Some dates become watersheds. December 16th is now one of them. In the years to come, what happened on this date last year will occupy one sentence — a “fill in the blank” or a one line answer — while reams will be written on what followed.
What happened touched a raw nerve, and people — of all ages and backgrounds — poured out into the streets to protest. Like statues suddenly come alive, they reacted to this gang-rape as if it were the first time such an atrocity had occurred. And in the ferocity of their response, they did what decades of activism could not do — forced discussion of sexual violence onto the Indian political mainstream agenda.
Everyone was discussing the law, everyone was an expert on the different kinds of punishments, and everyone was very, very angry. The Justice Verma Commission’s invitation to the public to share their views and their very speedy drafting of recommendations signalled something had changed. In the following months, we saw new laws, new rules and the affirmation of a new resolve to deal with the challenge of sexual violence.
All this is good. But the more some things change, the more others remain the same.
First, for a nation of almost compulsive rule-benders and law-breakers, we remain obsessed with the law. We want stricter laws for everything and more stringent penalties. We believe in strong deterrents and exemplary punishments. When someone points out that we have some good laws on the books but dowry, sex-selective abortion and domestic violence persist, we point to law enforcement. The police need to be sensitised and police reforms are a must, we say. Moreover, if the judiciary would process cases more efficiently, and convict more accused, we are sure the laws would then work and exemplary punishment would deter criminals.
Second, we continue to expect the state to solve all our problems. When something happens in public spaces, we rail against the state’s inability to provide security on the streets, at stations and bus terminals, and in public transport. Of course, this is the state’s job. But we too contribute to safety by staying alert, speaking up and intervening when there seems to be a problem. Mumbai and Kolkata have been considered safe for women because bystanders in these two cities have had a reputation for intervening when there is a problem. We also contribute to safety by following the rules, like not using tinted glass when the law say we shouldn’t.
Third, conversations about patriarchy remain confined to certain settings. Much of our discourse on sexual and gender-based violence is still couched in terms of protection of “our” women, “our” daughters”, “our” wives and “our” mothers. The problem with this sentiment is that it stops us from reaching to the root of the problem: why is it possible for violence to become a language of interaction between people? This language seeks to communicate ownership and control; the perpetrator of violence asserts power over the person targeted. But we are not talking about why some people (often men and boys) grow up with a sense of entitlement — something identified by a recent UN study as the most common reason men raped women. The sense of entitlement begins with the largest piece of dessert and ends with access, with or without consent, to women’s bodies — but it remains outside everyday discussions.
Fourth, we want society to change and we talk of changing mindsets, but we have no patience for the process of change. In the rush to get a law in quick or to draft rules fast, we’re not doing enough by having quiet discussions at home, over lunch at work or with friends about what it is in our lives that makes violence seem acceptable. There is also little patience to deal with structural issues like the planning and maintenance of public spaces. For instance, when street lights go out in our neighbourhood, do we get them fixed, or let darkness engulf the neighbourhood?
It takes a lot of work to create a world in which people are free from violence — work that goes beyond outrage and blaming, to taking responsibility through learning, speaking up, volunteering with and supporting the work of change.
Nirbhaya. This name celebrated one girl’s determination to survive violence, to tell her tale bravely and to seek justice for herself. But today it should remind us that the world we seek to build is one where people are safe not just because they are protected or policed, but a world in which they are not afraid — not any longer.
Being unafraid has three dimensions. The first is being fearless and brave — in any circumstances. The second is being assured one is safe — and this is the assurance we seek repeatedly from law and policing. The last comes from belonging to a society whose culture makes fear obsolete.
Children seem fearless to me. They accept people and experiences as they come for the most part, rarely anticipating hurt. They are open, adventurous and curious. We teach them caution. We show them that we judge people and differentiate between them. They internalise our teachings and examples as fear and they begin to limit themselves, anticipating not just danger but also failure. To teach caution or discernment without imparting fear or impairing confidence — that is the parent or teacher’s challenge. Courageous adults fight back, speak up, speak out and intervene when something goes wrong. A cost-benefit analysis might inform but does not determine their actions. Courage is armour, because violence is also bullying, and bullies do not pick on the strong. And courage affirms to a person who has experienced violence that it is not their fault. How do we teach and reinforce courage? I am beginning to think this is a very important component of the violence-free world we want.
The second dimension of being assured safety is the one we dwell on most, and the only thing I would re-state here is that this assurance also comes from our belief that people will step in to help. Beyond the law and the police, then, the values that people in a community hold and the relationships of trust within that community build courage. In situations of protracted conflict, one of the casualties is that trust — not knowing who is an informer, who will turn assailant, who will use intimate knowledge as survival currency. Courage is underpinned by a culture of safety defined by relationships of mutual support and trust in a community. So beyond lobbying for laws and police reform, how do we turn our housing societies and colonies into such communities?
To be honest, I can barely imagine the third dimension. It would have to be a society without the structural hierarchies and power equations of patriarchy, class or caste. It would have to be a culture of equality and without normative diktats about everything. Dialogue would resolve conflict and communication lines would be open. Violence would be redundant in such a society, I think. I don’t know for sure how to get from here to there. I suspect though that the journey has to start with reflection and asking hard questions of ourselves — fearlessly.
Whatever the stands we have taken in the last year, whatever our paths might be today, it is very important that we do not give up for any reason. Unusually, fuelled by other incidents of violence, the outrage that was expressed one year ago has not been forgotten. Thus we have a rare opportunity to re-commit ourselves to staying the course and working for lasting change—not just in a few laws, but in the way we are, at home and outside, as a society, and not just episodically, but every single day of our lives.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training, and the founder of Prajnya, which just completed the 2013 edition of its annual 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence.