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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 6, January 26, 2013 - Republic Day Special

Protests and Prospects

Saturday 2 February 2013, by Ajay K. Mehra

Even before Delhi and India got into the festive mood for the dawning of another New Year, 2013, the young girl who fell victim to the lust of six lascivious barbarous men, one of whom only in his teens, breathed her last in a Singapore Hospital, where she was sent for specialised treatment by the government. Not satisfied with fulfilling their lust, the six brutalised her body in such beastly manner that neither her willpower, that gave her the name ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless), nor all the available medical treatment was sufficient to keep her alive. Indeed, all the protests against the government over its inability to prevent rape as well as the candle-light good wishes for her recovery went waste. While the media, parti-cularly the electronic media, that is busy raising their TRP by questioning every move of the government, even by ‘violating the privacy of the patient’ as the cine star Amitabh Bachchan abhorred, the questions emerging for the Indian nation with the dawn of the year 2013 are one too many.

Just to list a few noticeable ones, which by no means make an exhaustive list, are the following:

i. status of women and a gender just society;

ii. value, role and duties of citizenship;

iii. institutions of governance, with a critical focus on police and judiciary;

iv. the political class, parties, and political leadership;

v. social sector engagements such as education and public health, which have critical impact on (i) and (ii) and perhaps on each of the rest.

It is significant to reflect on and engage with each one of these amidst a total popular erosion of faith in the government, political system, political class and political leadership.

Gender Justice

RAPE is the ultimate abuse and violation of gender justice. It first and foremost signifies dominant, repressive, contemptuous and unre-pentant patriarchy that continually manifests itself in the society in a variety of ways. Physical violation of a girl/woman, which found expression in the most reprehensible form on the night of December 16, 2012 against the unsuspecting girl in front of his friend, is the ultimate form of gender-based atrocity arising out of male dominance that oversteps into criminality. It begins with the prevailing attitude towards girls, resulting in foeticide, giving girls a subsidiary status in a family, denying them the basic quotients of holistic upbringing, which are followed by demands of dowry and ill-treatment after marriage. The list is long. Family is also an important theatre for such crimes, which many a time happens in childhood. The complexities of marital rape have yet to be resolved to bring it under judicial purview. The status of women in society and family leads to forced physical relations with a woman. Neighbourhood too is a space where rape takes place, many a time of minors, where familiarity becomes a weapon to unleash male bestiality. In order to legislate strict deterring laws to check these crimes from the familiar around us, the nature, intricacy and modus operandi of such crimes deserve a holistic understanding.

The starkest example of the social domain being gender insensitive, nay hostile, is caste panchayats or khap panchayats (in North India). The diktats emanating from these panchayats on dress code for girls, denying them modern gadgets such as cell phones or internet use and punishing those opting for inter-caste marriage, more particularly with those belonging to castes lower than the girl’s. In a number of instances girls, even couples, have been done to death. Not only evidence have been non-existent, the police, holding similar beliefs, have closed their eyes to the diktats and activities of the khaps or similar such caste panchayats that violate the Consti-tution and laws of the country. Anyone suggesting that either punishment to the khap members or disciplinary action against the police officer would offer a lasting solution to such problems rooted in socially entrenched antiquated and regressive beliefs, would be committing a grave mistake. In fact, the khap mindset is so widespread that persons in responsible positions, even in metropolises, have decried women for their provocative dress and ‘behaviour’ and advised them ‘do not ask for it’. Schools prescribe ‘sober’ dresses, ban cellphones and so on. The latest is the Puducherry Government prescribing a long coat for girls in schools!

There are large social and professional spaces in life where this crime is increasingly taking place in the country. Media reports suggest that it begins in school, with tiny tots and teenagers alike becoming victims. When it is coming to light in the metros from time to time, many such cases in the periphery might be buried under local apprehensions, power structures and inefficiency and corruption in the police. Working women in professional spaces too are open to physical exploitation. Though it is likely to happen anywhere, it is more prevalent in the unorganised sector. Obviously, the laws against such exploitation must have adequate provisions to take care of various modes of gender-based exploitation. A major question to ponder over is that whether preventive measures are possible within the law in such cases aside from deterrent punishment. Frankly, there has to be a holistic approach to tackle such issues beyond subsequential harsh punitive laws.

This brings us to the fundamental question as to how do we move towards a gender just society? Indeed, laws are needed to tackle injustice, laws are needed to ensure rights to fifty per cent of the humanity who have been deprived of their due for making the society what it is. But can the laws in any society take care of all the social attitudes? When we talk about social attitudes, we are referring to attitudes also of the people who matter. Hence, the police, the legislators, the Ministers and other leaders adorning various other public offices by dint of their political position need to be targeted for this.

