Whatever else one might think of the anti-corruption movements led by Anna Hazare or Arvind Kejriwal, they give the lie to the conventional notion that the middle class is politically apathetic. Likewise, unprecedented public protests that have broken out in Delhi against the horrific gang rape of a young woman in a moving bus — leading to baton charges, use of water cannon, lockdown of central Delhi and closure of Metro stations — open a crack in the narrative that the reason such horrific crimes against women happen is because society doesn't care.
This is not to say that the reasons for such violence aren't social. Sexual crimes are committed across the world, but elsewhere they tend to be individual crimes committed in private circumstances. It's only in India that gang rapes are uploaded as MMS clips, or carried out in moving vehicles in metropolitan cities, suggesting collective impunity for the perpetrators. While indicative of a social pathology that's specific to us, it's clearly also being resisted by significant segments of society. There's a social and sexual churning that's afoot, with which India's archaic administrative and political systems are failing to cope.
To proceed by way of an analogy, look at Delhi's own development. It is an imperial city, and that character has sustained post-independence. The British built New Delhi to reflect the pomp and glory of the imperial state (prior to that Old Delhi was the seat of the Mughal empire and the Delhi Sultanate). Thus the imperial hauteur of home minister Sushil Shinde's statement, that if he were to go out and meet student protestors today, next he would be expected to meet Maoists just because they turn up at India Gate.
Yet precisely because Delhi is home to the sarkar, resources have been lavished on building its infrastructure. That, along with the migration of talent from all over the country, makes it a dynamic commercial city as well, contributing to its Janus-faced character. Delhi's collisions occur because commercial and citizen activity must peep out from within the interstices of a disdainful sarkari mindset.
This reflects in the nature of policing as well, with large numbers of policemen being corralled for VIP duty. A cop told me that while his compatriots assigned to VIP security in Delhi serve only 6-8 hours a day, the rest could be expected to put in as many as 22 hours. That was because, as he pointed out, authorities are well aware that excessive hours impact badly on the alertness of policemen.
Not only are the facilities they are provided with poor and degrading, sometimes they are even expected to pay for fuel for their motorbikes to travel to the crime spot, out of their own meagre salaries! If a cop in such circumstances doesn't turn out corrupt, brutal, negligent or sexist, that in itself is a small miracle. Citizens' safety is not seen as worth investing in, and women's safety comes last on the priority list. A policeman's death at the hands of some protesters in Delhi can only be expected to further this cycle of dehumanisation.
If Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are industrial powerhouses, Delhi and the national capital region perform the same function for services — with strengths in IT and IT-enabled services, fashion, healthcare, entertainment, finance, education, media, professional services, hotels and tourism. This post-industrial landscape gives rise to a large middle class and places Delhi at the cusp of modernity. It leads to a great social churning as young people earn far more than their fathers, women earn as much as men. With social hierarchies unsettled, the scene is set for a traditional and patriarchal backlash.
Women are supposed to be the standard bearers of tradition. But note that with liberalisation and the launch of market forces, the market is also a feminised space (hence the association of women with shopping). Both in the aristocratic and socialist imagination the market, fashion and post-industrialist consumer culture are spaces of frivolity, and the woman as consumer becomes a threat. It means they are no longer looked at but also looking, no longer passive objects of exchange but actively exercising choice and autonomy, which could also include sexual autonomy.
It's no wonder that the assault on Delhi's gang rape victim started out with taunts directed at her boyfriend. It's no wonder that women sitting in a bar or pub become an affront, whether to Sri Ram Sene goons in Mangalore or to self-righteous cops in Mumbai. And it's no wonder that "love marriages" become an issue, leading to lynch mobs being set on lovelorn couples. The prospect of women exercising autonomy and the consequent challenge to the way things were must be met by subjecting them to sadistic violence (or harassing them with the full force of the law, if you happen to be a lawman).
The Indian constitution, however, gives equal rights to women. And citizens have the right to security. Instead of keeping up our ambivalence about modernity — evident in suggestions that women themselves are partially responsible for violence against them — we need to see security as an essential element of infrastructure and development planning. It's as critical to building thriving cities and decent lives for Indians as roads, electricity or breathable air.