Anti-rape protests and the hubris of the Indian intellectual are trapped in a media ghetto. The argument that a new politics outside parties is emerging is vacuous
Manisha Sethi Delhi
The recent protests over the terrible gangrape of a young girl in the heart of the capital has sent social commentators into paroxysms, as they are seeing in it a reflection of Tahrir Square, an uprising of gigantic proportions, an upsurge of the new generation, and the arrival of the citizen-activist, who, while being tech-savvy, is equally willing to rough it out on the street.
The main arguments of these commentators are: a) the protests mark the rise of a new kind of protest and protester — some even calling it ‘return of the protest’; b) it represents deepening of democracy because this protestor is demanding answers from the political system and participating in law-making; and c) that this protest will politicise the middle class protester giving her/him greater empathy with the marginalised.
Any critical assessment of the character of the protest is being attacked as intellectual snobbery or Left Brahminism and every critic swiftly dispatched to the ‘dustbin of history’. The continuing commentary — and celebration, one may say — however, demands that we subject this protest to a closer analysis.
The Unmarked Citizen-Activist
The new protester is touted as a unique species, for s/he is unfettered by the “obvious markers of caste or community that tend to dominate our public life” (Yogendra Yadav, “This New Politics”, January 2, 2013, The Indian Express). The unmarked citizen is surely the big lie of Indian democracy. The normalcy — indeed normativity — of caste Hindus who have renounced their primordial identities is a construct carefully cultivated, in part by academia, and in part by the media machinery. Anti-Mandal was about preserving merit, not privileges. Ditto for Youth for Equality. And for Anna followers, it was all about ridding the nation of corruption (money has no caste or creed, ergo).
Nation-wide protests and a rally of nine trade unions protesting against price rise, violation of labour laws, unemployment, and for social security, received only a passing mention in Indian media, and that too, for disrupting traffic
On the other end of this argument is cited the simultaneous anonymity of the victim as further proof that these protests were driven simply by a collective and unrelenting experience of sexual violence that all women countenance. It was the ‘ordinariness’ of returning home from a film at 9.30 pm in the night; not being able to find an auto; having to travel by the unreliable and unsafe private buses, that is seen as key to the ‘catharsis’ the rape is said to have triggered. Yes, certainly, it is this ordinariness that spoke to the girls who converged at the weekend protests. It is also an ordinariness that makes Manorama’s rape and murder at the hands of the Assam Rifles in Manipur, extraordinary, if not impossible.
The argument refuses to see that it was this anonymity that allowed many to empathise with her. The girl’s identity was not asked, or revealed, but nonetheless she was not marked out as Dalit or tribal. There were no headlines of ‘Dalit woman raped’, which are routinely ignored and the newspaper turned over.
It is the fantasy of many who became advocates of the protests that this was the moment that would transform the youth and allow them to bond with the marginalised (some already declared this citizen-activist having a “narrow social profile, but not necessarily a narrow social vision”.)
However, neither this proclaimed wide social vision, nor the transformative experience of being doused by water cannons or lathi-charged, had the effect of propelling the spontaneous protesters towards the Supreme Court where a protest to demand justice for Soni Sori was attended by the usual suspects — some teachers and students of JNU, Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, filmmakers, journalists and activists numbering less than hundred. Pretty much “the same people who hold demonstrations every other day”.
Law-Making and Democracy
To Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the protests signal that India’s citizens are reclaiming the idea of a republic founded on the rule of law. (“The Year of Law”, January 1, 2013, The Indian Express). Recognising that they can no longer be insulated from violence, venality and corruption, the urban middle classes are finally dirtying their hands in public mobilisation to rescue the rule of law.
But, he says, equally, quite rightly, “In a republic, the rule of law is not founded just on populism, the need for deterrence, or some vague idea of the welfare of the people… law secures our liberty and equality by being a norm grounded in public reason.” This couldn’t be further from the demands of those gathered to express their outrage: they were demanding a law based on sentiments and emotions of revulsion and retribution. A cursory look at the banners and posters at the India Gate protest would suffice to prove that. Cries for tough laws were being made as “fathers” and “brothers”. Anupam Kher, a TV regular, said, “You cannot respond logically to this and say the law will take its own course. I don’t adhere to it because I react as a father, brother, son… and all the people are reacting like this. So castration and public flogging... I don’t care if I’m called a Hindu fundamentalist for this…”