However, the most significant contribution that the society and the government can make in this direction is by focusing on the health and education of the girl child, which is the most tangible tool of empowerment. Of course, statements can be made about equality, oppor-tunity, enrolment in educational institutions and so on to claim that several efforts have been made since independence. The reality however should push us towards greater introspection. According to the census, the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group in India went from 104.0 males per 100 females in 1981, to 105.8 in 1991, to 107.8 in 2001, to 109.4 in 2011 and female foeticides through illegal sex determination tests (ultrasound) have added to it. It is estimated that more than ten million female foetuses have been illegally aborted in India. Whatever is left out in this process is taken care of by family/domestic neglect and poor health care facilities. If a girl still survives, then brutal defence of ‘family honour’ comes to her deliverance from the world and of course India.

Indeed, the general status of school education in India deserves to be assessed in this context; the Indian state at all the levels and in both urban and rural areas is lacking and the girl child is the bigger sufferer. The dropout rates of girls can be gauged from the fact that enrolment rate per 1000 population in age 6-10 was 115.4 for boys and 116.7 for girls (2010-11 MHRD data), in age 11-13 it was 87.7 for boys and 83.1 for girls. This is also visible in class I-VIII (104.9/103.7) and class IX-X (69/60.8). Number of girls per 100 boys varies from 78 to 91 in different categories of classes in schools. If we combine this with dropout rates, which vary in different age-groups for different classes in schools, even if the girls’ dropout rate is slightly lower than boys, the deficit continues with lower enrolment rates. In fact, that most middle class families even in urban areas do not look at the girl child’s education as empowerment, but as a value addition for matrimonial purposes, shows the attitudinal deficit. There is an urgency to focus on this area and unless the Indian state takes it upon itself as a responsibility and builds up this sector on a firm foundation, any other contribution to gender rights is unlikely to have any visible impact. Needless to say, any effort by the government is unlikely to have any impact without contribution from families, society, teachers and civil society groups, which are making significant contribution in this direction in any case. Women occupying important decision-making positions end up acquiring the male-dominant organisational culture and make little contribution to women’s empowerment and do not rise to the challenge in their role in women’s development.

Moreover, aside from pressurising the Indian state to move towards a more gender just society, the civil society and rights based institutions need to consolidate their work in creating greater awareness and sensitivity about gender issues. It is no mean matter that the Indian parliamen-tarians have been unable to develop consensus on one-third quota for women in legislatures. It is also significant that one lady Prime Minister and several lady Chief Ministers since indepen-dence have not taken any substantive step towards gender justice, Tamilnadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha’s demand for death sentence for the rapists in response to the current Delhi tragedy notwithstanding. The task is challenging, but the issue of physical violence cannot be attended to without taking up this challenge.

Citizenship and Civic Responsibility

CITIZENSHIP is about social responsibility, it is about duties as much it is about rights. In the Indian context too, values of citizenship deserve to be debated, as much as we debate the rights and obligations of the government and the state towards people. Should we look at political obligation as a unilinear phenomenon, a one-way street, or should we treat it as a binary, a two-way traffic, an activity involving both give and take. The government in India is still treated more as a ‘sarkar’ (this Persian/Urdu word roughly translated as government actually means a ‘Lord’, a person with superior unques-tioned authority; this is what I am referring to here), in the feudal and colonial sense a giver, but now with accountability that is tested and enforced every five years, in between episodically through protests on specific issues and demands. That the political class that gets to hold the reins of power, run the government, become the ‘sarkar’ too is carrying larger social values, which they unabashedly manipulate too to their advantage.

That the expecting and demanding citizens also have to contribute in the form of rule compliance during the period they are not on streets to make demands is a significant aspect of democratic citizenship. This would appear among the weak links in Indian democratic experience, if we observe from our daily life. Citizenship always has a political dimension, and is based on respect for justice, human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. The binaries, in terms of expectations and obligations on the part of citizens and state, are clear in each of the above.

It would be worthwhile here to take the arguments on civic responsibility further by borrowing from and adapting on Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba’s concept of Civic Culture given in the 1960s to study how citizens behave politically; broadening it a bit, more particularly because young Indian citizens are on the rise demanding justice in a volatile eruption of peaceful protests. In this case, that the two youngsters lay bare half-dead on a busy road, where people saw and drove off, speaks plenty about civic apathy in India. Not surprisingly, in an interview with Zee News, the friend of the brutalised girl has highlighted civic apathy in attending to them when they lay naked half-dead on a busy road. Whatever he has claimed as the response of the police and the doctors, is only an extension of the civic culture. The impact of this culture of callous irresponsibility can be seen in this case from the perspectives of society being unable to impart humane values to those who join public service as well as of the society (and state) being unable to train its public servants to be humane and responsive to citizens’ needs regularly and in times of difficulties. However, the darkest face of the Indian society is revealed from the reported reluctance of the glitterati passing by to come forward to help them.

