Rape is not a women’s issue. If it is women that are primarily concerned about how sexual assaults on women have proliferated, that reflects little more than a failure by most of us men to even begin to tackle the warped core of Indian notions of masculinity. Till last month, we were dancing happily to Honey Singh, whose violent misogynistic lyrics should instead have appalled us. Go to YouTube, and look for footage of Honey Singh’s concerts, in Gurgaon, in Faridabad, in small towns in Punjab. Look at the crowds, at the young, ecstatic-eyed men bellowing out lyrics that spoke to them, and to their deep-rooted insecurities about their stifled machismo. The kids aren’t alright.
I don’t have the answers as to how this can be fixed. But I know it can’t happen with government intervention; the state can’t force us to be better people. I know social changes are painful. And I know that men can’t be silent participants in a long-delayed process of social reform, where we circumscribe and limit the aggression and entitlement that Indian men have come to think of as their birthright. Men have to help lead that process.
This isn’t to say men aren’t having the conversations, now, that they should have been having all along. The crowds at the angry protests in Delhi and elsewhere, were, after all, mainly male. Yes, a good number had come to see if they could get in a quick grope. Yes, even more of them were less angry about the rape and more opportunistically seizing on another issue to express their frustration with the United Progressive Alliance’s incompetence. But enough of them, by all accounts, were worried about the masculine violence that they had seen in their homes; that they had been subject to as children; that they have to quietly worry about when out with girlfriends or wives as sisters. Enough of them will have felt pressure from their peers to mock, demean and intimidate women they know or that they don’t. It is from these people that, perhaps, change will come.
So yes, change must and will come from within. But that will need some sort of coordination, some sort of leadership. But from where?
Elsewhere, the producers of mass culture have been progressive and liberal, helping spread those values through more conservative society. But in India, that is a forlorn hope. What expectations can we have from film-makers who embrace and defend Honey Singh as an authentic voice of the people? From girlfriend-beaters in Bollywood who make endless movies about harassing women who love them, that gross Rs 100 crore? From younger rivals who have scrambled upwards by loudly hawking their own “quality” and “independence” — and yet, like the overrated Anurag Kashyap, will declare in print their helplessness in the face of popular taste? (Look up “indie”, Anurag, and shut up.)
No help there, right? Nothing succeeds like success, even if that success is the toxic waste that people in Bombay like to call “movies”. That its relentless mediocrity and compromise has in addition cannibalised all that is good and valuable in popular music, leaving the rest to the Honey Singhs of the world, means that we can’t expect help from anywhere in pop culture. Aside, that is, from Chetan Bhagat. So depressingly regressive is the rest of our cultural production that Chetan Bhagat is the sole strong voice for a particular kind of liberal values.
So, where else? From religion? From Baba Ramdev, curer of homosexuality? Deoband, indefatigable dispensers of fatwas? The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, currently blaming western culture? Don’t make me laugh.
That’s where politics comes in. I have no sympathy for those who think the duty of the state is to hold our hands in times of crisis. That sort of message-heavy speechifying and superficiality has destroyed the US’ politics, and I don’t want it happening here. It substitutes for and destroys any chance of real action — just look at the three speeches delivered by three American presidents after three different school shootings, see how well-delivered and empathetic they are, and note also that nothing has changed. The state’s job is to see if there are institutional fixes that they have to make, and they should work on that.
It may not be the state’s job. Yet, perforce, our political leaders are also our only option. Not through the nature of their messaging at moments of crisis, or symbolic gestures like turning up at 4 a.m. at Delhi airport. But through a simple restatement of their personal liberal values. Perhaps the Bharatiya Janata Party, as it careers desperately away from its genteel Vajpayee ethos towards the crassness of Narendra “50-crore girlfriend” Modi, is a lost cause. But there are other political forces in this country. We have strong female leaders, and not all of them are Mamata Banerjee. Rape as a weapon is institutionalised against Dalit women in parts of North India; the country’s most prominent Dalit politician is a woman who is strong, independent, and owes no explanation to anyone about her lifestyle.
And then there’s the United Progressive Alliance. (Progressive is right there in your name, people!) It should remember that, above all, the long honeymoon it enjoyed from much-deserved public criticism was because many in our towns believed the UPA’s leaders had solid liberal values — were, indeed, better people than others in politics. In today’s India, the burdens of political leadership extend to more than economic management or internal democracy. We have to change ourselves; it is the duty of those in the public eye to help us do it.