By Kumar David –
Mounting opposition to violence against women; A mini Indian Spring lights up
Rape and gang rape are topics about which I know little, thankfully, not having met victims at first or second hand, and not had close encounters, or heard intimate details. I would not have ventured on this piece, despite the political fallout of recent events in India, had I not been assisted of a lady, call her Priya, who works with a knowledgeable organisation. I am grateful for her help in dealing with a topic that I am way too stupid to handle alone. The complicated matter called marital-rape I will not touch at all. There is an all important political dimension to the on going explosion of anger in India which is relevant to Lanka, hence my temerity in intruding into a difficult subject.
Writing from a Lankan perspective, several things spring to mind. Why is it that violence against women, statistically prorated, seems to be much higher in India than here? In 2011 there were 24,000 cases of reported rape in there; undoubtedly the unreported number is much higher. I do not have an official number for Lanka, but an NGO estimates it in the hundreds, though Priya says it’s higher. Why are many other forms of violence against women widespread in India? Female infanticide and abortion, gender motivated kidnapping and abduction, dowry dispute related murders, etc, are on the increase. These crimes hardly feature in Lanka, though the genetic stock, cultural provenance and purported religious and moral values of the two peoples are similar. Why is it that despite striking economic growth and modernity, the plight of women in India is so appalling? And no, not only in the rural hinterland, but in metropolises too;Delhi is the rape capital of India and world champion!
Differences should not be exaggerated, but to the extent that there is a pro-rata numerical mismatch, the reason I think is that the social, educational and economic status of women in Lanka is better than the plight of their Indian sisters. Priya insists that the fundamental reason for gender related violence is the lowly, chattel-like status accorded to women in the subcontinent; and this abyss may be shallower here than in India. Women are physically weaker and compounding it with poverty, poor education and domestic drudgery, keeps them oppressed.
I had the simplistic male view that rape and molestation were simply the outcome of hard-up buggers trying to get it off. I got an earful from Priya! This is hardly the cause; it is far more complex; the roots lie in the debasement of women in society and the family, and deeply held attitudes that deny them a human status – mainly in the poorer classes. You are reading these lines on 6 January, Epiphany, “the day when Christ manifested himself to the Gentiles”. In ordinary usage epiphany is when you see the light and learn something new; the penny certainly dropped for me.
Religion and society
I believe that religion has helped Sri Lanka. Both Hinduism as practised and Sahria Islam are gender oppressive systems, Buddhism is not, or at least not to the same degree. (Priya, who is a Buddhist, disagrees. In her view the status accorded to women in Buddhism is no better. What the Buddha said about women’s place is a matter of controversy, and in any case beside the point; it is actually-existing Buddhism, as socially practised, that counts).
Indiais, politically, a secular state while Lanka, formally, is a semi-Buddhist one. But paradoxically, the hold of religion and associated forms of quackery over the minds of the people is less pervasive here. Not only India’s masses, but her city dwellers and middle classes are slaves to superstition and primitive beliefs, while in Lanka a much larger proportion have the good sense to take their religion with a pinch of salt. It is not that folks here are not pious, but there are proportionately more people who do not pander to every silly bit of mumbo-jumbo that comes wafting in with the scent of burning incense. The significance for oppression of, and crimes against women, is this; popular Hinduism and Sharia Islam are such that if people venerate the gibberish, then mixed with this hogwash comes a strong dose of gender subjugation. Being less religious, thankfully, is Lanka’s merciful deliverance.
It is true that in the cities, millions of Indian women are highly educated and work in the most modern fields; India’s feminine creme de la creme, I dare say, is much better than our best. Its cities are the IT and Call Centre capitals of the world, staffed in the majority by women. Still, domestic oppression, street violence, and sexual assault are appalling in all the big cities. I can think of no explanation for the Eve teasing pathology, a disease of the mind, than the prevalence of odious attitudes of contempt for women. The state and the police are complicit in the cover up of crimes against women: “What jaar, what to do, that’s the way it is!” It’s the old normal, the centuries old normal.
