If the law can't mete out justice, to whom do we turn?

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A SANSKRIT quote says: "Where women are worshipped, goddesses dwell. Where they are not, all actions are fruitless". India, where this ancient wisdom evolved, seems to have forgotten it.

The gang-rape of a woman by six drunken men on a joy ride in a moving New Delhi bus on Dec 16 had thousands of men and women knocking, literally, at the gates of Parliament, the President's House and the Prime Minister's Office.

Angry protesters, benign or belligerent, never got this close to what symbolises the government. Nobody anticipated popular anger spilling onto the streets. Significantly, they were young, leaderless and largely spontaneous.

The spotlight was on the frightening incidence of violence against women. National crime records showed that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year were against women. The national capital is also the "rape capital". Official figures showed the number of rapes rising 17 per cent to 661 this year.

Six weeks before the Republic Day Parade, where India proudly displays its military might and cultural diversity, the 3km area between India Gate and Rajpath, swept by cold winds and fog, became the battleground.

Cops were caught on the wrong foot. There was a lack of sophistication in crowd management. The Indian police follow, with some modifications, the riot drill laid down by the British colonisers for dispersing unruly crowds. There is simply no other way to tackle those who come to protest, but mean no harm.

Angry innocents got hit by sticks, water cannons and tear gas.

Ill-trained policemen seemed to discard the set drill and sought to "teach a lesson" to the protesters. Retired policeman and security analyst B. Raman called them "clashes between unruly protesters and equally unruly policemen".

It was a fertile ground for the politicos and the troublemakers alike. Politicians and aspiring politicians like Yoga guru Ramdev and former army chief V. K. Singh, failed to strike a chord with the crowds. But what authorities called "hooligans" had a field day. One policeman died.

The government said the public anger was justified, but not violence and security breach. As "father of three daughters", Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shared the public's anguish and appealed for calm.

He assured them of action at various levels and some, like tighter police patrols and fast-track courts, came in quickly.

His appeal itself triggered a controversy. His query "theek hai?" (Was it -- presumably, his recording -- OK?) got inadvertently telecast. Critics inferred this as his assertion that everything was fine. Some said he was "reading from the text" (which he generally does), while Barack Obama, in a similar telecast on the Connecticut killings "spoke from the heart".

Controversies never end in India. True, the system of governance, especially of police and the courts, needs revamping. But there are places that need to be secured, even from those who speak for the people.

Analyst Harish Khare warned in The Hindu: "Collectively, we seem to have unthinkingly bought into a narrative of empowered indignation in which 'anger' against 'authority' is deemed to be just and justifiable, and any means to vent that 'anger' is rationalised as socially acceptable and politically correct."

After the shrill cries of "hang the rapists" in Parliament, came sober, but conflicting, counsel. Should the rapists be castrated? No, that is not legal.  Should it be hanging? No, the rapists would certainly kill the victim. Indians are caught between the hyperbole and the reality: Demand for a special session of Parliament; another for an all-party meeting, yet another that Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul should go and sit with the protesters. (They did meet some.) However, women, in rising numbers, still have to go about their work. The rape victim who fought the rapists suffered serious intestinal injuries from being beaten with an iron rod. Her first words, "have they (the culprits) been caught?" personifies her courage. She died at a hospital on Saturday after being sent to Singapore for medical treatment.

Her plight sharpened the social discourse: why the rape? What was the victim doing with a man not related to her that late in the evening? Was the woman of loose morals? What was she doing or wearing to attract lusty male attention? The blame and the suspicion, alas, are on the woman.

"Leaders of political parties must now pledge that they will not give tickets to aspirants with murder, rape and dacoity charges," demands Major-General (rtd) Vinod Saighal, Convenor, Movement for Restoration of Good Government.
 
The incident and its aftermath caused collateral damage on several counts: injuries to protesters and police; damage to public property and worse, to the psyche of children, particularly the girls, who ask parents what is "rape" and "gang rape".

A highly judgmental media, particularly petulant TV anchors, went onoverkill while informing the public. Some TV entertainment channels announced soaps on rape and related issues to "sensitise" the public. Rape can be good business too.

 

A crowd tries to break through a police cordon during a protest in New Delhi after the death of a young woman, who was gang-raped in a bus, died on Saturday.


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