New Delhi police charged into a crowd of young men and women protesting the country's apparent impotence in the face of rampant violence against women over the weekend, evoking memories of the massive 2011 Indian protests against corruption and more ominous comparisons with Egypt's Tahrir Square. And while the anger is rooted in rage, fear and bitterness over the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapist in New Delhi, disgust with India's corrupt, callous and incompetent public officials has stoked the flames.
The question now is: Where do we go from here?
Can a rape protest be the catalyst that injects life into India's amorphous "women's movement" -- which can seem moribund compared with the strides that women are making for themselves professionally? Can a rape protest be the catalyst for a badly needed reconception of "law and order," including police reform and a legitimate attempt to untangle the broken court system? Can a rape protest be the catalyst that replaces the now-compromised anti-corruption movement, creating a committed, mobilized throng of non-partisan political activists out of the historically apathetic middle class?
So far, there are both promising and discouraging signs. On the one hand, both mainstream and social media are devoting new attention to women's rights activists who are otherwise widely ignored. But on the other, the most simplistic, ineffective, and unsurprising "solutions" have already dominated the discourse on what needs to be done -- with kneejerk calls for the death penalty and chemical castration giving rise to all the usual arguments and objections against those harsh measures, in an increasingly pointless back and forth.
In today's newspapers, for instance, the Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M) Sitaram Yechury bemoans India's 29 percent conviction rate for rape cases. The government has unveiled fast track courts and other legal measures to claim that these offenses will no longer be ignored or allowed to languish for years in the system. Meanwhile, protesters continue to wave signs reading "Hang Them" and "You Rape, We Chop."
The idea that "Delhi is the rape capital of India" remains widely accepted, despite many intelligent op-eds and a spate of "rapes around the country"-type reports to the contrary. An assumption that violence against women is increasing has been taken for granted without much scrutiny or reflection. And the police have been raked over the coals for failing to stop rape, and then cracking down on rape-protesters, as thoughtful insights on the reasons for their failings, and how those failings might be corrected, have been shunted to the side. (Note: New York City, about half the size of New Delhi, actually faces about 50 percent more rape cases -- 990 versus 660 or so, while Delhi's 26-29 percent conviction rate isn't so dismal compared with New York sentences that allow 42 percent of convicted rapists out on probation or "conditional release," according to the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.)