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Run with Gender, Hunt with Class

Curious Ways of Indian Democracy from India Gate to the Slum Habitat

This article is a reworked and longer version of a short piece written for the website, kafila.org. 

Prachee Sinha (sinhaprachee@gmail.com) is an activist and a development professional working on issues of urban poverty. She has a Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University, USA.

Indian democracy appears to be Janus-faced. It operates in very curious ways. It joins enlightened students and concerned citizenry at India Gate in their demands for justice for the Delhi rape victim. Elsewhere it nurtures criminal elements responsible for such horrific tragedies. At India Gate it may raise slogans of gender justice; in the slum clusters it will manage and subjugate the underprivileged masses by employing goons and bullies in the service of the class rule. Imperatives of the political game needed to safeguard the rule often return to haunt the aspirations of justice, equality and freedom expected to be fulfilled under a democratic polity and civilised society.

It has taken a horrific tragedy and a precious young life to stir the conscience of a nation. Or so one would like to believe! Reality may not still cater to our wishes. Our grand old civilisation is also a culture of billion brutalities on its women and countless other victims. One can only hope that it changes for the better, even if a little, after what it has witnessed in the last fifteen days of the year 2012. Greater probability, however, is for such hopes to be belied yet again. It may take a lot more to lift the weight of an age-old way of life. After all, one would not have expected that rapes and molestations would be reported from across the country, and even from Delhi itself, right in the middle of anger, sorrow and protests that seemed to engulf the country. One would have expected that rapists and criminals would lie low for a while till the situation returns to normal. Least of all would have one expected that women would be harassed, and one or two even molested, during those very protests that were taking place at the India Gate and Jantar Mantar.

The battered body of the nameless and faceless brave-heart has now been consigned to flames and returned to earth. From the little that we know about her ordeal in the bus, she fought the goons, without any fear that it could invite the brutalisation she was subjected to, when they first attacked her friend. She remained undefeated in her spirits even as her organs failed. Likes of the person, who reportedly expressed the opinion that she should have submitted to rape to be spared the brutalisation, shall never understand the meaning and the value of courage and dignity.

As the protests subside, and the seemingly outraged nation returns to business as usual, there is a lot to ponder over and analyse. In a state of shock and grief in the immediate aftermath of the incident, I wrote an emotional piece in the social media casting an anguished and tearful glance from the vantage point of a young woman who commutes to work across Delhi spending two hours in public transport each way. When a friend of mine reacted by saying that we must get to the roots of structural violence permeating the urban habitat and see the role of capital in fomenting frustration and animosity that the underprivileged feel against the privileged and prosperous, I nearly pounced on him across the virtual space. "To understand the root cause is not always a prerequisite for change", I wrote back to him. "The need for change generates its own dynamics. Societies do not change easily, but they do change through such episodes, tragic as it might be that a girl has to be sacrificed for such an incremental change. In the immediate aftermath of such an incident we should not demand a comprehensive treatment and a finely balanced approach. Let us not theorise in a manner that helps us forget and move on", I admonished him. However, there is a time to mourn and protest, and there is a time to ponder and analyse. My friend was not as wrong as I made him out to be at the time. The analyses and soul-searching that the tragedy has generated, is perhaps an integral part of the long drawn out change process. The government has been taken to task for its omissions and commissions; the nature of the state has been scrutinised for locating the source of insecurity women face day in and day out. More importantly, a culture and a society soaked with misogyny and patriarchy have been brought under the lens. Analysts and commentators have also wondered why certain cases of rape make headlines while others are lost in the small corners of inside pages. Why rapes and other forms of humiliation and oppression faced frequently by Dalit and tribal women do not stir the conscience of the nation?

The Class Dimension
All such concerns are rooted in difficult issues of our society and polity and deserve serious attention. There are yet other issues which are difficult even to voice. Among other things, political correctness comes in the way. The main accused of this case, for example, is reportedly a resident of the Ravi Das slum cluster in south Delhi. I wonder how many from the sprawling Delhi slum habitat that shelters millions joined the protests at the India Gate. I also wonder if the vociferous demands for death penalty, mob lynching and worse by a large section of the protestors had subterranean linkages with the knowledge that the perpetrators of the crime belong to the slum habitat and came from the subaltern classes. While the awakening of the students and the educated youth has been rightly applauded, one has to ponder over the class dimension of the phenomenon and about the chasm that lies between India Gate and the slum habitat.

