Janpath To Rajpath Public, protests and policies
Janpath and Rajpath are not merely two of India’s capital New Delhi’s main boulevards; they represent significant symbolisms of transition of power from a colonial power to the Indians. The renaming of Kingsway to Rajpath and Queensway to Janpath, the two stately avenues built by Lutyens and Baker to represent the power of the British Raj in India, was not a mere Indianisation of the English names, this symbolised a power shift. A democratic republican India was to be governed by people’s representatives and not ruled by an alien power. The road to the new ‘raj’ in the country was to run with the consent of the ‘jan’. Not surprisingly, the war memorial unveiled in 1933, later renamed India Gate, having a grand visual vista from the Viceregal Palace/Rashtrapati Bhawan on Raisina Hill, in course of time has turned into a site of public protest in a variety of ways over a variety of issues—from Mahendra Singh Tikait’s siege of the lawns with 50,000 farmers in 1988, to peaceful candle light vigils for several demands to the current inflamed agitation over the bestial rape of a young girl. The most imposing image of the central vista of course is the Republic Day parade every year on 26 January, which crosses the Rajpath, goes past the Janpath to the Lal Quila demonstrating military might, cultural plurality and ‘progress’ of the nation.
It is not surprising that the protests sweeping the national capital over brutalisation of a young girl in a moving bus by six savage lascivious persons in front of her friend in a moving bus began from the India Gate and crossed the intersection of Janpath to Rajpath to knock the grills of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. It is a natural expression of outrage not only over a breakdown of systems of governance in Delhi, but also against an insensitive political class that is increasingly busy with consolidating its vote bank, even by stalling the functioning of parliament in the worst demonstration of adversarial politics, rather than attending to core issues of people’s day-to-day lives. That the young protestors braved water cannons in Delhi’s winter, teargas shells and lathi charge by the police, which is still inadequately trained and sensitised to disperse such protests with minimum use of force, is an indicator that young India is alive to burning issues that face the nation. Yet, there are several links amiss as one reflects upon the turn of events. Indeed, it is unexceptionable that the brutalised young girl, nay the womankind of the country, must get justice and spared such bestiality, the chain of events gives us an opportunity for a larger introspection on civic life, political class, governance and protests.
A considered reflection on this incident would facilitate our understanding of a number of issues that have been thrown into the public domain for an involved discourse for immediate action on lasting solutions. A young couple waiting for a bus near congested and busy Munirka market—sandwiched between government quarters of Rama Krishna Puram in the north and prestigious Jawharlal Nehru University in the south and adjacent to prestigious upper class neighbourhood Vasant Vihar on its west—on a high-traffic Palam Marg, were lured into a private bus returning after completing its run and was occupied by six persons, who were drunk and drinking. The men were on a vice trip; robbed another passenger, whose complaint the police did not entertain!
In a predictable chain of events, protests and attempt to stop the bus and alight were met with violence, the hapless girl was mercilessly violated by the gang, both were then stripped and thrown out on a road with busy traffic! Indeed, the police pickets did not hear or see anything wrong with a passing white bus on a busy road, may be not deliberately; but police pickets in Delhi are generally traffic hazards at any hour of the day than a help, and men on duty are seldom alert. Shockingly, Delhi’s gentry passing by in their expensive cars rolled down their windows to see two naked injured youngsters lying on the roadside in freezing winter and drove away; an inhuman and uncivil act by any standard!!! Someone informed 100 and a PCR van came, the policemen arranged bedsheets to cover the two and rushed them to Safdarjang Hospital. The police acted with alacrity, using investigating skills they are not known for, to identify and arrest the culprits within 48 hours. Objectively, there was no policing lapse; leaving aside the lethargic police culture in India, which is also due to heavy pressure of work and a hostile social environment as a Delhi Police constable told The Times of India in an interview after the incident and protests.
