By Dileep Padgaonkar
With the passage of time — that great healer of the deepest wounds — the rage that the rape of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi provoked across the nation is bound to ebb. So too will the grief that engulfed it after she lost her valiant fight to survive the bestial attack. But the scars will remain to afflict the comfortable and to exhort them to comfort the afflicted.
Cynics will doubtless contend that sooner or later the ‘system’ will assert itself. That includes both the state and society. The institutions of the former, their argument runs, have been emasculated of their substance. Self-perpetuation alone keeps them going. Crony capitalism and crony democracy will ensure this. Society, too, is bereft of a moral compass. It is unable to cope with the swift and sweeping technology-driven changes that challenge entrenched mindsets. This is the litany of the Cassandra brigade.
But developments over the past fortnight suggest otherwise. These are rays of hope in the midst of the encircling darkness. This includes, in the first place, the youth of India and particularly its young women. True, most of them belong to the urban, middle and lower-middle classes. But if you read local newspapers and watch TV news channels in local languages, you will note that the `virus` of protest has spread across much larger swathes of the nation.
This is a reality that is often ignored. Thanks to the precipitate growth of communications, the metropolitan/small town/ village fault-lines are fast getting blurred. Citizens, no matter where they reside, watch on their TV sets the same soaps, the same movies, the same fashion shows. They watch the same news programmes — especially region-specific ones that pointedly reflect what, for want of a better term, can be described as `ground realities`.
However, regardless of whether the means of communication were national or regional, whether they were mainstream or part of the ever-expanding network of the social media, the protests bore an altogether novel cachet. It was singularly free of the bane of our public life since Independence: antagonisms bet-ween castes and religious communities, between ethnic groups and economic classes, between regions and sub-regions.
Here indeed was a generation that did not carry the baggage of the past. It was too young to remember the horrific depredations of the Mandal-Masjid-Ayodhya agitations. Its focus was on sound, transparent, accountable governance, on justice, on the strictest adherence to the rule of law and the values and principles of the Constitution. This generation articulated the idea of a resurgent republic.
Credit for this happy augury must also go to the media. Bashing them has been one of our national pastimes. But a salute is in order for the reporters and anchors who highlighted the case of the gang-rape victim for what it was: something more than the brutalisation of a young woman. Apart from a few cases of overweening emotional hype, the news channels, like the print medium, drove home the point that this unspeakable tragedy was, in fact, an assault on our deepest-held beliefs as citizens of a democratic country.
Equally important, even those sections of the media known for their penchant for sensationalism made sure not to reveal the identity of the victim. By placing respect for her dignity above the compulsion to score over their competitors, they revealed a side to them that deserves unstinted applause. It shows that the media is eminently capable of exercising self-regulation.
For once, let us also acknowledge the conduct of the political establishment. The Congress-led government`s initial response in the aftermath of the incident was tardy, weak, unconvincing. Its elected representatives, particularly the younger ones, were nowhere in the picture in the first hours of the protests in the capital. The concerned ministers were namby-pamby in their statements and, worse still, chose to engage in an unseemly exercise of passing the buck.
Though belated, Sonia Gandhi’s statement, like that of the prime minister, was to the point. They cut through the abracadabra of their own party leaders to say what needed to be said: that the government will act with alacrity to ensure the safety of women. It was gracious of both of them to go to the airport to receive the body of the rape victim and that too without the presence of the media.
The reactions of the rest of the political establishment were equally responsible. Cutting across party lines, leaders vowed to see to it that the young woman’s rape and murder would not be in vain. The main opposition party, the BJP, gave a fine account of itself. Its spokesmen did raise questions about the hush-hush manner of the victim’s cremation and also pressed for a special session of Parliament to debate the issues raised by the tragedy. But the intent clearly was not to score brownie points. Both the tone and content of their interventions demonstrated an uplifting idea of political discourse.
This confluence of a responsible civil society, media and the political establishment is unique in the annals of our democracy. It should now lead to the desired executive and legislative action to give our women an equitable stake in economic, social, cultural and political power. We might then witness the emergence of another India: a humane, progressive, self-confident one envisaged by the founding fathers of our republic.