- Vasundhara Jairath
While the day began with a deep sense of distress at the news of the death of the young 23-year-old who had been brutally assaulted and gang-raped in a moving private bus running illegally on that route, each of us tried to channel our energies so as to bolster, and not demoralize, the struggle for gender justice. I do not believe she was a martyr as some have claimed. A martyr is one who gives her life for a cause. And she wanted to live. Given the brutality of the assault and related trauma, she fought hard for 12 long days. She is not a martyr. She was murdered to death. I do believe she wanted to live, and began to believe she will live. And then came the news of her death. While many have derided this explosion of Delhi’s citizenry on the streets as a middle class reaction or right wing, Narendra Modi supporters making fascist demands for denying any process of law and demanding execution, this was much more. It was an accumulated rage of the rape culture in the city. Apolitical individuals coming out in the streets for the first time did express their rage in demands for death penalty. But what was important to recognize was the rage. What was important to engage with, therefore, was the rage. And engage we did. And while we at least temporarily ‘converted’ some, we fought with others.
That afternoon we joined a silent march from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar as part of a joint call from women’s organizations. On arriving at Jantar Mantar, the left remained divided into two groups. The rally moved to one corner while another group had already occupied the centre of Jantar Mantar since morning. One on this side of the barricade and one on the other. While some of us made a small attempt at building a human chain between the two gheras (circles), a laughable attempt for some, a few of us moved to the centre of Jantar Mantar at the site of one ghera. While Left unity would have served as a powerful voice in demanding broader and substantive gender justice, focusing on the entire gamut of patriarchal norms and structures in society rather than just sticking to this case alone (as many demanding death penalty were doing), this was lost and divided in the fragmented demonstration.
As we tired from the fragmentation that always provided a wide open space for the right to quietly (and not so quietly) organize, a group of women from the women’s movement decided to sing a song called ‘Mahaul badalna’ (a song that talks about the need to change this culture of sexual violence). As they reached the centre of the ghera, they were told to sit and sing, or sit, or for 2 people to sing and for the rest to sit down. The women objected and were told, ‘aap bahas mat kijiye, gaana gaayiye’ (‘don’t argue, sing the song’). And so, ironically, they sang, ‘samjhe ye zamana, ye kissa hai purana, bas band karo ab hai, mahaul badalna’ (the opening line of ‘mahaul badalna’: ‘In this time that everyone imagines this is an old tradition of women’s oppression, we demand enough is enough and this culture must change’). As they finished the song, they attempted to continue the azaadi (freedom) slogans that had been raised before they arrived at the center, and were then told by a senior member of the Aam Aadmi Party, ‘naare mat lagaiye, gaana gaayiye’ (don’t give slogans, sing songs). And so they left and refused to return to the gathering that was marred by inter-organisational politics and hurt egos.
Tired, some of us decided to head homewards when we saw two girls in a heated argument with a crowd of about 20-30 men. These men had been tearing up and burning posters of another protesting group’s posters that had a line at the bottom that appealed to all citizens to dial 100/1091 if ever they were witness to or victim of any form of sexual harassment including leering, groping, molestation and stalking. They were tearing the poster and throwing the bits of paper into the air triumphantly. When two girls walked up to them asking why they were doing this, they said the police had failed and 100 police line had failed and no one should be appealing to anyone to go to the police in cases of rape. Some of us intervened when we saw the girls being surrounded by a hoard of aggressive intolerant men who would have no one else but them decide what would make the streets of Delhi safe for women. With no other way to talk to them but scream, scream we did. And we were told by ‘concerned public’ around to calm down. We were asked not to make an issue of all these trivial matters and stick to the ‘real’ issue. The police intervened as the aggression increased and we screamed louder and hysterical shouts of Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata ki Jai resounded. The police pushed us back. They caught us by our arms and bags and pulled us back. While I found my loudest voice to scream at the overdosed testosterone that this expression of masculinity where you scream and bully your way through will not work, I was told by a bystander to look at the way I was myself screaming. The unruly crowd seemed too unruly for either this ‘concerned public’ to engage with, or the police to control. So they told us to calm down. So they pushed us away. Boys will be boys goes a famous saying. A man standing at the back, wondering what had sparked this massive argument, said to another, ‘zarur ladki ne kuch kaha hoga’. And apparently, girls will be girls.
Another female friend relentlessly shouted back asking what sort of justice they demanded for this girl when they were not even willing to listen to what women wanted. They responded in what they thought was a defense, ‘hum toh keh hi rahe hain ki phansi do’ (yes we are saying give the culprits death penalty), and to their utmost shock and disappoint we retorted, we don’t want death penalty.
This was a mob. It was a mob that was fascist, intolerant of any view they disagreed with. It was a mob that was male that had decided they knew best how to make women feel safe. It was a mob that refused to hear the voice of a woman. It was also a mob that had decided to reject Rule of Law, as the simple appeal for people to register their complaints with the police was unacceptable to them. I imagine it was a mob that would attack women who came out of a pub in the middle of the night in Mangalore.
As we left the mob in disgust, we were frustrated by the right-wing mob on the one hand, and left-wing sectarianism on the other. However, these are battles that are part of the struggle for gender justice. As we trudge along this path, we must recognize the challenges that lie ahead and work towards strengthening the fight for a gender-just society. And with that resolve we marched for freedom yesterday and will kick in the new year with a street party today!
Vasundhara Jairath is an activist of New Socialist Initiative, and a Doctoral Scholar at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.