India: a cultural time bomb


On 13th September, the perpetrators of the gruesome gang rape of a 23-old medical student were sentenced to death on charges of rape and murder. Almost a year ago, the student had gone, with her boyfriend, to a mall for the movie, “The Life of Pi”. While leaving the mall at around 9pm, the couple made the ultimately fatal choice of getting into a private bus, where five men beat up the boyfriend and brutally sodomised and gang raped the woman.

More startling, however, were the widespread demonstrations and the vigorous debate over women, sexuality and patriarchy that the gang rape triggered. The protests were reminiscent of Delhi’s massive anti-graft movement of 2011. Pundits blamed everything from the ingrained patriarchy in Indian society and the spread of pornography to the excessive “objectification” of women in Bollywood. As is often the case, the crackpots and the men of religion tried to lay the blame on the girl herself – for being late out at night.

But sex crimes happen everywhere, right? And men act like bigots too. A Canadian police officer’s remark that women should not dress like sluts led to the slutwalk protests.

Because most rapes are not reported – often to protect the community’s or family’s honour – the number of registered rapes in India turns out to be astonishingly low. But even if the figure is increased 10-fold, the rate of sex crime per 1000 population in India would be lower than many Western nations including the United States and Sweden. Then, why such outrage and attention over this one gang rape?

For one, its special brutality made it stand out from other sex crimes. Reports suggest a rusted rod was used for penetration. Similarly, the fact that it occurred in the generally safe area of South Delhi (home to Delhi’s upper-middle classes) may have shaken people’s confidence in the police.

Yet, the gang rape became the symbol around which women – particularly middle class women – fought against value-judgements that deem them impure for the clothes they wear, the way they talk, what they drink or inhale and for the piercing eyes that follow them if they ever seek to rejoice and find comfort in their sexuality. The generally widespread support in sections of media and urban literati was perhaps the most encouraging sign.

Values such as individualism and gender-equality are intrinsically tied with modernity. Most in the West, where processes of modernisation have long come and gone, take this for granted. Factories and cities produce workers and businessmen from societies of peasants and lords. In most rapidly developing nations today, scores of men leave the comfort of their ancestral plots and local communities for the better lives and anonymity of the city. ‘Modern’ jobs often have the effect of replacing the primordial identities (of village, local community or caste) with more ‘modern’ ones like that of the working class (and hence trade unionship).

It is this same capitalist modernity that has also (along with other important innovations) allowed for the freedom of women. Unlike in the age-old, mostly patriachical, peasant societies, where women almost always become the tag of honour for families, communities and castes, the anonymity of the city and prospect of financial freedom (through individual jobs in urban spaces) substantially enhances a woman’s arena of action.

Although one of the fastest developing nations in the world, with an urbanisation rate of 33-35%, much of India continues to reside in the village. Even though the agricultural sector contributes to only a sixth of the total output, it employs almost half of the nation’s labour force. Modernity and modernisation, through factories and industries, are yet to happen to most of India. In fact, only a tiny fraction of the nation’s 450 million labour force is employed in the formal sector.

While these statistics are set to change with great rapidity in the coming decades (experts predict half of India’s population to be urbanised by the end of the decade), they do suggest that values inherent in modernity are outside the availability of most Indians.

The end result is a sort of duality that would confound a Westerner, or one from a generally prosperous nation. Within Delhi, one can find mostly middle-class English-speaking men, in professional jobs such as journalism, law or business, passionately defending women’s rights, sexual freedom or other liberal causes, and migrant construction labourers laughing at the absurdity of such ideas and treating their own wives as second-class citizens. India has the 17th, 19th and 21st centuries co-existing simultaneously.

Therefore, India can produce plenty of women leading corporations and editing important weeklies and dailies, but also families where women are not allowed out after 7pm at night.

Thus, it is hardly surprising when Western women, accustomed to a certain level of cosmopolitanism, travel to rural India and often report on the agonising status of women and occasional sexual harrassment. It is this same friction that motivates frustrated single, half-employed men from the villages, who for the first time in their lives see women smoking, driving, working and in control of their lives, to commit heinous acts.

India is currently undergoing what Karl Polanyi once called the “Great Transformation”. While rapid modernisation has its physical and psychological pains, it inevitably leads to greater prosperity and freedom. Despite the instability in existing social and power structures that it causes, this is ultimately a good thing.

By Akshat Khandelwal


Photograph by Kirk Kittell, via Flickr.

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