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Can a woman’s death spur a nation to end its violence against a gender?

by Ramesh Thakur

Never have I felt so ashamed to be from India nor so despairing of its future.

The poor young woman, brutally assaulted by a pack of thugs, not named in order to protect the family’s privacy, is dead, leaving behind a grieving family and a billion broken hearts. As she lies in a sleep beyond disturbing, will the nation atone by lifting the shroud of sexual violence from the body politic?

Mahatma Gandhi had promised that come independence, the tears would be wiped from every Indian eye. Good thing he was a Hindu and cremated, else he would surely have been spinning in his grave at the serial desecrations of the temples-in-the-air he constructed.

The gendered violence inflicted on India’s women is structural and requires systemic solutions. Sri Lanka’s Radhika Commaraswamy wrote in 2005 about South Asian women’s “vulnerability to violence at every stage of their life cycle”: from sex selective abortion before birth and female infanticide at or just after birth, to incest, trafficking, rape and dowry deaths.

The same year, the U.N. Development Program reported that among Indian children aged 1 to 5, girls are 50 percent more likely to die than boys. Using the methodology of excess deaths, economists calculate that, denied the same level of food, health and medical care as men, altogether 2 million women are discriminated to death every year in India.

When I read the sad news, there was a collection of related stories on the website of The Hindu: “Six years after gang rape, Sukma women give up on justice”; “In Chhattisgarh, punishment for rape is jobs in police force”; “Down the corridor from gang-rape victims ward, an acid-attack victim contemplates bleak future.”

Behind every such story is an individual victim and highly specific causes for each act of brutality. In response to the wave of revulsion that has shook the country, the president, prime minister and others have promised swift justice. Based on past, the rage will pass. It will become yesterday’s story and fade from public memory, the media will move on to new scandals, and the politicians — female and male — will return to enriching themselves while mouthing slogans of social justice.

Reflecting prevailing social callousness, the police and politicians competed in the race to the bottom in public insensitivity and tone deafness. Delhi’s police commissioner equated women being raped to men having their pockets picked.

The president’s son dismissed the protesters as a “dented and painted crowd” (the phrase Indian panel beaters use to describe their work on old car bodies).

West Bengal’s woman chief minister has implemented a policy of financial compensation for rape victims. A Marxist state legislator asked what her “fee” was for getting raped.

Manmohan Singh, prime minister since 2004, has presided over India’s locust years. He has neither the ticker to assert himself nor the self-respect and dignity to resign. While he is in office, power lies in the hands of the lofty first family. Singh has responsibility without power. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have the power but disclaim responsibility. No one is ever held accountable for governmental misdeeds.

Singh has presided over the biggest collection of corruption scandals in India’s history. He was not on the scene during the terrorist siege of Mumbai in 2008 and took over a week to speak to the country’s rising anger at the brutal pack rape in Delhi.

No politician suffered lasting damage to the grossly insensitive comments in Mumbai, and none is likely to now in a regime where loyalty is everything, incompetence is quickly forgiven (the present home minister was promoted to the post just as India suffered its worst-ever power outage under his watch), and brazenness knows no bounds.

The victim was apparently airlifted to Singapore not for medical but for political reasons, as authorities feared the fury of the mob if she were to die in Delhi.

The default mode of governance to any problem is makeshift solutions. As law and order and the criminal justice systems creak with dysfunctional, with cases entangled in courts for decades, special courts are created to fast-track serious cases involving heinous crimes. On Christmas Day, the western state of Maharashtra announced 25 special courts will be created for tackling crimes against women.

I grew up in the state of Bihar as road and rail bridges built by the British crumbled. Instead of repairs and upgrades, massive speed bumps were put in place to slow traffic and lower the strain on the bridges. The education and employment deficits are not corrected; quotas are set aside for the few to ensure that the previously advantaged are leveled down.

If seats are reserved for women in India’s legislatures, they will mostly be commandeered for the wives, daughters and daughters-in-law of the present leaders.

India’s democracy will remain deeply flawed and unresponsive to people’s aspirations so long as political parties are family fiefdoms (cue Rahul Gandhi, president’s son and many more).

The youth should unite and agitate against all candidates and any party suggesting such pathology. Even more, they should publicize candidates with criminal records and sponsoring parties. Large numbers of today’s members of Parliament have pending charges of murder, rape and armed gang robbery. The brutal rape and murder of young women in the nation’s capital is not an aberration but symptomatic of the deeper malaise.

If change is going to come to India, it will not be from the present crop of politicians. The young and the outraged must up-shift from the politics of street protests to ballot boxes. They have the numbers. Unlike their Arab counterparts, they do not have to fight to win democratic rights.

They do have to become actively engaged, break the stranglehold of self-serving and self-perpetuating dynasties and time-servers who have run out of time and should be run out of office. Turn public outrage into mass political movements. Form new parties. Run for office. Network across all big cities.

Instead of taking the law into their own hands on the streets of Delhi, the millions of protesters must take back ownership of national politics in the Parliament of India.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.