The year just ended was a difficult one for India—not dismal, but close to it. The last two weeks of the year, triggered by an act of savage inhumanity, exposed many of the country’s weaknesses in a stark manner. Can the country learn the right lessons from what has happened?
The most obvious fault that has been exposed by recent events is India’s dreadful treatment of women. As many have already written, rape is just the tip of the iceberg that represents the full scope of the problem. We have known for some time, have seen it documented, have read numerous stories, about the indignities suffered by India’s women and girls. But it took one exceptionally brutal and visible act to shake up at least a significant portion of Indian society, which took to the streets.
Perhaps this process will follow the course of events we saw in Eastern Europe, where long-suppressed fear and resentment of repressive regimes boiled over into the streets and led to astonishingly rapid change. Of course there are other examples, including India’s anti-corruption movement, where little has improved as a result of public outrage. In the current crisis, what is needed is a comprehensive examination of legislation that affects women: not just the laws and legal processes surrounding the crime of rape, but also education, marriage, inheritance and other aspects of women’s lives. Let us see if 2013 brings some real progress.
One reason to be pessimistic is the kinds of institutional responses we have seen to the crime and its aftermath. Government officials, whether civil servants or politicians, have displayed a remarkable degree of indifference, even callousness, towards the victims, their families, and most of all towards those who channelled their angst at a symbolic violation of their collective dignity and humanity into protests at the gates of power. But those in power have sought to silence those seeking justice and truth. Unfortunately, the nature of the official responses is typical of governance in India, where incompetence and malfeasance are routinely covered up or excused. The problem of government failure to deliver public goods and services is pervasive in India, and affects almost all its citizens, not just the 50% who are female. In this case, the failure to prevent such a public crime, and the incompetent response to the victims’ need, were two shocking instances of this general problem.
The year 2012 was earlier marked by multiple