WASHINGTON – For two decades, the West has been cheering India’s rise. But the nation’s economic and political changes have caused new cultural conflicts, a dynamic that has become all too obvious after the brutal, and eventually fatal, rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi last month.
It’s easy to blame a retrograde culture that’s hostile to women, but rapid transformation is also part of the story. Flush with the freedoms of the new India, many of its citizens have left traditional village life, but they have not found a new set of ethics in urban areas. As a result, sexual violence is flourishing.
I am one of those Westerners intrigued by India’s rapid growth and expanding social mobility. I lived in New Delhi while reporting on the country and the rest of South Asia from 2002 to 2007. In that time, there were hundreds of documented incidents of sexual violence in the capital. Delhi accounted for one-quarter of all rapes recorded in India in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. When I lived there, Indian women regularly urged me to move elsewhere, calling Delhi “India’s rape capital” and telling me terrifying stories of how unsafe the city was.
Of course, most Delhi residents don’t have the option to leave, nor do they want to. The city’s population has swelled in the past two decades with migrants from India’s poor rural areas. For them, Delhi represents opportunity. About 350 million Indians now live in cities, and an additional 250 million are expected to move to urban areas in the next two decades.
The parents of the rape victim, who died a week ago, had moved the family to a middle-class New Delhi neighborhood from a village in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. Call centers and the hospitality sector in the capital have opened up jobs for even the slightly educated, making the middle-class dream seem more attainable than ever.
All too often, though, India’s rural migrants do not find the education and work opportunities that they expect in the cities. Poverty, low-caste status and gender still prevent many from advancing. In Uttar Pradesh and other northern Hindi-speaking states, for instance, girls’ literacy rates hover between 33 percent and 50 percent, according to the United Nations. The national literacy rate for boys is 75 percent.
This young woman’s family had, unusually, placed their hopes in their daughter. They had sold land to help send her to college. According to interviews with the woman’s parents, she had urged her two younger brothers to follow her to college. Having recently qualified as a trainee physiotherapist in a private Delhi hospital, she beat the odds and landed herself in a solidly middle-class profession.
It makes sense that this attack happened in Delhi. Delhi appears to welcome modern women who go to college and work outside the home. But the city is not nearly as open as advertised. Because it is filled with migrants who speak dozens of languages and represent every caste and religion — people who are united only by a traditional, rural background — the city seems conflicted about what is acceptable.
For instance, many women take rickshaws, taxis and buses at night, but it is common for drivers, shopkeepers — or anyone else they might run into — to question why they are out after dark. And while the city has no temples or restaurants that openly bar low-caste Hindus or Muslims from entering, there are many places where they are not welcome.
As Indians leave their villages behind, they are losing the protection and accountability that such communities provided. The urge to rape and pillage might have once been held in check by community expectations of decency, as well as clear consequences. A village rapist, for instance, might have been barred from marrying, and so might his sisters and cousins. In December, a village council in the state of Haryana announced that it would punish men accused of sexual assault by shunning them and their families. The head of the council told the Times of India that this was much less punitive than past measures the council had taken, such as “blacken[ing] the faces of accused in … rape cases and [forcing] them to make rounds of the village sitting on a donkey.”
While such measures might not meet the standards of a modern democracy, at the very least they are something of a community response — unimaginable in Delhi’s teeming streets. The social expectations of the village have not been replaced by civic values in India’s big cities. Nationwide, rape conviction rates have decreased from 44 percent in 1973 to 26.5 percent in 2010.
Since the Delhi gang rape, Indian activists have pointed out that the police and courts consider acts of sexual violence as lesser crimes, not worthy of many resources. But after unprecedented street protests in India, police in the capital have acted quickly in this case. This past week, they formally charged five of the six with murder and rape. (The sixth is a juvenile and will be charged in another court.)
On Dec. 16, the female student and her male companion boarded a bus whose only other occupants were four men, plus the driver and his assistant. The woman and her friend were returning from seeing a movie together, an activity that is unthinkable in Indian villages today and would have been unthinkable in Delhi a generation ago. A woman out alone at night with a man is still marked as immoral in the eyes of some. Police say that after their arrest, the men admitted that they had raped and beaten the student “to teach her a lesson.”
India’s entrance onto the world stage has led to confusion about sexuality, morality and tradition. The rules are in flux, and no one is quite sure what is acceptable. “Sex and the City” reruns play on one Indian channel, half-dressed Bollywood divas pant into the camera on another, and a swami leads a fervent Hindu prayer on the next. None of these cultural influences were available even a generation ago: Until 1991, the only TV channels were state-run.
Unfortunately, Delhi’s notoriously corrupt police force allows a sense of “anything goes” to flourish in the city. There is no better symbol of that than the bus, which careened through Delhi’s streets for at least an hour while its occupants took turns driving it, so that each of them could rape the young woman. The vehicle even sailed through several police checkpoints.
Rape cases in India have increased by about 25 percent in six years, faster than any other crime in the country, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Some of this increase is because women feel more empowered to report sexual violence. A rape can still ruin a woman’s chance of marriage and taint the rest of her family, but many victims are going to the authorities anyway.
Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recognized the conflict between India’s rapid globalization and its slowly changing culture, saying this past week that “the emergence of women in public spaces, which is an absolutely essential part of social emancipation, is accompanied by growing threats to their safety and security.”
He promised to view the street protests since the young woman’s attack as evidence that “a young India … genuinely desires change.”
At least one change has already come to pass: The accused men will be tried in a new fast-track court that has been set up to handle crimes against women. Hopefully other changes will come as swiftly and will not require the sacrifice of another of India’s daughters, as the gang-rape victim will now always be known.
Miranda Kennedy is the author of “Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India.”
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