I am not suggesting that Delhi slums were devoid of the revulsion and sympathy witnessed elsewhere in the aftermath of this horrific incident. In fact I had numerous experiences that spoke otherwise. To take one, metro stations around India Gate were closed down after the Saturday protests and I had to take an auto-rickshaw to reach there on Sunday. The rickshaw driver who was a slum-dweller and hailed from Bihar was refusing to take money once he came to know that I had come to join the protest. “You are doing a very good thing; I will not take money from you”. I had to really insist and express my appreciation for his concern before he yielded. But, there were experiences that pointed in other directions too.

My parents happened to take a long bus ride the next day from Connaught Place to Rohini. Perched on the high front seats reserved for senior citizens they could afford a close observation of the bus driver who was in his thirties and appeared excessively angry and foul-mouthed. But the interesting part was his discriminating behaviour. While he did not stop the bus at many of the required stops where he saw students in suits and ties or regular middle class men and women, he stopped the bus between the stops to pick up passengers who appeared to belong to subaltern classes. He made sure that an elderly woman almost in rags got a seat, whereas he growled at every question asked by any educated looking person. It usually happens the other way round. The poor are at the receiving end of the bus drivers’ ire just as everywhere else. Most interestingly, he admonished a jeans clad young woman for talking over her cell phone while boarding the bus and mocked her by saying, “this bus is not going to the India Gate.” This gave some indication of the source of his anger.

When the class dimension emerges in the course of a discussion, it is commonplace to assert that patriarchy is equally entrenched in all classes. One often cites examples of rapes and other crimes against women that take place in high society. But the fact remains that such crimes are more likely to happen in the slum habitat and the poor neighbourhoods. Women of this other world face such dangers far more than those from the middle class localities. In fact the entire population of the slum habitat suffers under the oppression of the local goons and bullies who are more likely to be involved in such crimes.

Before it is taken as a sign of elite prejudice, let me say that I have been working with the urban poor in the slum habitat for nearly ten years. I can assert with some measure of confidence that were the goons and bullies to be taken away from the scene, slums will turn into incomparably better places despite the filth and poverty. But how can they be removed from the scene? They are the backbone of the political process in the slum habitat. They are the ground-support of the structure of political patronage that reaches all the way to the top. Every political party that aspires to become the ruling party has these elements as their representatives and functionaries in the slums. Ruling classes live far away from the slum habitat and rule from the institutions around the India Gate, but they have an intricate web of linkages extending all the way to the slums.

Anyone who has watched the political process in the slum habitat from close quarters knows only too well that values of modern democracy are farthest from the minds of the political functionaries at the grass roots. Enunciation of democratic principles, moral values and ethical practices are for larger political congregations that happen under the media glare and for speeches to be made by bigger leaders while inaugurating buildings and conferences. Speeches against injustice and discrimination, caste and patriarchy, corruption and crime are best suited for India Gate or Jantar Mantar. In the slums the political process, most of the times, is a hush-hush affair where political articulation is seldom explicit and always laden with deep cultural and sectarian symbolism; where organising is done through organising the local goons and bullies, and through striking an electoral deal with the community in exchange for bringing water to the neighbourhood, averting eviction or some other little package of provision and protection. And, all through this goes on a perpetual process of creating the ‘Other’. Caste, class, religion, custom, ritual, language and everything else that may go into the making of a social identity come in handy in manipulating the political process towards achieving the goals of the local small-time leaders which in turn feed into the goals of the bigger ones in the party headquarters and in the assemblies and the parliament.

Such are the ways of the realpolitik in the slum habitat. Postcolonial scholars have often attributed the policy of ‘divide and rule’ to the British and other colonials, and Mahmood Mamdani has titled his new book “Define and Rule” that talks about how the ‘native’ was turned into a ‘political identity’. But, one can witness the most cunning examples of ‘defining’ and ‘dividing’ which are at work in the Indian democracy as it operates in the slums. In addition to the age-old ways, there are ever new ways of defining new identities and dividing a class into sub-classes and a community into multiple communities. Fiefdom of every gangster is to be demarcated from that of the other.

Women as the ‘Other’
The body of Bishan Singh in Manto’s celebrated story, “Toba Tek Singh”, lay across only one boundary created by the Partition. The brutalised body of the Indian woman lies across multiple boundaries. Women are not just the ‘Other’ of men as created by a universal patriarchy. They are invariably the women of the multiple ‘Others’ created by manifold boundaries of caste, community, religion and nation. It is a long standing tradition of our culture (as well as of many others) that we punish and humiliate our ‘Others’ by punishing and humiliating their women. And, which way to do that is more tellingly efficacious than to rape them and brutalise their bodies? We have seen it in the Gujarat riots and in uncountable other riots against the ‘Others’ of various kinds. I suspect, in a peculiarly psycho-demonic way, this tradition was practiced in that white bus on December 16. Apart from receiving the punishment for being the universal ‘Other’, the girl was especially brutalised because she appeared to be the woman of a particular ‘Other’. After all, she appeared to be educated, had the guts to fight back and was out with a man late in the evening.

