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Venue is the message, and wrong signals aggravates the ire

The anger and protest in Delhi over Sunday’s gangrape have an air of spontaneity. Small batches of people like students’ unions, the ladies who go to work and the women next door have taken it right up to the President’s door.

In fact, one girl, either courageous or impulsive, even sneaked into the presidential palace wanting to take the message of protest to the highest person in the country’s Constitutional arrangement. Fortunately, she was only escorted out. It could have been worse.

The depth of the anger, lack of organisation except for the common bond of a hurt and the young citizenry makes this agitation quite unique and ominous. It has shown up the government — not just the policemen who failed to even be present on the streets at the hour the rape took place in a bus – for its miscalculations and missed opportunities.

Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

No doubt, President Pranab Mukherjee had been watching news television, at least off and on. He could have sent a senior official, say, his Secretary, to the presidential palace gates and heard some of the youth. It could have doused the anger if he had promised to convey the people’s wrath to the government.

Today, complaining of breached barricades and entering the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the Union Minister of State for Home, RPN Singh said, “We cannot have that”. That was the wrong tenor when the women in Delhi have risen as one and said, “We can’t have rapes and that there is precious little being done’’.

Instead, missing the symbolism of the protestors not limiting themselves to India Gate and gathering between the North and South Blocks and on the edge of the palace on the Raisina Hill today, the authorities unleashed force, first the tear gas, and then water cannons. Even in winter, the cold water did not douse the people’s anger.

Reputed for its poor safety levels for women in public places, Delhi is, as statistics reported elsewhere,  the rape capital of the country. To the women, a grope, a nudge, a wink, a filthy word is a terrible violation of her dignity. To take it as a mere stir is the biggest error. That is being compounded by wrong signals.

Sheila Dikshit, Delhi’s Chief Minister, probably thought she was doing a nimble public relations exercise by giving lengthy interviews to television channels. Instead of being seen as empathetic, she came off sounding helpless. She verbally flailed around, saying all the wrong things. Nothing she said added to the comfort of the women.

For one, she said she did not (CNN-IBN interview) have the courage to go and face the girl. She conceded that even the street lights are inadequate in the national capital, and yes, they women were right — everything that is repulsive to the women – was happening. And worse, she did not even have policing rights she had been demanding for 11 years; Union Home Ministry handled that.

While the demand has been for a large network of closed circuit television cameras to watch over the city, she rubbed the salt in the wound. The existing cameras are not even monitored, she said. This implied that she questioned the usefulness of such moves; the hardware doesn’t count, the software – human resources – is flawed. She was even tempted to go join the candlelight vigil.

When the state’s first citizen wrings her hands and comes close to breaking down, and the High Court asks for the names of the policemen on duties that failed that night, but the Police Commissioner and the Home Secretary smile and are protective, even appreciative of the policemen, it is not reassuring. The inept conduct is at all levels.

The girl who entered the Rashtrapati Bhawan, as television footage showed, was being escorted out by a police person holding her by the wrist. The fleeting glimpse did not indicate that the police constable was a woman. That reflects the insensitivity of the Delhi’s law enforcers – and others elsewhere in the country.

In such circumstances, where would women who could not individually fight the crimes against them go but take to the streets collectively? What is worrisome is it is no more on Janpath and Ramlila Grounds but on the Rajpath. The people are inching closer to the highest in the land for redress. The government should not, for its own good, miss this cue and it should act wisely. Or else, things can go out of hand.