However, the idea still is not to defend or indict the police, or anyone, we must engage ourselves to avoid such future tragedies aside from bringing the arrested culprits to book in this case. Since the tide of popular protest, particularly of the youth, at ‘police lapses’, slow and inefficient criminal justice and judicial processes, lax laws and ‘soft, undeterring’ punishment, indifferent administration, insensitive self-serving politicians has engulfed first Delhi, then Agartala, Shillong and Itanagar too in the wake of rapes in these places, it is imperative that the issues are looked at holistically to address disquiet amongst the youth and growing erosion of faith in the political and administrative systems amongst the youth and citizens. It is no less significant to note that since this tragedy, the media is reporting many more cases of such brutalities across the country prominently, which indeed is a pointer to gravity of this problem on the national scale.
Civic Culture and Citizenry
Since young Indian citizens are on the rise demanding justice in a volatile eruption of ‘peaceful protest’, let us begin with an examination of civic culture. For my analysis here, I would draw upon a significant concept—civic culture—given by Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba in the 1960s to study how citizens behave politically, broadening it a bit. 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. A day later, a woman in Agartala was stripped and raped without drawing public action. We should also recall incident in Guwahati some months back of 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 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.
Civic culture deserves defining and gauging 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 citizenship. Establishing a balance between rights and responsibilities. Understanding the concept of the common good and contribute to it at least by compliance.
The Indian civic culture and the 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 it on their cars for all to know. The most visible display of incivility by all and sundry is on roads everyday. Road users neither want to know the rules, nor show any intention of following the simplest that they know. The young generation is the worst offender, using not only foul language, but also physical violence. Such displays could also be experienced in day-to-day life in neighbourhoods across the country.
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. Established biases have seen khap diktats, banning cell phones for girls, colleges prescribing ‘sober’ dresses for girl students, teenage sexual violence, indecent comments by politicians against their women counterparts, Chief Ministers and senior officers advising girls to dress up decently and not venture out unaccompanied in late hours. Social awakening alone, not laws, can attend to these.
Did the perpetrators in the current case know what they did? 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 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? This does not ignore various other kinds of rapes and exploitation of women that keep taking place in work places, homes and other social spaces, which must be attended to holistically.
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. I am among the few who have said that the police have not erred in this case, though I have analysed and argued that hardly anything is right with the police in India. The criticism of the Delhi Police by the High Court, as if everything is right with the judicial system, and an attack on it by chief minister Sheila Dikshit, as if political class has tackled the issue flawlessly, are the 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.
The jury is still out on whether the police erred in tackling their protest on the central vista, who began violence first, but have the impassioned youngsters many of whom would don the khaki tomorrow reflected on their role in violence. Indeed, the images of lathi charge brought out inadequate and improper training in disproportionate use of force. 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. How else is 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 conscietious cops, no one shows any interest in knowing about them.
Many rape cases persist due to the inadequacy of appropriate legal framework and ‘law’s deadly delays’. 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? There is no reaction, neither social, nor systemic. The judiciary, which should have taken initiative suo motu, 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 is too long. It is a huge systemic failure, we should plug the loopholes immediately rather than raising fingers in all directions.
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 better it is. Obviously, the entire state apparatus (police particularly) under such a political class would be flawed.
The worst display of an apparent rupture in the political class is 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 Police Commissioner’s head, who hit back with clarifying the ‘baseless’ charges. 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 is naturally attempting a political capital out of it, though many of them ruling 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 statement. Though Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is not a leader, 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. Even the Congress President could have done a quick mingling with this impressionable incensed lot. Of course, India’s youth icon and the ‘Prime-Minister-in-waiting’ was neither seen nor heard. It has indeed been an avertible political crisis.
The People’s March
The people’s march from Janpath to Rajpath is on. It does not need a leader now. Leaderless movements in a democracy could be interpreted as a sign of a vibrant citizenry, though as analysed it deserves qualifications in India, particularly when we introspect on the JP movement generation. In a democracy with a fractured party system, it deserves a cautious look, as parties are out to take advantage, which will harm the cause and destroy the movement. It therefore serves multiple warnings that sexagenarian Indian democracy and republic must heed; it can ill-afford its impacts.
By Ajay K Mehra
(The writer is a Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)