Wednesday, December 26, 2012

India # 45 They're Rioting in India...

Eight days after a brutal gang rape on a Delhi bus, Indians were still rioting and the police putting them down with water cannons and batons.  On December 28 the victim died in a Singapore Hospital, setting up further demonstrations.

When the treatment of rape goes public in United States, Republicans say dumb things and lose potential control of the U. S. Senate but no one takes to the streets.  In India, rape is punishable by life imprisonment.  Now it could be punishable by death, which the demonstrators demanded.  Why the difference in the response to a single rape between the two countries?  I’ll take a crack at it.

First, India is far more given to riots, strikes, protests and demonstrations than is the United States, at least since the l930’s.  In my first month in India I missed four days of work or travel because of strikes:  two for bus drivers, one for farmers protesting water allocations (they tied cows to the railroad, stopping traffic) and one against allowing foreign ownership in the retail, insurance and airline industries.  Political parties are on parade frequently.  Conflict between the states and federal government; between the judiciary and the executive; and among competing economic interests seemed to me more intense than in the United States.

Taking to the streets has a long history in India. 

 Second, this is a significant event, maybe like Rosa Park on another bus, not just one more in a string.  Rape is on the rise in India while in decline in the United States.  Indian Women have entered the workplace and are being subjected sexual harrassment which is seldom addressed.  Young women are taking this occasion to make their case vividly.
While rape has fallen by 40-85 percent in the U. S. since l980 (says Wikipedia) it is said to have doubled in the same period in India.  The December l7 Arab News says 568 cases of rape were reported in Delhi, a city of 15 million, last year.  The U.S. reported l91,000 in 2005.  Surely rape is under-reported in India.

 Rape has become notorious in India as an act of aggression by one religious or ethnic group against another.  Government officials and particularly members of the ruling Congress Party made stupid, retrograde statements about such rapes two months ago.  The party responded badly again in this case.  Although it was a local crime, anger was directed at the national government in Delhi which could have sympathized and talked with the demonstrators but did not.

It was a gang of drunks who put the couple on a private bus, not a public conveyance, then threw them out while it was moving, which is why the woman died.   

India is taking steps to offer transportation in women-only compartments and conveyances.  Harrassment of women in the workplace is widely reported and women's groups counter it as best they can but India is well behind Western countries in sensitivity and taking action.  Delhi authorities say they will increase women-only waiting rooms and compartments on comuter trains and buses.

Women on a bus in Bangalore....

Third, distrust of government and the police runs high.  Opposition to the Congress Party is widespread and the 80 year old prime minister is seen as honorable but slipping.  A new round of economic liberalization (inviting greater foreign investment) and a shuffling of his cabinet seems not to have offset the downward slide of the ruling government.  

Opposing parties have tried to capitalized on the riots, piling on.  The anti-corruption crusader Aruinda Kejriwal has added this case to the long list or scandals, offenses and charges of incompetence he accumulates week after week, not only against Congress Party leaders but against the leader of BJP, the party which is likely to form the next government, and its chief ministers.

I know of no statistic in India similar to the 11 percent approval rating for the U. S. House of Representatives but there may be similar numbers out there for India.

Fourth, women and students led these demonstrations, supported by labor unions and other interest groups.  Women's advances and anger are likely not understood by older political leaders.  Police forces include few women and handle their complaints poorly. Students live within a system which is highly competitive and generous to those who get to the top but they are few in number and percentage.   The victim of this rape was a 23 year old fellow student and that may be reason enough.

Fifth, unlike our image of them, and notwithstanding their often gentle demeanor, Indians can be very assertive.  “The Argumentative India” is the title of a 2005 book by the Nobel Prize winning economist, Harvard professor and public intellectual, Amaratya Sen, about India’s historic diversity and heterodoxy.  Riots are not arguments, to be sure, but they represent “we will not be ignored,” which does have a tradition.  When Untouchables gain political power and mandated slots in education and the civil service—as they have in recent years--everyone above them gets permission to be noticed as well. 

The best way to understand the riots in India may be to remember the murder of Travon Martin in Sanford, Florida, Rosa Park or riots following the death of Martin Luther King in the l968.  Consider how these events transformed America.


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