There has been unprecedented media coverage and public outrage against the recent crime in an Indian city, where a girl was raped by 6 men in a bus, at night. She was raped, tortured and flung out of the bus along with her male friend who had accompanied her that night. She was 23-years-old and a medical student. A passers-by spotted the bleeding duo on the road and alerted the police. Read the report here.
The federal and state government and police have since promised to introduce a series of measures to prevent violence against women, including better night-time policing on the streets of Delhi, checks on bus drivers and the cancellation of licenses of illegal buses or those with tinted windows or curtains. “We promise a safer capital. This is going to be a place where any (hooliganism) will be strictly punished,” said Delhi police commissioner Neeraj Kumar at a press conference.
Several Facebook friends, some of whom also happen to be human rights activists working independently, have taken to protesting the incident. This is the network I interact with so I get to read their sentiments, their outrage, their sense of helplessness, and humiliation each of which are directed towards law enforcement officers, our government, the laws that don’t seem to work, and punishments that don’t seem to deter repeat offences. The protest is also directed towards civil society institutions, which have been unable to nurture a secure and violence-free environment for citizens. No safety in public transportation. No safety in schools. No safety in religious places. No safety in parks. There is palpable anger at being systematically pounced upon, hit, slapped, thrown out of moving vehicles, touched, kicked, and being treated worse than slaughter-house cattle. There is a sense of urgency in these protests. Thousands of women marching on the streets, holding placards, shouting slogans, asking the powers that be to step up their vigil, to do something, to make the cities safe once again, to hang the 6 rapists, to give us justice.
Protests. Placards. Slogans. Shouts. Outrage. My friends talk about ‘shaming’ the criminals and the government into owning up to their lapses. My friends talk about keeping ‘alive the outrage’, so that we may never forget this day of violence against that girl. My friends are devoting their time inventing creative copies, pledges and one liners that can fit neatly into their status updates and 15×15 inch posters. The only form of protest I know is to write and in doing so be an impartial documentator of society’s chronic issues.
Let’s connect the dots. When a crime is committed, the law takes its own course. Criminals are innocent until proven guilty in our justice system and s/he stands trial when sufficient evidence is gathered. We know that it takes decades for convictions and subsequent sentencing, and in other cases, those who have power and resources go scot-free. In a country where corruption is the de facto mechanism of functioning, there is misappropriation, falsification, lapses and delays, all of which the public wearily reads in the national dailies and accepts as de rigueur. Apathy is entrenched so subliminally in our consciousness that we don’t even react when we hear of billion-dollar scams arising out of pilfering tax payer’s money. Our sweat, our blood hoarded by someone else, who will never be punished. Someone who doesn’t care about that their act is wrong. A criminal becomes one not because s/he commits the act, but because s/he thinks of doing something illegal or unethical without fearing the consequences of what they are about to do. Their conscience has been silenced and the brain mechanism that should alert them to the dangers of their actions has shut down.
When talking about criminals, we only refer to big crimes and motives – murder, rape, robbery – but conveniently forget the hundreds of minor trespasses we give into every day. Jumping queues, jaywalking when the traffic signal is red, driving rashly, using a mobile phone while riding a motorbike, bribing officials of a school or college so our children get admissions, paying money to hawaldar who comes to verify our passports, not paying our taxes, giving into dowry demands, marrying our daughters and sons when they are underage – where do we begin to clean up our society?
So, what exactly are these protest marches for? Why are we taking to the streets and talking about shaming society? Are we hoping that this collective outrage will shame hardened criminals into confessing their crimes and surrendering? Do we hope for their conscience to ignite and refrain from repeating such crimes? Do we think that our protests will instill fear in a serial killer, serial rapist, serial robber? How do you talk to that regular guy: walking down the street, who goes about his work day, and while returning home to his parents, or hostel, or to his slum, or to his buddies, or to his wife, he sees a girl – a teenage girl, or a middle aged woman, or an elderly lady, or a small child – and suddenly he rushes to her, forcibly takes hold of her, drags her to a secluded spot, tears her clothes and while physically holding her down, is overcome with rage and rapes her – the regular, ordinary, everyday Joe who could be my relative, my best friend, my neighbor?
As a civilized society, we have evolved to understand that crimes have motives and criminals have varying impulses to commit crimes, including economic hardships, social conditioning and familial environment, sustained exposure to ideas in popular culture that encourage deviant / perverse / unethical behavior. The discourse of crime itself is so complicated that we have evolved a system of justifiable homicide in cases relating to murder and self-defense. When does the first act become a habit? When does crime become a psychosis, a sickness that needs medical intervention? If rapists are mentally sick then would tougher laws really deter them? If rapists are sociopaths who derive pleasure in subjugating the weaker person, then would raising awareness about the “wrongness’ of rape really cure them or change them?
We need a more evolved and consensual discourse on human behavior and motives. Remember those moral science classes in school, where the teacher repeatedly told us to “not lie,” “do not steal,” “be mindful of your actions,” “be courteous to elders,” “do not use foul language,”, “do not abuse those weaker than you,”, “be respectful of neighbors,” “be tolerant of customs different from yours,” “be a conscientious citizen,” and a list of other litanies which we had to learn by rote and recollect at the end of the year to pass the test. Now, when I look back on those boring lessons, it comes to mind that as kids we couldn’t wait to grow up and grow out of those injunctions. We wanted to break the rules and be punks. It’s disconcerting to think that if an everyday Jane like me enjoys the idea of rebelling and not sticking to a social code of conduct, what can we expect from sociopaths? If moral behavior evolves in every era of human evolution and varies over cultural divisions and geographical lines, then how do we set benchmarks for what is good behavior?
I am not sure I want to see a society where good behavior is codified into strict laws that bring out punishments for going out of line, but we are all disturbed by the massive and systemic breakdown in structures that govern our behavior. The upholders of justice and enforcers of law have a tough job either ways. Do you think there is a rational way out of this quandary? The answer lies with each of us. If you can police your own actions and be honest with your self, there’s hope for your neighbor.