(First published in The Pioneer dated December 26, 2012)
On Sunday morning, a young protester at India Gate asked me: “Where is the Prime Minister? Do we even have a Prime Minister?” I had no answer. On Monday, Mr Manmohan Singh made a televised address to the nation which proved that we have a Prime Minister, but only in name. In a bland lecture that is eminently forgettable, Mr Singh said the massive protests which have erupted over the gang rape and torture of a young girl in a moving bus in Delhi were justified and understandable. We didn’t need the Prime Minister to tell us that. We needed him to tell us who has been held accountable for the shocking and sad incident and what immediate steps is his Government taking to ensure that rapists are punished severely. Mr Singh’s message to the country was worse than what a dithering bureaucrat would have said.
Incidentally, the Prime Minister did not forget to mention that, as a father of three daughters, he felt the pain of the victim and her family. It has suddenly become fashionable for politicians to remind the people that they have daughters. A few days earlier, the thoroughly inept Union Minister for Home Affairs Sushil Kumar Shinde too mentioned at a Press conference that he had daughters and thus could appreciate the anger among the protesters. Not satisfied with that, he pointed to his deputy, Mr RPN Singh, and disclosed that the latter too had daughters — and we assume that he too, therefore, felt the pain as deeply as the senior Minister did. A few days earlier to Mr Shinde’s media briefing, prominent Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien expressed his own bit of anguish over the Delhi incident and reminded the audience that he too was the father of a daughter. Of course, he had not felt the same pain over the Park Street rape case in West Bengal some months ago in the Trinamool rule, nor did he even squeak when the police officer investigating the case was unceremoniously shunted out and the rape victim made to undergo all sorts of humiliation.
Having daughters, or being a woman, does not seem to have made any difference in the attitude of public figures towards heinous crimes against women, and so they look hypocritical when they shed (crocodile) tears. Not too long ago, Ms Pratibha Patil towards the end of her tenure as President had reduced to life imprisonment the death sentence awarded to a convict who had raped and murdered a six-year old girl in Uttar Pradesh in 2001. She had also extended clemency to two other convicts who had gang raped and then brutally killed the 10-year old daughter of a jailor in the jail premises in Madhya Pradesh in 1996. Being a woman did nothing to stop her from letting off such inhuman criminals. So, why should we believe politicians when they say that they understand the grief and suffering merely because they have daughters or are women?
Politicians have to be judged by their action. Let’s look at that action. When the street protests assumed a huge dimension in the middle of last week, the Prime Minister issued a statement that he understood the anger of the protesters, adding that the agitation was justified. Later, various other politicians in the UPA, from Ms Sonia Gandhi down, echoed similar sentiments. All of them promised action. And that action came, to be fair to them. On Saturday, more a dozen Metro stations were shut down so that protesters could not reach in large numbers at India Gate and Raisina Hill to conduct their peaceful demonstrations. Despite this, people in thousands found their way to both these locations. As the crowd continued to swell, the police began swinging their canes recklessly and beating up the gathering. Even on that Saturday, senior Congress leaders continued to believe in the agitation!
On Sunday, there was further proof of that solidarity and appreciation of the protesters’ movement. Section 144 was imposed in Delhi to prevent the assembly of people. More Metro stations in the proximity of India Gate and Raisina Hill were closed for ‘security reasons’. (They remained closed on Monday and Tuesday as well.) Despite all these repressive measures, huge numbers arrived at India Gate and began their protest. It was one of this season’s coldest days and the police let loose water cannons and dozens of rounds of teargas shells on the protesters, besides indulging in the usual lathi-charge. Beginning from around three in the afternoon, the security forces went on a rampage, under the pretext that they had to contain an unruly mob which had infiltrated the peaceful gathering and was damaging public property and resorting to violence. It is true that sections of the protesters had turned violent, but they could have been easily isolated and dealt with. Had the security forces done that and identified who these unruly elements were, perhaps the Congress would have had reasons to be embarrassed by the expose.
Despite all the repressive measures which the Government has taken, the regime cannot break the spirit of the protesters. Nor can it get away by sitting on the fence on issues which require a firm stand. In the initial days of the protest, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit maintained a grim silence. But she sought to blame the Union Ministry of Home Affairs for the incident after the agitation gained massive proportions and cries of “Sheila Dikshit hai hai!” grew as loud as “Sonia Gandhi hai hai” and “Delhi Police hai hai”. Miraculously, a letter written by Congress MP and her son Sandeep Dikshit to the Centre appeared in a section of the electronic media. The letter raised questions on certain appointments the Lt Governor had made to the police force. Since the Delhi Police reports to the Centre, it is directly accountable to the Lt Governor. And now, Ms Dikshit has openly questioned the strong-arm tactics which Delhi Police employed with the protesters and their conduct while recording the statement of the rape victim.
Clearly then, although the political class is rattled, it is still unable to respond in a fitting manner. The demand to have a special session of Parliament, the demand to include the death penalty in laws that deal with rape and amend other related provisions, the demand to initiate firm action against top Delhi Police brass, the demand to sensitise police to help them handle crimes against women effectively — these are not unjustified. Yet the Government has refused to offer any roadmap to walk that path. As always, it believes that the crisis will play out and subside over time, and that everything will be back to normal. But it will not be back to normal for the girl who has been brutalised (we hope she lives), for her family members, and for all those hundreds of victims of rape across the country who still wait for justice while the police, the prosecution and the judiciary take their time to deal with their horror. Token assurances and symbolic gestures are no longer enough.