Demonstrators shout slogans and raise their hands during a protest for a gang rape victim in New Delhi January 16, 2013. Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Portions of this article originally appeared at Firstpost.com, where the author is a senior editor.
In the days following the tragedy, the young physiotherapy student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus in mid-December quickly became a woman of many names. Required by law to protect her anonymity, Indian publications jumped on the opportunity to rechristen her. The stirring pseudonyms were selected to reflect her newfound status as an icon of feminine power: Nirbhaya (Fearless), Damini (Lightning), Jagruti (Awakening).
The death of “Jagruti” was a rude awakening for the urban middle class, the most shocking in a series of wake-up calls over a year that witnessed a number of sensational sexual assault cases. Rich small-town boys from Rohtak who kidnapped and gang-raped a young woman in a suburb outside Delhi after following her out of a nightclub. The office shuttle driver in Kolkata who raped a housewife. A mob attack on a young girl outside a bar in full view of a television camera crew in Guwahati. The security guard at an apartment complex who killed a twentysomething lawyer in the course of trying to rape her. Each incident was followed by the now predictable cycle of media outrage and misogynistic blustering on the part of politicians. Some leaders offered child marriage as an antidote so that young girls and boys “do not stray,” while others blamed it on the effects of fast food—specifically chow mein—on the male libido. Still others preferred to deny the reality of rape entirely, claiming that more than 90 percent of rape complaints stemmed from a consensual sexual relationship gone awry.
For the upwardly mobile classes who spend their lives shuttling between multinational offices, call centers, bars and malls, who prefer jeans and leggings to saris, watch MTV and eat at McDonald’s, each incident served as an unwelcome reminder of the other, not-quite-new India, of that slower, more dangerous twin that stubbornly refuses to grow or change. For over two decades of liberalization, the glaringly messy contradictions that sully the rising, shining, aspiring “growth story” have been explained away by the “two Indias” theory of everything. Western and Indian media alike have clung to the notion that there are two distinct worlds, one shiny and progressive, hurtling into the twenty-first century, leaving the backward, conservative one behind.
The sheer viciousness of the latest attack—the men ripped apart Jagruti’s insides with a metal rod—finally broke through the high wall of denial. The angry street protests that followed her death were a belated acknowledgment of a more unpleasant reality: there is only one India, a social Darwinian nation where there is no rule of law; where might always makes right, whether your power derives from your gender, money, caste or sheer numbers, as in the case of a gang rape. And that single India is right there beside you, sitting at the next bar stool, hanging around on the street corner, opening the gate to your apartment building or driving your taxi, sidling up to you on the commuter train. The young girl who paid an astronomically steep price for an evening out at the movies proved that the so-called “new India” exists in a bubble built on the delusion of safety. A bubble that can be breached at will by the other India that we try so hard to insulate ourselves from. All you need to do is jump on the wrong bus.