Sociologists Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer in their study, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, have contended ‘As scientists who would like to see rape eradicated from human life, we hold that the ability to accomplish such a change is directly correlated with how much is known about the causes of human behaviour. In contrast, mistaken notions about what causes rape are almost guaranteed to hinder its prevention.’ While seeking solutions, which must be sought in a considered fashion even while pressurising an insensitive political establishment, we must remember these considered views. They quote a rape victim: ‘Not enough people understand what rape is, and, until they do ... , not enough will be done to stop it.’ In the Indian context, we must factor in the social milieu which gives women, young girls in particular, a secondary position at the best. A day after Delhi’s sordid event, a woman in Agartala was stripped and raped without drawing public action. We should also recall the incident in Guwahati some months back of the stripping of a young girl in full glare of the public and TV cameras. Many incidents of misbehaviour with women in public places do not draw out citizens for their defence; in a few cases persons coming forward have been beaten mercilessly, even fatally, without anyone coming for help. Is civic culture in India making the citizenry too insular, selfish and individualistic? Indeed, we must use caution that such an exercise should begin neither with tarring anyone, nor with self-flagellation; it should rather be introspection about social mores and practices that are not communitarian and move ahead to bridge this gap between expectation and responsibility.

Civic culture at a basic level could be defined and gauged in terms of rule compliance by citizens, as much as dissent, and their awareness of duties as much as of their rights. Democracy is as much about participant citizens performing their role and keeping their representatives and the government responsive and responsible as about the rule of law diligently maintained by a representative government. Engaging in an active process that goes beyond passive citizen-ship is the key to civic culture in a dynamic democracy. Establishing a balance between rights and responsibilities. Understanding the concept of the common good and contributing to it at least by compliance.

The Indian civic culture and idea of citizenship, on the other hand, have increasingly been focusing on rights. Also, civic culture and citizenship in India witness distortions due to a subterranean display, desire and acceptance of individual privileges based on perceived social status. Government officials, politicians of different levels and status, even some citizens holding sundry positions—all put their acquired or perceived position or status on their vehicles for all to know, more particularly in public places, so that they are given preference if not privilege. A disregard for rules and basic tenets of civilised manners could be commonly seen in their behaviour.

The most visible display of incivility by all and sundry is on the roads of most metropolises and urban centres everyday. Road users neither want to know the rules, nor show any intention of following the simplest that they might be knowing. The young generation unfortunately is the worst offender, using not only foul language, but also physical violence when anyone objects to their road sense. Such displays could also be experienced in day-to-day life in neighbourhoods across the country. It would indeed be erroneous to suggest that the rise of the youth in the wake of the tragedy of December 16 should be disregarded as an insignificant development. However, we also need to factor in the future prospects keeping in view the prevalent civic culture, more particularly amongst the youth.

Did the perpetrators in the current case know what they did beyond fulfilling their lust in the most revolting fashion? We would do well to look at their socio-economic background in the context of a rising India. Their living conditions were shown on various TV channels. While they are tried and punished for their barbarism, does India have any measures to attend to the inequalities and inhuman living conditions to prevent such incidents? Indeed, this fact must not be treated as a justification, but criminality persisting in transport, real estate and similar such sectors deserve both analysis and attention to bring it down. Why do the taxi and auto drivers decline to use the fare meter and ask for exorbitant fare at will without being punished? Why do they decline to carry passengers to the desired destinations? Why have we not been able to use a combination of law enforcement and civic culture to discipline this sector? Questions galore, each being treated as insignificant, but these micro questions are essential to be answered to find a response to before knocking at the door of the highest constitutional authority.

Institutions and Systems

POLICE, mentioned as a ‘force’ in our country, is the first institution to become the punching bag in this incident, of course umpteenth time in umpteenth case, and naturally so. Human security and public safety on a busy road was compromised. I am among the few who have said that the police have made minimum error in this case, though I have analysed and argued umpteenth time that hardly anything is right with the police in India and the institution needs and deserves reforms. The criticism of the Delhi Police by the Delhi High Court, as if everything is right with the judicial system, and an attack on it by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, as if the political class has tackled the issue flawlessly, are examples of the avoidable pressures on the police even if they work with alacrity. The protesting youngsters knocking the doors of the country’s highest constitutional office too want the police punished.

