Aijaz Zaka Syed
Published — Friday 28 December 2012
Last update 28 December 2012 12:31 am
Indians aren’t easily excited. After all, it was India that gave the world meditation, yoga and the ever content Buddha. Eliot prescribed Indian approach to life as the way out of the West’s spiritual Waste Land. Shantih, Shantih, Shantih!!! Protests are of course normal in a healthy democracy. But when was the last time you saw such cold, all-consuming fury on the streets of Delhi? When was the last time a sea of angry humanity flooded Raisina Hill — the seat of power and home to the Raj — era presidential palace and prime minister’s secretariat and Parliament? This is not the indifferent, waffling flimflam that political parties routinely summon to Delhi in a show of strength. It’s something different and extraordinary. This is not about the blood-curdling rape of a 23-year old named “Amanat” (not her real name) in a moving bus right in the capital or about stronger laws and security anymore.
What we are seeing may be the beginning of a total revolution. It seems the Indian Spring is finally here, knocking on the door of the great city that has over the centuries witnessed an endless pageant of successive armies and empires.
You’ve got to be blind as a bat and deaf to miss this phenomenon on the streets of the capital. After a week of deafening silence in the face of unprecedented protests coupled with incredibly insensitive police crackdown in full glare of world media, a distant prime minister emerged from his cloister to read from a written script calling for “calm.” His face devoid of all expression and feeling, the inscrutable Singh looked the epitome of what he was preaching. His ‘theek hai?’ (alright?), inadvertently slipped in at the end of the 1-minute address to the nation, was a rather telling comment on the sad state of affairs in Delhi. Does he even realize what his government is up against? One felt like reaching into the TV screen and shaking him vigorously to wake him up.
Over the past week or so, pundits have increasingly talked of a ‘dangerous disconnect’ between the people and political class. It’s not just a mere disconnect. It’s more like India’s politicians and people live on different planets. All through the week when angry crowds were roiling the streets of Delhi demanding justice and better security for women, there was near total silence in the usually bustling capital. It was as though there was no government in Delhi.
All that one saw on television screens was the overwhelming police presence with the cops doing what they routinely do in India — crack the whip with full force on everyone in their sight. Even young schoolgirls and women out in their thousands to protest the crimes against women weren’t spared. If the men in khaki had used half of their brute force and toughness in dealing with the animals who have turned Delhi into the rape capital of the country, we wouldn’t have this crisis on our hands in the first place.
It’s hard to believe this is a city that is ruled by women. If Sheila Dikshit heads the Delhi government, Sonia Gandhi heads the party and coalition that rules India.
Parliament Speaker and opposition leader also happen to be women. Dikshit surfaced after days of protests to demand “police accountability” — Delhi Police reports to the Central government — while Gandhi ventured out of her fortress late at night to offer her belated support and promise action.
Why are Indian politicians so afraid of their own people? Within hours of the recent school massacre, President Obama thought it necessary not only to respond to the tragedy but travel to Connecticut to offer his support and promise action on the gun menace. Maybe those tears from someone seen as distant and cool as a cucumber were a touch melodramatic. But it was certainly leadership.
This is what nations in crisis look for — direction and empathy from their leaders.
This is what is badly needed in India and is often at the heart of numerous challenges facing this behemoth of a nation. Whatever the strengths of Singh as an economist and leader, he has been found woefully lacking when it comes to communicating with the nation in its hour of crisis.
Indeed, all three leading lights of the party and government — Sonia Gandhi, her son and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi and PM of course —are shy of media glare and seldom interact with those they are governing.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the issue was only about reticence and social skills of the leadership. What we are faced with is a larger problem of ineptness and bad governance. There appears to be total apathy and cluelessness at the top. On serious challenges facing the country, from the absurd levels of corruption to sky- rocketing inflation and worsening law and order situation, government actions do not inspire a great deal of confidence. No wonder Narendra Modi and his powerful patrons can’t wait for 2014.
The outrage seen on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere in the country therefore is not just about the ordeal of the medical student who’s battling for her life—her mutilated intestines had to be removed. Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar wasn’t off the mark when she explained the protests as “eruption of accumulated anger.” This is the spontaneous outburst of an angry and concerned nation. People have had enough. Enough of political apathy and indifference and enough of the system’s incompetence and abuse of institutions.
We are a nation that allows a rape to take place every 22 minutes. A child is raped every 76 minutes. This is besides the relentless, silent war that we have been waging on female of the species in various ways. From killing them in their mother’s womb to punishing women for giving birth to girls to persecuting women for challenging traditional male bastions, we stop at nothing.
There’s no protection from anyone — neither the state nor society. In fact, protectors of law are often the worst offenders, as was proved yet again this week in the case of another gang-raped victim from Uttar Pradesh. On approaching police for help, the victim was put through the same ordeal all over again — this time by the law enforcers! Have we ever sunk so low as a society? Is it any wonder then women in the capital of the great democracy do not feel safe in the presence of thousands of cops? And this being the state of affairs in Delhi, what can one say of remote parts of the country? These rapes are but symptoms of a far more serious malaise and rot that has set in the body politic. It’s not just archaic laws and misogynist police and administration mindset that need to change. The whole system is falling apart.
India’s leaders would ignore the anger and vox populi rising from the streets at their peril. There were both young and old in the crowd. Parents came with young children to add their voice to the rising chorus for change, defying Delhi’s bitter December chill and water cannons and tear gas shells of Delhi Police.
This infinitely patient nation is looking for action and real change — and soon— from its leaders. Gone are the days when you could mollify the masses with the lollipops of empty promises, parliamentary panels and probes. There’s no alternative to real action and leadership, Singh. God knows India has waited for it long enough.