In Delhi’s Defence: A reply to those who criticised the ‘Nirbhaya’ protests for being Delhi-centric

For Kafila.org on 14 September 2013:

The census counts ’urban agglomerations’, and the Census of India says that Mumbai is India’s largest urban agglomeration. This includes Mumbai’s suburbs. In counting Delhi, the suburbs are not added because They are separated by state boundaries. If you were to add suburbs of the ’National Capital Region’, Delhi’s population would be not 16 million but over 22 million, making it the world’s largest urban agglomeration after Tokyo. This bustling urban centre is made of its people. Today’s Delhi cannot be stereotyped as just the seat of power. There is more to Delhi than the endless roundabouts of Lutyens’ capital.

Delhi’s core – the Partition refugee Punjabi – is not xenophobic like the Marathi ’manoos’ of Mumbai. In fact Delhi today is what Bombay once was, India’s foremost cosmopolitan metropolis. It is the city of choice for people from across India to migrate to with dreams of riches.

A lot has been written about “the Delhi gang-rape”. 16 December 2012 started a conversation that doesn’t seem to end. This conversation has largely been about rape, not about Delhi.

The city hasn’t been given its due. Rape is a global issue. It is not as if there women are not brutalised anywhere outside Delhi. But the protests that Delhi saw non-stop for thirty days after 16 December were so inspiring that it is hard to explain what it felt like. We were out there, in morning and at night, without police permission to protest, and not limiting ourselves to the designated protest areas. We, the people of Delhi, deserve our due for making that moment historic. Not that we were doing anyone a favour: we were only reclaiming our city for ourselves.

The only person who seems to have paid a tribute to Delhi is the feminist writer Eve Ensler, famous for her 1996 play, ’Vagina Monologues’. “This is mind blowing,” she said of the protests on a visit to Delhi in early January, “There is an incredible spirit at work right now. To see men and women coming to the streets to demonstrate against rape is a breakthrough in terms of human consciousness. I cannot think of a country in my lifetime where thus has ever happened including the United States… We have a rape problem in the US. Why are we not doing what the people in Delhi have done?”

When the story first broke, a friend who works in the city pages of a local daily told me the papers had played up the story because it had happened in elite south Delhi. “Rape cases with as much brutality happen rather often, but they happen in places like a slum in east Delhi. Our editors confine such news to a single column in the inside pages,” she said.

Even so, as the protests gathered momentum, my friend gave up that cynicism. The 16 December girl became a symbol of the fear women face to do something as simple as go out for a movie with or without a boyfriend.

But some Indian radicals weren’t happy. How would they be radical left if they approved of a popular movement? To be radical you must ’take a position’ that is unpopular and marginal. You don’t need to do anything substantial such as face water canons or march in the cold. Facebook is good enough for position-taking.

The cast of such characters is as predictable as their positions. There is the homesick PhD student in the US, the Bengali bhadralok still mourning the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, the Brahmin publisher of expensive books in English about Dalits, the academic in a small town, and the Kashmiri azadiwallah. All of these people are elites in their societies and locations, but their claim to fame is that either they don’t live in the national capital, or even while circling the inner Ring Road they pretend to live in some subaltern marginal place of their imagination.

They think that the 22 million people in Delhi NCR are the power elite who run India. They all complained that Delhi was protesting only because the girl was a south Delhite, urban, upper caste, Hindu, middle class and so on.

All of these people ended up with egg on their faces when it turned out the girl was working class, daughter of rural migrant labourer, lived on a far edge of Delhi and belonged to a peasant caste.

Identity politics is a powerful tool for the marginalised and the oppressed but its appropriation by the radicalitis-stricken is worrying. Identity politics us the new last refuge of the scoundrel. It needs to be saved from the Facebook radical who, sitting in an Ivy League university in the US, lectures us that we should worry about rape in Jharkhand, not Delhi. Are we the denizens of Delhi allowed to have a city identity? Are we allowed to care about our neighbourhood? How is it that adivasis are allowed to take to arms for their rights but if the people of Delhi shout a few slogans for their city their protest is illegitimate?

The armchair critic whined that the protests in Delhi were by elite upper class people. While this is not true, does it mean we should not do something about violence against women until we can politically unite the migrant labour with the bank officer?

How can the self-appointed Brahmin messiah of Dalits say that people are protesting because the victim was upper caste, when the protesters didn’t even know her caste? How can the Kashmiri azadiwallah simply choose to ignore that the ’Indian’ protesters were invoking Shopian and Kunanposhpora in their slogans and posters, and keep saying that they don’t care about rape in Kashmir? And when a girls’ rock band is forced to disband in Srinagar because of rape threats, the same azadi radicals tell Indians to shut up?

How are the people of Delhi responsible if the people of Ranchi or Allahabad or Ohio do not rise up and raise a voice against rape in their city? Why must Delhi bear their burden?

Why do those who live in Delhi – repeat, migrants all – need to carry the burden of the nation on their shoulders? By asking that of them, aren’t you seeing them in the very framework of nationalism you claim to question? Why, for instance, do you even expect the Delhi media to be ’Indian media’ when you don’t buy the Indian national project?

One may be dismayed by the death penalty granted to the 16 December perpetrators, but if the 16 December case has become a turning point for the struggle against gender-based violence, then some credit must go to the people of Delhi.

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