A more sombre New Year in the capital is hard to recollect in recent memory: the public mood agitated and volatile as plummeting temperatures smothered the city in sepulchral fog. Most people cancelled their year-end revels; there were memorial marches to the bus stop in Munirka where the tragic incident began to unfold on the night of December 16, and most stayed glued to TV sets and the internet to track the ongoing fallout. Some of the outpouring of anger, loss and grief, in fact, recalled the traumatic days in November 1984 when anti-Sikh killings convulsed the city after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Three thousand people lost their lives in that mass atrocity 28 years ago. The burning city was bludgeoned into stupefied remorse as a new prime minister declared: “The earth shakes when a great tree falls.” There were no 24x7 TV channels, cell phones, digital or social networks, and the police failed abysmally in containing the massacre. How much the city, and its mood, has changed was amply demonstrated by the scale of the spontaneous protests that erupted following the brutal gang rape and death of a young woman. Delhi’s shame had the world’s attention transfixed. It shows what the power of one casualty can achieve.
What you now have is a fiercely vocal, socially conscious, demanding population that finds slow administrative and political responses intolerable. It wants to know why its streets are unsafe for women, why policing is ineffective and why political leaders disappear into their warrens at the first signal of danger. It is lucky that the police commissioner was merely pilloried and the chief minister booed by protesters when she made an appearance. Next time public outrage spills over, they will have more on their hands than crowd control or shutting down the Metro. They could lose their jobs.
The trouble with running Delhi has always been not lack of control but too many controllers. No one is quite sure as to who is in charge of what — law and order is overseen by the home ministry, the administration by Delhi government. Both interfere in the functioning of its hospitals; there are multiple transport authorities; and ongoing tussles between the district courts, high court and Supreme Court have weakened the dispensing of swift criminal justice. Despite an improved state-run bus service, licensed but unsupervised private operators continue to ply buses — a key reason why the incident occurred on that fateful night. Before compiling a database of sexual offenders and promoting chemical castration for rapists, a more effective preventive measure would be a comprehensive database of every bus, taxi and auto-rickshaw driver.
The plethora of statistics that now designate Delhi as the rape capital of India overlook a simple fact: Delhi was always notoriously unsafe for women. A friend who taught at a women’s college till the 1990s before moving to the West wrote me an email this week. She was shocked, she said, but not surprised. “Do you remember the elaborate advance plans I had to make for a ride back every time I came to dinner at your place?” Any working woman today will confirm the fear and insecurity she feels in going out after dark.
The 112 per cent increase in rapes reported between 1990 and 2008 nationally does not reflect a quantum jump in sexual assault but that many more offences are now reported. Rape is no longer a disguised or hidden four-letter word buried in the inside pages or mentioned darkly; it is continually flashed on screens, stares us from the front page and dominates the national conversation.
For that reason alone, and the massive public outrage that brought Delhi virtually to a halt and the government to its knees, the tragic loss of a young life emphasises the power of one.