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Curious Ways of Indian Democracy from India Gate to the Slum Habitat

By Prachee Sinha

03 January, 2013

It has taken a horrific tragedy and a precious young life to stir the conscience of a nation. Or so one would like to believe! Reality may not still cater to our wishes. Our grand old civilization is also a culture of billion brutalities on its women and countless other victims. One can only hope that it changes for the better, even if a little, after what it has witnessed through the last fifteen days of the last year. Greater probability, however, is for such hopes to be belied yet again. It may take a lot more to lift the weight of an age-old way of life . After all, one would not have expected that rapes and molestations would be reported from across the country, and even from Delhi itself, right in the middle of anger, sorrow and protests that seemed to engulf the country. One would expect that the rapists and the criminals would lie low for a while till the situation returns to normal . Least of all wouldhave one expected that women would be harassed, and one or two would even be molested, during those very protests that were taking placeat the India Gate and Jantar Mantar.


The battered body of the nameless and faceless brave hearthas now been consigned to flames and returned to earth. From the little that we know about her ordeal in the bus, she fought the goons, without any fear that it could invite the brutalisation she was subjected to, when they first attacked her friend. She remained undefeated in her spirits even as her organs failed. Likes of the person, who reportedly expressed the opinion that she should have submitted to rape to be spared the brutalisation, shall never understand the meaning and the value of courage and dignity.


As we move out of the period of mourning, as the protests subside, and as the seemingly outraged nation returns to business as usual, there is a lot to ponder and analyse. In a state of shock and grief in the immediate aftermath of the incident, I wrote an emotional piece on the social media casting an anguished and tearful glance from the vantage point of a young woman who commutes to work across Delhi spending two hours in public transport each way. When a friend of mine reacted by saying that we must get to the roots of structural violence permeating the urban habitat and see the role of capital in fomenting frustration and animosity that the underprivileged feel against the privileged and prosperous, I nearly pounced on him across the virtual space.To understand the root cause is not always a prerequisite for change, I wrote back to him. The need for change generates its own dynamics. Societies do not change easily, but they do change through such episodes, tragic as it might be that the girl is to be sacrificed forsuch incremental change. In the immediate aftermath of such an incident we should not demand a comprehensive treatment and a finely balanced approach. Let us not theorise in a manner that helps us forget and move on, I admonished him.

But, there is a time to mourn and protest, and there is a time to ponder and analyse. My friend was not as wrong as I made him out to be at the time. It is, perhaps, an integral part of thelong drawn out change process that the tragedy has generated a good deal of analysis and soul-searching. The government has been taken to task for its omissions and commissions; the nature of the state has been scrutinised for locating the source of insecurity women face day in and day out. More importantly, a culture and a society soaked with misogyny and patriarchy have been brought under the lens. Analysts and commentators have also wondered why certain cases of rape make headlines while others are lost in the small corners of inside pages. Why rapes and other forms of humiliation and oppression faced frequently by Dalit and tribal women do not stir the conscience of the nation.

All such concerns are rooted in difficult issues of Indian society and polity and deserve serious attention. There are yet other issues which are difficult even to voice. Among other things, political correctness comes in the way. The main accused of this case, for example, is reportedly a resident of the Ravi Das slum cluster in south Delhi. I wonder how many from the sprawling Delhi slum habitat that shelters millions joined the protests at the India Gate. I also wonder if the vociferous demands for death penalty, mob lynching and worse by a large section of the protestors had subterranean linkages with the knowledge that the perpetrators of the crime belong to the slum habitat and came from the subaltern classes. While the awakening of the students and the educated youth has been rightly applauded, one has to ponder over the class dimension of the phenomenon and about the chasm that lies between India Gate and the slum habitat.

I am not suggesting that Delhi slums were devoid of the revulsion and sympathy witnessed elsewhere in the aftermath of this horrific incident. In fact I had numerous experiences that spoke otherwise. To take one, Metro stations around India Gate were closed down after the Saturday protests and I had to take an auto-rickshaw to reach there the Sunday after. The rickshaw driver who was a slum dweller and hailed from Bihar was refusing to take money once he came to know that I had come to join the protest. “You are doing a very good thing; I will not take money from you”. I had to really insist and express my appreciation for his concern before he yielded. But, there were indications that pointed in other directions too.

My parents happened to take a long bus ride the next day from Connaught Place to Rohini along the Route 990. Perched on the high front seats reserved for senior citizens they could afford a close observation of the bus driver who was in his thirties and appeared excessively angry and foul-mouthed. But the interesting part was his discriminating behaviour. While he did not stop the bus at many of the required stops where he saw students in suit and tie or regular middle class men and women, he stopped the bus between the stops to pick up passengers who appeared to belong to subaltern classes. He made sure that an elderly woman almost in rags got a seat, whereas he growled at every question asked by any educated looking person. It usually happens the other way round. The poor are at the receiving end of the bus drivers' ire just as everywhere else. Most interestingly, he admonished a jeans clad young woman for talking over her cell phone while boarding the bus and mocked her by saying, “this bus is not going to the India Gate.”This last instance gave some indications of the source of his anger.

When the class dimension emerges in the course of a discussion, it is commonplace to assert that patriarchy is equally entrenched in all classes. One often cites examples of rapes and other crimes against women that take place in the high society. But the fact remains that such crimes are more likely to happen in the slum habitat and the poor neighbourhoods. Women of this other world face such dangers far more than those from the middle class localities. In fact entire population of the slum habitat suffers under the oppression of the local goons and bullies who are more likely to be involved in such crimes.

Before it is taken as a sign of elite prejudice, let me say that I have been working with the urban poor in the slum habitat for nearly ten years. I can assert with some measure of confidence that were the goons and bullies to be taken away from the scene, slums will turn into incomparably better places despite the filth and poverty. But how can they be removed from the scene? They are the backbone of the political process in the slum habitat. They are the ground-support of the structure of political patronage that reaches all the way to the top. Every political party that aspires to become the ruling party has these elements as their representatives and functionaries in the slums. Ruling classes live far away from the slum habitat and rule from the institutions around the India Gate, but they have an intricate web of linkages extending all the way to the slums.

Indian democracy appears to be Janus-faced and it operates in very curious ways. It joins enlightened students and concerned citizenry at India Gate in their demands for justice for the Delhi rape victim. Elsewhere it nurtures criminal elements responsible for such horrific tragedies. At India Gate it may raise slogans of gender justice; in the slum clusters it will manage and subjugate the underprivileged masses by employing goons and bullies in the service of the class rule. Imperatives of the political game needed to safeguard the rule often return to haunt the aspirations of justice, equality and freedom expected to be fulfilled under a democratic polity and civilized society.

Politicization of a partially awakened citizenry is the need of hour. However, any politics of the genuinely emancipatory kind will have to find a way to deal with the multiple malignancies of the actually existing Indian democracy.

Prachee Sinha has a Masters degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University, USA. Sheis works on issues of urban poverty.




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