But go into the villages and it takes on another gruesome dimension. Someone estimated that one Dalit woman is raped in the Indian countryside every 30 minutes. Gender violence is compounded by caste based violence; thank Hinduism again. The villages have not escaped from pre-capitalist modes of production; hence traditional belief systems hold sway with a vengeance and breed a frame of reference and a credence system where rape, often gang rape, of “low caste” women, is a workmanlike reality. Elite people, sociology scholars writing articles in learned journals, using big words, which, the likes of you and I cannot comprehend, say that education is the way to defeat this. Chairman Mao would guffaw, expel a burst of gas, and retort: ‘Only the revolution can do it”.
But India’s revolution will not be Mao’s revolution; young people are out in the streets in their tens of thousands, Sonia and Singh are holed up like Mubarak, is an Indian Spring on the way?India needs its democracy; it also needs the revolution to sweep away the muck of millennia. I think something is happening now, but slowly. My well-known but anonymous neighbour, after half a bottle of wine, calls upon Manmohan Singh to submit to voluntary castration as an act of penitence. I think this won’t work; the rage is real and deep and it will take more than Mr Singh’s crown jewels to pacify the streets. The streets are right, sleaze out of control, rampant abuse of power, violence against women, crooked police, hated politicians, these are not separate things, these are all of one piece. See, not only in Lanka but in our giant neighbour too they all fit together; they are all of one piece.
There are differences; in India it is chaotic, but no dark hand is moving the pieces in a deliberate design towards dictatorship. With the decline in marketability of the war dividend the Rajapakses hope a pick-up in the economy will lubricate their authoritarian project. Year 2012 was disappointing with growth falling to 6.2% of GDP; by my reckoning 2013 will be no better. But the government is pulling out all the stops to push growth above 7% of GDP because if the economy stalls it will compound political unpopularity. However, in the absence of a deep commitment to an industrial and agricultural growth strategy, credit and import expansion and lowered interest rates will worsen the foreign trade and fiscal deficits, inflation will rise (it is 9.5% now) and there will be downward pressure on the rupee. This is a straight return to the false-boom/real-bust cycle of 2010-2012.
An Indian Spring
The mini-uprising now sweeping India, especially Delhi, is of huge significance; it is the beginning of a social movement; it has put all the powers of the old order into a funk. The state panicked and shut down the Delhi Metro system; Singh-Sonia went to the airport to receive the coffin because they got loose bowels. The corrupt lady chiefs of Uttar Pradesh,West Bengaland Tamil Nadu are in as much panic as their equally corrupt male counterpart CMs in other states. The BJP played with fire for political mileage, burnt its fingers, and is sulking and ducking.
This is only the opening round, so the storm on the streets will peter out and surface calm will return for a period; I don’t expect Connaught Circus to become Tahrir Squarein a day. But things have changed. I do not believe that the Indian political establishment is capable of taming corruption and eliminating the abuse of power. If this assessment is correct, a fuse has been lit, mobilisation will start again and it will be fascinating to watch how an Indian Spring lights up already-democratic India.
In Sri Lanka the mobility of the masses is frigid with winter cold; the rage here has only taken a grip of city and educated middle and upper classes. Poor Manmohan and Sonia could not find a racist civil war to fight and win. Patriotic entanglement with Pakistanis best avoided since both nations are nuclear armed. The Rajapakses will cash in their war dividend for so long as they can hoodwink the Sinhala-Buddhist petty bourgeoisie. But under the ground it is the same dynamite; massively corrupt political leaders and lackeys, brazen abuse of power, and subjugation of minorities (Tamils in the North and potentially Muslims soon). Add to this list, coercion of the judiciary and the intention of creating an autocratic Corporate State, and you have a worse scenario than India on these two vital counts. The time scale may be slower and the epiphany will take on a different manifestation, but can the dynamite be prevented from igniting, since, not in our most fanciful dreams do we expect this regime to reform itself?