There are reports in the Indian media about “online fury” over a question by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh caught in a hot microphone after he concluded an address to the nation about the current ferment over a brutal rape and assault in Delhi.
As always, first things first. Fury is the default temperament online. Online begins with fury and ends with apocalypse in a mater of minutes and as a matter of routine. So no surprise there.
Before I say what Dr. Singh said, let me give you a quick background to the story. India’s capital New Delhi has been long known as the “rape capital” of the country. That sordid and criminal sobriquet was brutally reinforced on December 16 when a 23-year-old student was gang-raped inside a bus by six men, stripped, severely beaten and then thrown out. The young woman has since been battling for her life at a local hospital. The men responsible have been arrested with one of them reportedly confessing and saying he should be hanged for the crime.
Although sexual harassment, molestation, assaults and rape are a common feature in the capital which ignite strong passions from time to time, the latest case has blown the lid off its inhabitants’ easy complacency. Delhi has been in the grip of violent protests for several days now with the issue acquiring profound political, legal and socio-cultural dimensions. Everything from public castration of rapists to their public hanging has been suggested during this unprecedented reaction.
The aftermath has reached a level which compelled Dr. Singh to address the nation today on how his government proposes to deal with the climate of harrowing insecurity for women in the city.
Now to what Dr. Singh, a maestro of monotone, was caught saying. After his address, as he waited for a few seconds, with the camera and microphone on he asks almost plaintively, “Theek hai?” in Hindi, meaning “Okay?” These two words have set off a combination of anger and ridicule against a prime minister who is temperamentally unable to capture the emotional highs and lows of any given situation.
One cannot slam him beyond a point because that is his natural way of speaking. However, an outraged nation, at any rate a slice of it as shown by 24/7 news channels, naturally wants much greater emotional quotient in its prime minister. Hearing the speech, it is hard to tell whether Dr. Singh was talking about the beastly brutality that a young woman was subjected to or the latest GDP and inflation figures. And then the cruelly ironic question: “Theek hai?” It is true that the fury and ridicule are being vented online with some reasonably macabre jokes popping up here and there.
I have been asked why I have not said anything yet on the gang rape. It is mostly because one is acutely conscious of how gratuitous and insincere it can sound, no matter what one says. It also becomes a sort of cottage industry of raging reactions. Women have been so regularly demeaned and defiled in Delhi, where I worked for a decade, that it no longer seems right just to engage in transitory rage and then settle down to a level of helpless inaction. Rape is by no means a Delhi phenomenon but the capital has disregarded its frequent occurrence with such cavalier indifference that it is not surprising that protests have broken out.
Watching some of the TV footage of policemen baton-charging women protestors I had the sinking feeling that at least some of them were acting out a version of the very misogyny that propels sexual assaulters and rapists. Of course, that is just one part of it. We have been told that rape is power that men think they can use against women. I agree but it seems to me so much more primal than just that. In Delhi at least violence against women happens simply because men think they can. I read one of the six accused saying that that December 16th evening they were on a sort of a “joy ride.”
The capital’s law enforcers have never really demonstrated zero tolerance against this horrific crime. One would like to believe that the latest incident will change all that but one remains deeply skeptical because apart from not taking it seriously, sexual assault and rape are viewed by some men in authority strictly as individual acts rather than a manifestation of a collective breakdown of civility.
Without quite realizing it the city has over the decades created a climate of easy indifference about violence against women. In the early 1990s soon after shifting from Bombay I used to be deeply troubled by comments by young women, one of which would be, “Aaj bus mein kisi ne haath nahi mara. (No one pawed me on the bus today).” While it was meant to represent a young woman’s sense of relief at having been spared being pawed by some uncouth fellow male passenger on a particular day, it said so much more about a society that treated such an occurence as the norm.
Coming back to Dr. Singh’s “Theek hai?” I do not want to indulge in hysterical second-guessing whether he meant the speech was okay or generally things were okay. It was obvious to me that he was asking in his own polite way whether the address went off okay. I am still not as cynical as to think that India’s prime minister, and that too someone as civil and polite as Dr. Singh, would have meant anything else. However, it is a measure of how much credibility has been lost by his government among certain sections of society that even a minor indiscretion is interpreted with such frenzy.
One can only hope that the young woman survives and emerges as someone whose cruel ordeal shook up a nation enough to significantly and effectively address a social crisis. Doctors have said her condition has worsened because of internal bleeding. However, her vital organs are functioning well and she is able to communicate.
P.S.: For those of you who do not know Hindi, the headline translates as “All is not okay, Dr. Singh.”