BY RSN SINGH

To most aspiring and optimistic Indians, Damini’s gruesome end symbolizes the rape and murder of the concept and story of ‘Emerging India’.

If only one amongst the several spectators had summoned his soul and sheltered her body — violated, torn, bleeding — lying almost naked on the road in that dreadful Delhi winter night! Indeed, it has taken a crime and tragedy of such sinister proportions to kindle the flame, to mirror the horrible and growing darkness in the society. Damini has exposed the gloomy and ugly side of every segment of the society. Her saga is a wretched and cautionary commentary on all systems that impact human life in India, i.e. parenting, education, politics, and governance to include policing.

Sociologists will continue to propound different theories for this ghastly crime. Comparisons will be made with other countries, particularly in the West. Statistics will be churned out to buttress arguments. The reality, however conveniently glossed, is that the Western countries, including the US, continue to battle with such beastly crimes for many decades now. Sociologists in the US continue to be confounded by the criminality that consumed New York like a wild fire in July 1977, following the 12 hour disruption in electricity supply. No less than 134 stores were looted, four dozen of which were set ablaze. As many as 500 police officers were injured. The numbers of rapes were also not insignificant.

The recent incident  bears a great deal of resemblance with the Central Jogger Park case in New York in April 1989, where Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was gang raped and beaten almost to death by six juveniles of which five, four blacks and one Hispanic were convicted. She was rescued after four hours. Her skull had been clobbered to the extent that one of her eye was removed from the socket. Defying initial medical prognosis, she survived, but not without suffering disability on account of some loss of balance and vision.  It is instructive that in this particular case, with passage of time, many activists reared their voices in support of the rapists. One hopes the same does not happen in the case of Damini, as one of the accused, is arguably a juvenile.

Comparisons are odious and more so in the case of India and the West. The shock that refuses to die down in India is because at the subterranean level, there is a collective disbelief and anger against the degradation of the Indian value systems inherent in our civilization. The anger is against the instruments of governance that have over the period contributed to this degradation purely for personal aggrandizement.

There is also a hidden and less articulated anger against the regressive social and cultural discourse notwithstanding the economic dividends. There is widespread sentiment that the institution of ‘parent’ and ‘teacher’ is gasping for life. One lady principal of a government school in Delhi told this author that she was about to resign from her job because she could no further cope with the criminality of boys in senior classes. She said that violence against teachers is a common occurrence. Often, she added, that when reported, the parents, instead of chastising their sons take umbrage on teachers. With degenerative schools and homes where is the space left for moral grooming?

There is disbelief that the contemporary cultural discourse and societal conditions could bear such beastly criminals, in the guise of a school bus driver, a gym instructor, a fruit seller and a teenager. Together, before victimizing the girl, they beat a truck driver and a carpenter. The latter was not only beaten but also robbed off Rs 8,000. May be yet at another place, at another time, and other protagonists, some segments of our society would have given a ‘class conflict’ argument. Similarly, some others would have bandied the ‘urban-rural divide’ theory, and still some others would have invented ‘boy-girl elope’ theory. This fortunately has not happened.

The unprecedented shock, disbelief and anger that refuses to die is because every single segment of the Indian population can identify in one or more manner with Damini. She symbolizes the middle-class aspirations, she symbolizes the vulnerabilities of the huge youth bulge of our demographic dividend, and she also symbolizes the new reference points of Indian womanhood, with which most men in India strongly concur.

Emancipation of women is intrinsic to the Indian civilization. Years of invasions and slavery objectified women, who were invariably the part of the loot and harem. This was in the land where women are worshipped. Invasions forced women to commit jauhar or flee to the hills leaving their menfolk to fight with the invaders. Women in India suffered but not their souls. No sooner the country got its independence, and even before that, women began to make their re-entry into all human endeavours, after centuries of denial. Women scholars, painters, dancers and artists were back on the stage, treated as Goddesses. Within years, the acme of this emancipation was the emergence of Smt Indira Gandhi, as the Prime Minister. One of the least acknowledged fact is that it is the larger Indian gender discourse that gave the world the first women head of state, i.e. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka. It was again the Indian osmosis that made it possible for a woman to be the prime minister of an Islamic country, Pakistan by way of Benazir Bhutto. The reality today is that the most powerful political dynasties in South Asia do not necessarily have male underpinnings.

Indians are therefore shocked at the existence of two Indias – an India that celebrates womanhood, and another India which objectifies and criminalizes womanhood.

