Jan 28, 2013

The ugly, the good and the bad ...

Felt like writing this on Republic day.

First, the ugly.

The gang-rape, mutilation and murder of the girl in Delhi last month. It was a barbaric act, and its perverse nature is impossible to rationalize. It's good that the guilty have been brought to book. But I don't want the death penalty for them. That'd be the easy way out. Since I don't believe in the afterlife, heaven/hell etc., I'd like to see them suffer long and hard in this life and serve as an example to others. Hopefully - someday - they may realize their folly and feel genuine remorse for it.

But, with all due respect, this post isn't really about this specific incident or the people involved. A lot has already been written about that, and I have nothing new to add. I'm going to focus on the public reaction that followed, and what I think of it.

The chauvinistic, misogynistic and regressive statements made by the likes of Asaram Bapu, Abhijeet Mukherjee etc. was more of the ugly, as are the shocking stories of rapes of women of all ages from 2 to 90, by all kinds of beasts -  including family at times - that continue to appear in the papers everyday. It's all too depressing for me to elaborate here, but a quick google search can bring you up to speed.

It wasn't all bad news, tho.

The good.

When I was a kid, India was very different. Society was characterized by ignorance (an incident like this would not have got nearly as much publicity), apathy (the infamous 'chalta hai' attitude, 'mujhe kya farak padhta hai'), cynicism ('nothing is ever going to change here') and helplessness ('aam aadmi kya kar sakta hai', 'sab mile hue hain', 'mere ek vote se kya farak padhega'). When you heard about incidents like this, you just accepted them as part of life, and the only hope for a better life was emigration.

Things have changed for the better. One girl gets raped in Delhi, and thousands of people react all over the country. They weep for her and pray for her. They protest at India gate all day, bearing the cold weather, lathi-charge and water cannons - but they don't stand down. They demand action from the government and expect things to change. And they get results. This was unimaginable two decades back, and portends well for our future!

I still hear a few cynical voices saying this is a very limited phenomenon and has little significance. 'The affluent, educated few living in metros can all agree about what's right and wrong, but the masses neither hear nor care for all their arguments - so what is even the point'? It sounds like a valid question, but it presumes that we have no influence over the masses - which is untrue. Now, a large number of rural households in this country have TV, and access to these discussions. They listen to the panelists on the prime-time news program, they have some respect for the views of those who are better educated and better informed than themselves - and they do get influenced.

Last year, I had a resident caretaker-cum-cook in my house. He used to watch every single episode of Satyamev Jayate. One Sunday morning, as I ate my breakfast watching some random cricket, he politely suggested that I change the channel, and I had to tell him that SJ's first season was over. This was a poor, 50-yr-old man from a small village in Odisha - and he cared about social issues like female foeticide, child molestation, honor killings et al - and he listened to every word spoken on the program with even greater interest than myself. So don't tell me 'those people' don't care or can't be influenced.

Of course, this doesn't mean everything is going to change overnight - but we certainly are moving in the right direction. Slowly, but steadily.

The bad

I did have mixed feelings about many of the protests, though. People were marching, yelling 'We want... death penalty'! While I respect their intentions, it's another case of mixed-up priorities. Whether the penalty should be death or prison isn't the real point - there are much more basic issues at play here. Let's take a few steps back:

1. Many rapists don't even get convicted by courts, using money and/or power to subvert the whole legal process. We need to weed out corruption here.
2. Even if the prosecution was sincere, it is often weak. The police simply lacks investigative and forensic skills, and cases drag on farcically for years. The whole  system needs to be strengthened.
3. The majority of rapes are not even reported. Victims don't come forward, fearing social stigma, facing staggering apathy and often even the blame! This requires a change in attitude.

While these are more basic and important issues than what the penalty should be, that's still not the real point. This discussion should not be about justice for victims, but about preventing the crime in the first place.

I believe there are two root causes for so much rape in our country: lack of respect for women, and disregard for law and order. Though it is important, I'm not going to talk about the first, because I don't really understand the phenomenon, and it disgusts me. I will talk about the second, tho.

While the government is responsible for enforcing law & order, being a civilized, law-abiding citizen is a personal choice. Such a person would - by definition - never commit rape (or any other crime). On the other hand, no govt. can effectively control 1.2 billion people if they don't choose to behave themselves. While most people would nod in agreement, they don't seem to realize that they're also part of the problem. I will give two examples.

First, the issue of black money. I've heard many middle class people complain a lot about the amount of black money that corrupt politicians etc. have parked overseas, and how they've robbed this country of development. But somehow it's ok for the same people to make inflated HRA claims and submit false medical/travel/phone expense reports to reduce their own tax liability. We feel it's ok to buy things using cash, without proper bills/docs, if that brings down the total transaction cost. We either don't realize that we are a part of the 'black' economy, or we don't care. We complain about the problem, and criticize the govt for not solving it, while simultaneously contributing to the problem. Sheer hypocrisy.

The second example is our behavior on roads. Of course, we complain about how bad the traffic is, and how reckless other people are - but it's ok for us to skip red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road, the wrong way up a one-way, drive after a couple of drinks, not wear helmets/seat-belts and talk on our phones while driving whenever we want to. We seem to feel we don't need to obey the laws/rules, but we want everyone else to. Does that even sound like it would work?

This general disregard for law & order culminates in heinous crimes like the Delhi gang-rape. I'm not trying to equate your forged rent receipt to that crime, but one of the major underlying issues is the same in both cases. Being a civilized, law-abiding citizen is not a matter of convenience - you must be one everywhere and at all times. The moment this becomes a matter of personal discretion, all hell breaks loose. You think it's ok to save a few thousand rupees by forging rent receipts. The minister thinks the same way about receiving a few hundred crores under the table to grant a contract. You think it's ok to drive after a couple of beers. Ram Singh & his group were driving that bus drunk, originally looking just to steal money for more alcohol. Once you start negotiating right vs. wrong and individuals start deciding for themselves, who decides where to draw the line and on what basis?

This is where the social contract and the law of the land come in. It defines the lines between right and wrong, and one must never cross those lines. This is a matter of principle and not magnitude. Today, all of us make concessions for ourselves, blame others for all problems and expect the govt to find all the solutions. That is the 'bad'.

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