Indeed, the images of lathi charge brought out inadequate and improper training in dispro-portionate use of force by the police while dealing with protestors, peaceful or volatile. It is also not clear as to what kind of threat was perceived by the Delhi Police in being battle-ready with water cannons, teargas shells and other anti-riot equipments and where the orders came from. Was it a panic reaction from seeing a sea of humanity marching towards the Raisina Hill? Or, were there orders from the ‘higher ups’ that the protest should be broken at any cost? Either way, the cost has been heavy both for the government at all the levels and the police more particularly. The death of constable Subhash Tomar and the controversy that arose following the police claim that he was beaten up by some protesters and their charging some protesters for that only went against the brittle societal legitimacy of the police. Of course, the absence of a concerted effort from the police leadership has only worsened the cause of the police.

Unconfirmed reports of infiltration of political elements who began the trouble that invited police action are also doing the rounds. The jury is still out on whether the police erred in tackling their protest on the central vista and how violence began there. That the police should have minimised force and exercised restraint in dealing with the protest is unexceptionable. But have the impassioned youngsters, many of whom would don the khaki tomorrow, reflected on their role in this episode? Obviously, whether the police erred on the rape case, or in tackling the protest, there is no constituency or demand in any section of society for police reforms even amongst the young Indians. How else are the police expected to investigate well? How are the organisational issues of disaggregating law and order and investigation going to be implemented? How else is the issue of siphoning off of the deficient human resource of the khaki to VIP security be tackled?

From my own research, I can say that many significant innovations have been experimented in the country on efficient policing by conscientious cops, but public interest in knowing about them and suggesting improvements, let alone deman-ding that all such people friendly innovations be replicated, is non-existent. Kerala has successfully experimented with an eight-hour duty shift and a weekly off for the constables, which has the potential to avoid tragedies of the Subhash Tomar kind, but it has not been taken note of at the national level. Andhra Pradesh has experimented with a pre-litigation dispute resolution and court work monitoring system; both can free cops from non-specialised functions and reduce their work as well, successfully. ‘Seva 100’, experimented on a pilot basis in Uttar Pradesh (Agra), has facilitated efficient interface with people. In fact, there is a larger research on ‘re-engineering’ police work whereby the cutting edge level personnel could be freed from non-specialised functions. While that would optimise organisational strength, releasing constables from domestic chores and flabby VIP security is essential. Increasing the personnel strength in the civil police is exceptional, for the kind of specialised job they do, a recruitment today would give result only a couple of years hence. These are not possible without a concerted popular demand on political decision-makers.

Many rape cases persist due to the inadequacy of appropriate legal framework and ‘law’s deadly delays’, which have also resulted in many other cases clogging the judicial process. These too are parts of institutional and systemic weaknesses, which must be attended to soon enough. But can they be done with knee-jerk ‘expressions’, as there is no reaction, neither social, nor systemic? The judiciary, which should have taken a suo motu initiative in the face of increasing incidents, waited for this inhuman tragedy to take place and the youth to come on the Rajpath and across the country. The archaic rape laws, the despicable two-finger test, the list of anomalous gender insensitive laws is too long. The restive youth protesting across the country are right in pointing out that it is a huge systemic failure and immediate steps are needed to plug the loopholes rather than raising fingers in all directions. Unfortunately, the political system has lost the capacity to act swiftly to douse such fire with immediate visible action, as it appears to be in anomie.

The Political Class

THE list of 150 MPs with criminal cases in the fifteenth Lok Sabha implicates all the parties, 73 of them have charges of rape and murder. A third of legislators voting in the last presidential election had criminal record. Ever since the Vohra Committee report in 1993, political reforms to mend this lacuna in our democratic system has not been brought in. The less we say about issues of political corruption, the better it is. Unfortunately political parties and their leaders take comfort in pointing fingers at each other rather than setting their own house in order. Obviously, the entire state apparatus (particularly the police) under such a political class would be flawed, whichever party is in power.

The worst display of an apparent rupture in the political class and state apparatus in India became visible in the blame-game by all against all, obviously to settle scores and score points. The most bizarre was Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit criticising the Delhi Police and asking for the Police Commissioner’s head, who hit back by clarifying the ‘baseless’ charges. Worse still, she used this opportunity to demand that the police be put under the responsibility of the Government of the NCT of Delhi, knowing full well that such matters of larger government policy as transfer of a government department from the Union to a State/UT are not decided hurriedly.

