When I first read the horrific details of the gang-rape and effective murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi last month, I was utterly nauseated. The cruelty and brutality she was subjected to stretched my credulity and sickened me to the very pit of my stomach.
I’m both heartened and concerned by the outpouring of support and protest in the wake of the attack. Heartened to witness the emergence of a new political consciousness in India, and by the collective refusal to tolerate such abominations. Concerned that, if all this groundswell accomplishes is to secure the imposition of the death penalty for the accused and tougher sentences in general for sex attackers, it will be an opportunity missed.
I spent five months in India in 2004, and a couple more at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. It’s a vast country, and my experience is undoubtedly limited. Nonetheless, I saw enough in my time there to develop a sense of a schizophrenic nation, caught in the grip of conflicting impulses.
On the one hand, India continues to grow economically at a staggering rate. Construction projects are everywhere. Billboards herald the arrival of modern India and advertise prime real estate at eye-watering prices. On the other, the working poor and the destitute wash in waves around every street corner, a truly staggering accumulation of humanity. While shopping malls and penthouses spring up around them, their very survival is at stake.
The divide between those who benefit from India’s economic expansion and those who are disenfranchised, disempowered, and alienated by it is huge. Successful members of urban upper and middle-classes flaunt an increasing level of conspicuous consumption, while rural communities are (often literally) bulldozed in the name of progress. Unsurprisingly, members of these communities often migrate towards the cities and become part of the ever-expanding slums.
Much of the development in India is corrupt, dirty, and individualistic. Coal-fired power stations, poorly thought-out nuclear ambitions, and bullying of those with historic rights to natural resources are the norm. The Indian Government promotes the patent fiction that the country can become a great power by following the path of industrialised nations. Even if this were possible logistically, it would be an unmitigated calamity for the climate. Individuals with means may face a choice between jumping on this bandwagon and increasing their wealth through exploiting others, or missing out, perhaps (horror of horrors) sinking to join the massed ranks of the poor themselves.
It is in this environment that sexual assault flourishes. The rage and impotence of the dispossessed finds a target in the relatively affluent. It’s a gruesome dynamic, and yet in some ways an understandable one. So lopsided is India’s development that the prospect of sufficiency, let alone wealth, is about as attainable as a trip to the moon for millions and millions of poor Indians.
It’s important that those who committed the monstrous rape of the still-unnamed young woman in Delhi are held responsible for their behaviour. It’s equally important that the anger, compassion, and activism her death has catalysed is channelled into a conversation about what India is becoming and what its citizens want it to become.
People with a stake in society have no need to resort to atrocities. The true test of a maturing India may well be its capacity to recognise both its unique challenges and its unique advantages, and to forge a path that respects those; a path in which kindness, egalitarianism, and ecological responsibility are prioritised above the rapacious pursuit of personal success and a desire to prove to former colonial masters that it can win playing by their rules.
It cannot. The more stubbornly India pursues neo-liberal orthodoxy, the more divided and violent it is likely to become. If the Indian people find the courage to play by their own rules, however, and harness their incredible reserves of hope, creativity, and resourcefulness for the benefit of the whole populace, I for one believe they will be unstoppable.