Two years after Nirbhaya, an ode to Delhi

First published in Scroll.in on 16 December 2014.

Every December 16 in Delhi is a gruesome reminder of how the city, and the world at large, is an unsafe place for women. Newer cases of rape continue to shock us, even as most don’t get noticed even if they get reported. Every December 16 is an anniversary of dismay. But for me it is also the anniversary of hope. Two years ago, so enormous was the public outcry over what came to be known as the “Nirbhaya case”, that it lasted a full month.

One had never thought Delhi could care, certainly not in the coldest time of the year, in the holiday season. Christmas and New Year, day and night, Jantar Mantar and Saket malls, camera phones and placards in hand, we made sure the world heard us.

Delhi is the planet’s second-largest urban settlement, a fact you don’t hear often. The census 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 to which people from across India migrate with dreams of riches. Yet, this city has also been famous as the city where people are rude, always trying to get the better of you, a city of road rage and street violence. It is thus only in the order of things that Delhi is also unsafe for women, and has long been given the factually and statistically incorrect title of the “rape capital of India”. In the foggy days two Decembers ago, the realisation that Delhi could care, that Delhi could say enough is enough, was heartwarming.

Let’s be fair to Delhi

The city hasn’t been given its due. It is not as if there women are not brutalised anywhere outside Delhi. The protests that Delhi saw non-stop for 30 days after December 16 were so inspiring that it is hard to explain what it felt like. Initially the protests were sought to be suppressed at Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate, because, you know, you can’t protest wherever you like in the capital of the world’s largest democracy. You must also take permission from the police. So the police responded with batons and water canons. That made us angrier, and we protested for a whole month across the city without any police permission. Often, there were more police than protestors. One policeman told me that in the age of the Facebook-organised protests, it’s hard to tell how many people would turn up. In their hearts, the cold administration feared a Tahrir Square or two, having already seen what Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal could do.

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, The Vagina Monologues. “This is mind blowing,” she said of the protests on a visit to Delhi in, January 2012. “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?”

Which rape are we allowed to outrage about?

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,” she said. “Our editors confine such news to a single column in the inside pages.”

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

Some radicals were still unhappy. Why do we only care about a rape in Delhi, they asked, but what about violence against women in the distant places not part of our national imagination? The subtext: Delhi don’t whine about Delhi, Delhi must whine about elsewhere. It is easy to rubbish Delhi, as the radicals do, as a place of the elites and a seat of power.

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 was that they didn’t live in the national capital, or even while circling the inner Ring Road, they pretended to live in some subaltern place of their imagination.

They think that the 22 million people in Delhi NCR are the power elite who run India. They complained that Delhi was protesting only because the girl was a south Delhite, urban, upper caste, Hindu, middle class and so on. They ended up with egg on their faces when it turned out the girl was working class, the daughter of rural migrant labourer, lived on a far edge of Delhi and belonged to a peasant caste.

Identity politics is 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, not allowed to have a city identity? Are we not 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. Absolutely not true. There was a cross-section of people in the protests. Even if there wasn’t, why should doing something about violence against women wait until we can politically unite the migrant labour with the bank officer?

Caste wasn’t a consideration

How could the self-appointed Brahmin messiahs of Dalits say that people are protesting because the victim was upper caste, when the protesters didn’t even know her caste? How could the angry Kashmiris simply choose to ignore that the “Indian” protesters were invoking the murder of two women in Shopian and mass rapes in Kunan-Poshpora in their slogans and posters?

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 own cities? Why must Delhi bear their burden? The protests in Delhi two years ago made the media forget all other news and focus only on this. As a result, there were countless articles on rape, bringing attention to the problem not just in Delhi but across India and the world.

December 16 became a turning point in the global struggle against rape, even provoking protests against rape in the rest of South Asia. Instead of blaming Delhi, we owe the city and its people a thank you.

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