the “youth leader” of the ruling Congress party who is expected to be a prime ministerial candidate in 2014 national elections. The aloof Oxford graduate, the latest in the Gandhi political dynasty, has made few public comments on the crime, which brought simmering anger over widespread abuse of women to boiling point.
Commentary on the victim’s ordeal has tended to place the assault at the center of forces churning up one of the world’s most diverse countries. Economic growth of nearly 10 percent over the last decade has led to hectic urbanization that has brought changed moral codes and lifestyles, a more global outlook, and simmering class and gender tensions.
Many reasons have been posited for the assault, a commonplace crime in India. A recent poll found India to be the worst in the Group of 20 nations for women because of infanticide, child marriage and abuse.
Analysis has focused on the country’s deeply patriarchal society, in which misogyny runs deep and women are second-class citizens, at best , and at worst mere objects to be owned, enjoyed or abused by men.
But did the country’s gender imbalance as a result of female feticide play a role?
And what about frustration among young Indians in an increasingly sexualized society?
“In our attitudes to sex, we are midway between the liberal democracies of the West and fundamentalist Islamic societies,” Palash Krishna Mehrotra wrote last week.
In the “old versus new” narrative, most analysts agree that the scandal highlighted the growing battle line between young middle-class urban India — the future of the country — and a government still run by men of pensionable age.
Madhuresh Kumar of the nonprofit National Alliance of People’s Movement said the protesters represent a new kind of movement that is urban and rooted in globalized, aspiring India. “This class was till now complacent in its material prosperity,” Kumar said.
The millions who protested last year, when anticorruption campaigner Anna Hazare ignited a national campaign against graft, had a similar profile. Then, as now, a political class seen as unable or unwilling to improve India was widely pilloried as failing to respond to a young population yearning for wealth and security.