If this appears to be too much of an ideologically motivated imagination or a piece of folk psychology so much in vogue these days, consider the following. Why would the Sar Sangh Chalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Mohan Bhagwat, make such an obviously atrocious statement that rapes happen only in "India" and not in "Bharat"? Is he stupid or a bad calculator of political effects? One would be too naïve to think that. While it is easy to ridicule him in certain circles, he has calculated his political risks and gains quite astutely. Why does not the BJP disown him or criticise him? What makes the leader of the opposition in the parliament, who is otherwise so eloquent about safety and dignity for women, speechless against the likes of Bhagwats? It is too soon to imagine that there are no takers for Bhagwat’s statement whether in Bharat or in India.

This is the reality of Indian polity and society. There are multiple boundaries and every boundary is useful in creating the ‘Other’. Defining the ‘Other’ and dividing on that basis in order to rule is an integral part of the way Indian democracy operates. This is what makes the political leaders run with gender and hunt with class. How else would one explain, for example, that an actor member of the Rajya Sabha, who shed much public tears over what happened on December 16, continues to be member of the party that has displayed its near violent opposition to 33 percent reservation for women in the parliament?

Democracy, Society and Culture
Relationship between democracy and culture may be a complicated affair in every society, but the manner in which political processes of Indian democracy inter-lock with the social structures, cultures, customs and psychologies is nearly unique. Most countries with entrenched modern democracies do not, by and large, face a perpetual danger that their democratic polities would be overwhelmed by undemocratic social structures and practices; and most countries where undemocratic structures and practices prevail in the social domain have yet to gain polities where democracy is entrenched and stabilized. India is nearly unique because it has both. One consequence that follows from this is the perennial debate whether society would be transformed through the political processes of a modern democracy, or a modern democratic polity would be sustainable only after the society itself is transformed. The debates and the soul-searching after this newest incident have also proceeded along both the routes.

There has been no dearth of articles and analyses that have pointed towards the deep roots of violence against women in our culture and civilisation. One could not agree more with most of them. It is to be kept in view, however, that transforming a culture and a civilisation is far more difficult a task than changing a polity. Political processes gain nourishment from the social and cultural structures and practices, but they also carry the potential to transform these structures and practices. In fact, politics of the transformative kind, is the most effective way to change the society in desirable ways.

While we agonise over how to raise our sons so that they grow up to respect women and not rape them, let us not lose sight of the first steps that must be taken. We must demand a reconfiguration of the polity, laws and institutions so that women are safe, equal and free in the public space. It is true that what happens to women in the public space is the tip of the iceberg. Much of the iceberg is hidden in the private sphere. But to reconfigure the public is the first step towards reconfiguring the private. There is no other wide enough entry into the private. Feminists have long pointed out that “personal” is “political”, but one should not forget that the "political" is first and foremost public. Only through the public it can reconfigure the private. One should also keep away from the dubious logic that cities would generate anomie, which will result in increased instances of anomic rape. Such logic achieves the miracle of making someone as civil and as erudite as Ashish Nandy comfortable in the company of the likes of Mohan Bhagwat. It hardly makes a difference if Nandy’s agreement with Bhagwat is a theoretically nuanced one. There is no turning back from cities and from urbanisation. We must make cities safe, civil, accessible, enjoyable, prosperous and free. Even if cities are not as organic as villages and ancient communities, and even if many of city-dwellers may be uproots to start with, why should anomie be taken as a necessary and characteristic property of the urban habitat?

For now, the focus must remain on the polity and on the fact that Indian democracy appears to be Janus-faced. It operates in very curious ways. It joins enlightened students and concerned citizenry at India Gate in their demands for justice for the Delhi rape victim. Elsewhere it nurtures criminal elements responsible for such horrific tragedies. At India Gate it may raise slogans of gender justice; in the slum clusters it will manage and subjugate the underprivileged masses by employing goons and bullies in service of the class rule. Imperatives of the political game needed to safeguard the rule often return to haunt the aspirations of justice, equality and freedom expected to be fulfilled under a democratic polity and civilised society.

Politicisation of a partially awakened citizenry is the need of the hour. However, any politics of the genuinely emancipatory and transformative kind will have to find a way to deal with the multiple malignancies of the actually existing Indian democracy.

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