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Mitali Saran: Young leaders, anybody home?

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The of a young student in Delhi on December 16 was only one of countless instances of the ugly misogyny endemic in . But it was a turning point in finally sparking a public conversation about India’s gender attitudes that, at the one-month mark this week, has already defied cynical predictions about its longevity.

Sadly, it also revealed something terribly disheartening: if you thought that might pin their hopes for change upon the younger Members of Parliament, think again.

Nobody is much surprised by the continuing flat-footedness of the older generation. ’s assertion that the rape victim should have begged for mercy comes from an old man entrenched in an unreconstructed tradition. ’s advice in the past that women should be more careful comes from an old woman entrenched in the patriarchy-accepting tradition of her generation. The khap panchayats’ opinion that girls should be married off young to prevent rape comes from the entrenched logic of honour killings.

But many young people in this country might have dared to hope that the attitudes of younger Indian leaders might be different. They might have imagined that this next generation of representatives would be, for the most part, better versed with their aspirations and concerns. That young leaders might be more respectful of the changing expectations people have of power, more comfortable with engagement with the electorate, more sensitive, less willing to remain behind the ramparts of power where public opinion is mediated into “intelligence inputs”.

Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The tide of protesters washing the gates of power was merely looking for a sign of response from the government — a sign that their views on violence against women were being registered as a serious issue, that their government was batting for them. This was a golden opportunity for the young political leadership to throw its weight behind the cause of gender justice. All they had to do was emerge to address the crowds — to say we hear you, we get it, we’re going to work very hard to do something about the issue of sexual and other violence against women, we too think this is important. We’ve ignored it for far too long.

It would have disarmed the protests, and created a collaboration rather than a confrontation.

Instead, the crowds got water cannons, lathi charges, and curfews. The entire government went into a foetal curl: first it high-handedly dismissed protesters as elite nobodies with no “charter of demands”. Then it gave in to craven fear of the same nobodies and panicked — shut down metro services, imposed curfew, removed the symbolic centre of the protest for what only a halfwit would believe were medical reasons, and then flew her corpse back in the middle of the night for a dawn cremation amid mind-boggling security. All through, it displayed an admirable capability for efficient policing that has earned it searing public contempt.

It takes singular lack of imagination to not realise that, on this subject, Delhi amplifies the inchoate rage of women (and men) all over the country, over many complicated expressions of patriarchy. But even if, by the ’s lights, the Delhi protests constituted just another negligible blip of short-lived urban bleating, the government is very aware of similar and worse violence that rural women suffer across the country. This was a time, not to pick holes in the protests, but to ride the momentum to take national ownership of the issue, to lead from the front, if only on behalf of their non-elite female constituents.

We looked to the younger leadership for that, and a thunderous silence rang out. was the only young parliamentarian who spoke up with any degree of empathy. Where were all the rest?

Either this generation of leaders is just as patriarchal as the one before, and does not prioritise women’s freedom and security; or, while they regret that bad things happen to half the population, they don’t know how to begin addressing the problem.

If they do care, and are quietly beavering away at it in their constituencies, they have failed to recognise a fantastic opportunity to put political will behind a national issue. If they care but feel undereducated on the subject, they have failed to express a desire to acquaint themselves with the issues.

Politics is about both action and public perception, and like it or not, the latter matters. All we heard from our younger leaders was ... nothing. What that means is that the women of this country had better dig in, because in the fight for gender justice, their leaders aren’t necessarily on their team.

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