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The middle class has woken up; politicians watch out

Were the recent anti-rape protests in Delhi just a further extension of the Indian feminist movement, or an indication of something more?

How did a rape – a regular crime by Delhi’s unsafe standards – manage to transform itself from an isolated protest to large-scale mobilisation by large sections of the city’s better off sections almost instantly?

Patrick Heller, a visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, has two insights to offer in an article today in The Indian Express.

The first, he says, is that the movement is the result of a rising urban middle class, which is demanding better public services and safety. He writes: “This aspirational middle class, unlike the propertied rich that can provide for themselves, depends on public goods and in particular on the freedom to work, socialise, learn and play in the city. The urban middle class in India is often taken to task for being politically disaffected, mindlessly consumerist or narrowly self-interested. But in demanding a city that is accessible, open and safe for all, this middle class is staking a claim that cuts across the social cleavages that have traditionally marked the city.”

Put another way, the Delhi protests were not just about rising feminist ideas and opposition to in-built patriarchy, but also about demanding better urban services.

The second insight offered by Heller is something politicians should take note of. The protests were the result of widespread recognition that the gangrape was “not just an arbitrary act of brutal patriarchal violence, but also a symptom of a state that has failed its citizens.”

He notes: “Cities throughout the world can be dangerous places, but the indifference and venality with which the political class treats the Indian city has made urban life especially precarious and insecure….. So even as the city in India has become a place of dynamism and aspiration, the lack of responsive governance and inclusion have fuelled a wide range of insecurities.”

The Delhi protests can thus go beyond fighting gender injustices; they are a revolt by city folks against a political class that uses urban resources for personal aggrandisement and purchase of rural votes.

Memo to politicians: urban Indian is demanding governance. So whether it is the Anna Hazare movement or the Delhi gender protests, don’t take the aspiring middle classes for granted. Time to deliver. The middle class has woken up.