The worst thing of course is that on critical matters—social, political, economic and systemic —the political class is not able to develop a bipartisan approach. Of course, we are reminded of Ivor Jennings’ famous saying: ‘The Government tends to regard the Opposition as the brake on the car going uphill; whereas the Opposition thinks the car is going downhill.’ The Opposition at the national level is naturally attempting to draw political capital out of it, though many of them ruling the States have done precious little in the direction of a gender sensitive administration and related framework.

However, the ruling dispensation could have done better than making insensitive and arrogant statements. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is not a political leader, he is at best a technocrat-administrator who has been entrusted with managing the government by his party. But he could still have either come out to meet the young brigade on the Rajpath, yards away from his North Block office, or met some of them in his office. A better step would have been for him to invite the leader of the Opposition to come along with him to reassure the young protestors that irrespective of the ruling dispensation at Raisina Hill, the issue that was agitating them would be attended to. Even the Congress President could have done a quick mingling with this impressionable incensed lot. This was a missed opportunity for India’s ‘youth icon’ and ‘Prime-Minister-in-waiting’ to come forward visibly and embrace the protestors, but he was neither seen nor heard.

Even the Opposition missed the bus to connect with the protestors and connect with them as they did not comprehend the protest at all. They took it as just another opportunity to swipe at the government at the Centre, forgetting that many of them were ruling parties in States where the police is as bad, if not worse, as in Delhi, where the lower judiciary functions with similar inefficiency and corrupt practices, where the establishment is as gender insensitive as at the national Capital. Gender insensitive state-ments by several of their senior leaders put eggs on their faces and weakened their capacity to take a leadership role during and after the protest. The aftermath of this incident and protest brought the entire political class under the popular scanner as never before in the recent past. This creates an introspective moment for Indian democracy. It has indeed been an avertable political crisis.

The Protest and Portents

IT is not a coincidence that the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal anti-corruption protests in 2011 at one stage spontaneously drew urban middle class protesters in hundreds of thousands. That the protests subsided for a variety of reasons that have been amply analysed, gave the impression of such protests being episodic, despite a growing resentment against the political class in general and an insensitive government in general. That appeared to be more of an urban middle class phenomenon, which died as the leadership floundered; even the government’s strong-arm handling did not bring a surge in its support. Yet, it can be said with the wisdom of hindsight that the seeds of a spontaneous spectacular protest, a frank and loud expression of distrust against the ruling classes, with or without a credible leadership, were sown there.

The current protests following the rape and barbaric brutalisation of the girl, aptly named ‘Nirbhaya’, though episodic, could be considered an extension of the nature of anti-corruption protests in 2011 and 2012. Clearly, protests in India are likely to stay in days to come, signalling the beginnings of a new brand of politics, a signature politics of the twentyfirst century. They could be like a wave of tide, they would intensify, over issues that look trivial (after all, till now a ‘rape’ was looked at as just another crime) or are routinely and deliberately trivialised, and cause unexpected havoc. Importantly, that they are demanding systemic as well as attitudinal changes, the latter indeed should be introspective and begin from self.

This has the potential to create optimism for a ‘new politics’ of the twentyfirst century in India. A politics that is not dependent on ‘leaders’, not the kind that we have on the country’s political stage; it is naturally also independent of (naturally adversarial too) political parties. Since the newly created Aam Aadmi Party of Arvind Kejriwal lent its active and vocal support to this movement, there is a potential availability of a political banner for the protesters. They have not taken this bait as yet. In any case, the future prospects of the AAP in trying to build a base in a state of existing political vacuum would also depend on how the youth on street view politics and political parties in general as mediating institutions between the people and the state. However, their view of politics in general too would play a role. If this leads to a rejectionist approach, we should anticipate more conflict, even if a protest is professedly peaceful.

We also need to cautiously and dispassionately look at the prospects of the youth driven protest politics with a rejectionist approach to the existing institutions, parties and politics. It would always have prospects of internal contradictions, being hijacked by vested interests and sliding into volatility if not violence. We should nevertheless not hasten to reject or condemn it. If only it can avoid the pitfalls of the lieutenants and foot-soldiers of the JP movement, it could spring alternatives the country is looking for. Obviously, we need to comprehensively look at this incident and the protests that it has engendered to assess 2013 and the years ahead.

Prof Ajay K. Mehra is the Director (Honorary), Centre for Public Affairs, NOIDA (UP); he is also the editor, ICSSR Journal of Abstracts and Reviews in Political Science. He can be contacted by e-mail at: jaykmehra@gmail.com

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