Sadly the people feel India which objectifies and criminalizes womanhood is driven by the instruments of governance at the grass-root levels. They feel that the face of governance, which has direct interface with the general public, has been brutalizing society to the extent that a conscientious and law abiding citizen has no incentives and therefore no stakes, except may be in rare cases for reasons of conscience.  A visit to a police station for a genuine grievance is a ‘soul- shattering’ experience. There is a limit to which a conscientious person can trade his self-respect.

If only the police personnel at the Hauz Khas metro station had instantly acted on the complaint of the carpenter Ram Adhar, and not diverted him to Vasant Vihar police station, the heinous rape of Damini could have been averted. Just as in the case of accident or injury the fastest medical relief is desirable, so is in the case crime. The first contact of the victims of crime with the police is crucial, but it is this very critical facet of policing that has never been addressed.

The aim of this article is not to highlight systemic failures since the system has degenerated to a level where it is impossible to overhaul. Corruption has sunk so low and so deep that no law, no authority and no restructuring (even Lokpal) of the instruments of governance can reverse the rot. Consider the level of rot: a police officer demands a Blackberry phone from a political party; or some police officers let an offender from another country to escape with his loot; or some police officers fabricate a particular brand of terror at the behest of his political masters; and still more abominable, some police officers implicate a former bureaucrat known for his Spartan ways and integrity as an equalizer to a previous regime to protect the corrupt elements in the present government.

A firsthand insight into the abysmal level of systemic rot was revealed to this author by a police officer who had recently attended a refresher course in the Indian Police Academy at Hyderabad. During the course he had a chance to reconnect with his batch-mates after a long time. He was aghast at the corrupt propensities that his batch-mates had developed over the years. He said that most of the time they were unabashedly boasting or comparing notes about their accumulation of ill-gotten wealth.

At the entry level most officers by virtue of their upbringing and education are conscientious. It is probably the political system that desensitizes them and makes them cynical. If democracy means political dynasties as new monarchies or royalties, it is only natural that public servants will become feudal. VIP security is seen as one such symbol of feudalism which inspires awe and fear of high government functionaries but at the same times robs them of their concern of common man. Eventually the tools of governance lose the incentive and ability to distinguish between good and evil, and law-abiding citizens and criminals.

The people of India are more than aware about the tentacles, methods and propensities of the corrupt machinery. This includes the orders from the highest to the lowest level and the capillary gratification from lower to the highest level. They fully know the symbiosis of corrupt relationship between various arms and facets of governance. They have no choice but to maintain their silence, both because of fear and dignity. Therefore those who defend the organs of governance should not even pretend honesty on the behalf of their organization. Credulity of honest Indians cannot be stretched any further.

Indians have been too inured to expect the senior police officers to don their uniform and carryout extensive patrolling to restore public confidence after this horrific incident. They have long forgotten to expect the Delhi Police Commissioner to accept inadequacies in the policing system in some moment of humility. The least they expect is display of genuine disgust and apathy.

What has shocked the Indians in Damini’s case, is that corruption, greed and moral degradation could breed such inhumanity and apathy. There is general dismay, distrust and hostility with entire structure of governance including the leadership. It includes the politicians, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. For some Indians the incident has been a reason to revisit some of the value systems that have crept into the Indian cultural discourse in the post-liberalization phase. Some of them feel that the West must be incorporated from a position of vantage and self-confidence. Whatever be the reactions to this segment, it is inescapable and certain that the solution to the problem of social and moral degeneration in India has to be Indian.

The unprecedented protests is an expression of the gnawing vulnerability against the criminals in governance and society.  The entire country is shaken and introspective. Most people are contemplating the reasons. Their reactions, given their backgrounds, are bound to be different. The frenzied reactions and intemperate debates on the media is only aggravating the grievous wound inflicted on the soul of India.

Considering the hopelessness in compelling systemic changes, for conscientious Indians the only recourse and a very effective one at that in the Indian context, is to appeal to the conscience of the people entrusted with the burden of governance and guardianship of the society. This is entirely possible with leaders who are both crusaders and saints. Indians are yearning for such leadership. Meanwhile I appeal to the devious elements in governance and society to revisit the concept of natural justice so deeply ingrained in our Indian religious discourse. If that does not deter from ‘wrong doing’, the rape and murder of Damini should. Your sister or daughter could be the next!

(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a guest blogger for Canary Trap)