Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lock up the girls?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 25, 2015

A rally in Hyderabad to protest the rise in violence against women and children. Photo: G. Ramakrishna

Two weeks ago, a woman who lives in the slum near my house came to see me. She looked deeply disturbed. She has a nine-year-old granddaughter who goes to school early morning and returns in the afternoon. Most days, she eats lunch and falls into a deep sleep. That day, while her mother was washing clothes, this little girl fell asleep as usual. By chance, her mother heard something and went up to the loft to check. There she found her neighbour’s 14-year-old son pulling down his pants and hovering over the child, whose undergarments had already been removed. The mother screamed. The boy ran. And the little girl woke up not knowing what had happened.

What should she do, wondered her grandmother. Report this to the police? Others in the slum who had done that got no relief, she said. When she confronted the boy’s mother, she was met with denial. Should the girl’s father beat up the boy and teach him a lesson? But these were her neighbours. They had lived side by side for decades.

How would she be able to “protect” her granddaughter from this young man, or other sexual predators? As both she and the girl’s mother work as domestic help in other people’s houses, the little girl is often on her own. How will they now make sure that she is never left alone? And for how long can they do this?

There are no easy or glib answers to these questions, and few words of reassurance to offer. This woman lives in the midst of a grim reality; they have no private or safe spaces, and all women, young and old, are vulnerable to molestation and assault. And it is not just strangers but the known faces in their midst who are the predators.

The news from Delhi about the brutal rape of two girls aged two and five by men known to them and their families reminded me of this conversation. Such rapes are not new. In Delhi alone, 199 children under 12 were raped last year. Of these, 71 were under six. Nationwide, there were 2,000 rapes of children under 12 in 2014, of which 547 were younger than six.

These horrific statistics do not tell the full story. Yet, it is evident that more child rapes are being reported now than before, as people become aware of the special law for sexual assault on minors: Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012) or POCSO. The law is an important first step. But it is just that.

Somehow our politicians fail to understand this. So after news of the rapes came out, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal predictably began slamming the Centre for not handing over the police to the State. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took potshots at Mr. Kejriwal for not keeping women safe in his State. In this political ping-pong, neither side even acknowledged that what we are seeing is a much deeper problem, one that requires contemplation and action, and not empty rhetoric.

Do Mr. Kejriwal or the BJP really believe that better policing can stop this? How many policemen will we need to stop the rapes of children? And if you treat 14 year olds who rape minors as adults, and punish them accordingly, as Mr. Kejriwal has suggested, will it make a difference? Or will families continue to cover up the crime?

Women’s safety, or the lack of it, is only one part of a larger problem. We must ask why we are becoming a society that is not just intolerant but also one where impunity reigns supreme. Everyone believes they can get away with a crime, major or minor. From the policeman who pockets money when someone violates a traffic rule to drunken drivers to child molesters, people think they can get away with it. And often they do. Only the very poor, or those belonging to a minority, get caught. For instance, the woman I spoke to admitted that every time there was a “lafda” (trouble) in her slum, the police would routinely round up all the young Muslim men.

Given this ugly reality, what is the solution? Should we keep our girls locked up for their own good? Should we police their every action? Will that make them feel confident and safe or will it merely make them feel hounded and caged?

Mr. Kejriwal and his counterparts in other political parties need to be reminded that children , like those little girls in Delhi, are raped not by strangers, but by people they know. The problem lies inside our houses andneighbourhoods, within our families. No amount of policing or laws can penetrate these hidden spaces where crimes are committed.

The change must begin with the way boys are brought up. Their sense of entitlement, an integral part of the patriarchal system, needs to end. And they have to be brainwashed, if necessary, to accept that women and men have equal rights.

There are no short cuts to ending this violence.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

First Babri, now Dadri

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 11, 2015

A protest in New Delhi against the Dadri incident.
  • PTI

On his recent visit to Silicon Valley, the Prime Minister tried to sell the world the promise of a Digital India and declared that the 21st Century would be India’s. That is a distant dream; the hate politics that exemplifies the murder of Akhlaq is the current reality. And for this, the responsibility lies not only with fringe groups but equally with a government and a ruling party that has legitimised interference in all aspects of our lives by promoting a culture of bans and prohibition. It has claimed the right to decide what we eat, what we wear, what we read, what we view, who we meet, who we marry, who we worship and ultimately what we think.

If senior Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries can pass off Mohammed Akhlaq’s cold-blooded murder as an “accident” and an “unfortunate incident”, the same justification will be used when women are sexually assaulted for crossing the moral line determined by people with the same mind set as those who killed Akhlaq. Once you breed this type of suspicion and hatred, and justify the violence of your actions, no woman or man who thinks or acts differently is safe. Is this the India we want?

We might think that such things happen more frequently in the communal cauldron of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But look south. Look closely at what is happening in a State like Karnataka. For decades there was peace. Yet, the pace of communalisation has picked up and accelerated in the last decade to the point that the district of Dakshina Kannada, in which the cosmopolitan city of Mangaluru is located, has become the epicentre of communal tension.

The fallout of this is felt most by women who have become the targets of a twisted form of moral policing. In a district where 67 per cent are Hindus, 24 per cent Muslims and 8 per cent Christians, where the sex ratio is skewed in favour of women (1,020) unlike in the rest of the country, where female literacy is as high as 91 per cent, where a human development indicator like the infant mortality rate is substantially above the national average, young men and women are virtually forbidden from hanging out together. If they take the risk, they might have hell to pay.

Recent reports speak of random attacks on young people hanging out at malls, going to restaurants or going on a college trip in a so-called “mixed group”. If Hindu girls are found with Muslim boys, the latter are threatened and even beaten up while the former are warned. If girls, regardless of religion are found drinking alcohol, they are dragged out and shamed, as was done in the attack on a pub in 2009. If young men and women organise a private party, that too is targeted by moral vigilantes as happened in 2012 when one such birthday bash was broken up and the entire incident televised.

So are we going forwards, or steadily backwards? And how will this generation of young women, educated, looking forward to careers, having access to information and communication through the Internet, survive in a world where every step they take is watched? In Mangaluru, a city with a huge population of young people thronging the scores of high quality educational institutions, such an atmosphere must be stifling, hardly conducive to learning or creativity.

Today these are stories from Mangaluru; tomorrow they will happen elsewhere in India. In fact, they are happening but are not always reported.

Why should one worry about the response, or rather the lack of it, by the Central government to this growing culture of intolerance and violence? After all, law and order is a state subject and in the case of the Dadri murder, the State government of U.P. has intervened. But the combination of a silent Prime Minister and an unrestrained, insensitive and unapologetic Culture Minister (who readily expressed his regressive views on what women can and cannot do), adds up to a virtual endorsement of such actions.

Dadri is not a random incident; it is part of a larger picture that is emerging of the kind of India some people want to make. This is not the India envisioned by those who fought for its independence from the British. In 1947, we looked forward to a democratic, secular, plural India, where all religions are equal, where women have rights, where freedom of expression is guaranteed. Join the dots and you can see clearly that the idea of India that is now being pushed envisions a monoculture where you are given no choice but to conform.