Leaderless and unorganised groups of young men and women have been demonstrating, demanding women’s security and just punishment to perpetrators of the Delhi gang-rape incident.
They have defied ban orders and braved repressive police action. The death of the rape victim last Saturday appears to have strengthened their resolve. However, punishment in criminal cases, just or otherwise, comes only at the end of trial and hearing at three levels, which, with the best will to fast-track the process, will take time. Ensuring security of women calls for toning up of the police machinery and reforming society — tasks that will take even more time. The protesters cannot be hanging out at Jantar Mantar and in parks in other cities while these processes go on.
Knowing this, the government is resorting to time-tested dilatory measures like constitution of judicial commissions and promises of action. While the protests have been ignited by one incident which received considerable mass media attention, what has also brought young people into the campaign is the feeling that the political system is not responsive to the issue. Their exasperation is evident from the way they are steering clear of all political elements.
On their part, the ruling parties and the opposition are viewing with deep suspicion the protest movement run by those who are not under the control of any party. Their misgivings are shared by middle-class intellectuals who fear the movement may lead to anarchy.
Figures show a crime against women is reported every two minutes in India. When we take into account the fact that many women do not file complaints and even when complaints are filed, police may not register them, the actual crime rate must be higher. The nation’s concern over the issue, which the protesters are articulating, is therefore justified. The protesters cannot be blamed for their distrust of the political class. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not speak out on the issue for days. Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde opened his mouth mainly to defend police action against the demonstrators. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sushma Swaraj, who demanded death penalty for the rapists, had been silent on the rape of women during the Gujarat riots. Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Brinda Karat, who paid visits to India Gate, was an accessory to her party’s decision to settle sexual harassment charges against two of its leaders in Kerala and shield them against prosecution.
Jaya Bachchan, who broke into tears at a Mumbai protest rally, is an MP of the Samajwadi Party that has fielded men facing rape charges in elections. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress, two parties controlled by women leaders, too, have put up rape case accused as candidates. How can such leaders be relied upon to address the issue sincerely?
Former Indian Army chief, General V.K. Singh, was among those who publicly associated themselves with the protest. While serving as army chief, he showed no sign of concern for rape victims. Army personnel in Kashmir attracted rape charges in his time. He had no word of sympathy for Irom Sharmila of Manipur, who is on an epic fast seeking lifting of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides immunity to servicemen involved in rape cases.
While the record of politicians and the former officials is not inspiring, protesters must understand they are running a democratic system and such a system cannot be run without political parties. But they are entitled to demand that the politicians remain accountable to the people.
Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), said last Saturday: “We have heard you”.
If she has heard the protesters’ voice, why is there no action? The constitution envisages a government responsible to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. That body owes its special status to the fact that it is directly elected by the people, who, going by the preamble, are both makers and keepers of the constitution.
In a democratic dispensation, when things go wrong, someone must assume responsibility. Half-a-century ago, Lal Bahadur Shastri assumed moral responsibility for a rail accident and resigned as railway minister. When a sex crime in the capital awakens the nation’s conscience to the vulnerability of women, must not someone assume moral responsibility and bow out?
If no one does so voluntarily, does not the UPA chairperson have a duty to fix responsibility and call for the resignation of the person concerned?
Two persons present themselves as likely candidates: The prime minister, who remained silent when he should have spoken out and acted; and the home minister, whose words only added insult to injury.
The exit of either gentleman will not bring the government down since it is open to the Congress and the UPA to find a replacement from their own ranks.
B.R.P. Bhaskar is a veteran journalist and commentator.