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Protesting Rape

State and society both have to transform if we are to reduce violence against women.

The past fortnight has seen unprecedented protests in Delhi over the gang rape and brutalisation of a young medical student. It has taken most people by surprise to see the manner in which thousands of people have come out to protest the lack of safety for women in the public spaces of the capital, and in other cities of India. While this has been similar in many respects to the other instances of the public outpouring of anger which we have seen, particularly in Delhi, during the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government, there is something unique about these protests. For the most part they have not been organised by any political party or civil society organisation. Further, they have remained, even a fortnight after all attempts by political parties to appropriate them, much larger than any political agenda and much wider than any particular political stream. Lastly, what is remarkable is that every time their energy seemed to sag they have revived – from the dispersed protests of students to the gathering at India Gate and Raisina Hill and then to Jantar Mantar. We now have the massive “Take back the night” walks by students and others of residential areas to assert a woman’s right to the city without fear of violence, for freedom to the woman, for “azadi” as the chants insist.

The government has displayed an all too familiar inattentiveness to popular feelings and has reacted either with force or indifference. Protests have been dealt with beatings, tear gas and water-cannons, and with a display of crass opinions on gender. It is unbelievable that what claims to be a democratic government shuts down the metro in central Delhi to prevent people from gathering in peaceful protests. At one level the government did provide the best possible medical treatment to the woman, but it also used this to move her out of the country against medical opinion only to protect itself from political pressure. Every move of the central and Delhi governments has been at best reactive and at worst cynical to scuttle the growing public solidarity and stifle people’s right to express themselves.

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