Politics can wait: Don't look away from Delhi rape victim

A 23-year-old woman, brutally gang-raped in a Delhi bus, lies fighting for her life in Safdarjang Hospital. As on Thursday morning, she is in critical condition, and doctors reckon that the next 24 hours are crucial to determining whether she will come through. On Wednesday, she underwent another round of excruciating surgery that saw virtually all of her intestines surgically removed, and will leave her needing intravenous feeding for the rest of her life. Yet, in a handwritten message that she scrawled to her family from her hospital bed, she has given voice to a yearning to live. Our thoughts and prayers are with her as she clings on for dear life.

For the past three days, the rape victim has bestirred a nation's conscience, and compelled us to reflect on our many failings at the societal level that have led up to this outrageous moment. Beyond the obvious failings of policing, which have engendered a disdain for the law among hooligans, and the failure of governments to protect the most fundamental of liberties - the right to security - the episode has led us to question many of the values that underlie our outlook on the world, which have created the enabling conditions for brutal crimes against women to proliferate.

Women protestors in Delhi. PTI

Of outrage, we''ve seen plenty in recent days. There have been impassioned speeches in Parliament, calls for the hanging or castration of the rapists, and spontaneous protests across cities demanding better security - and just the rudiments of improved civic amenities (like better street lighting) and community policing. Much of this outrage is, of course, heartfelt, but these passions count for little if the mood of the moment is overtaken - as it inevitably will be today - by developments on other fronts, however significant they may be.

The results of the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, which will come in today, of course hold momentous significance for pan-Indian politics. Even though exit polls point to a foregone conclusion in Gujarat, the verdict is so laden with political import beyond the State that media cameras and the chatter of the talking heads will be compelled to turn their gaze away from what in their assessment is a three-day-old story. On the treadmill of the 24x7 news cycle, that counts as an eternity.

But to turn away now would be a colossal tragedy. Even three days after the brutal rape, and despite the searing heat of public opinion focussed on them, the response of the Delhi government and the law enforcement machinery have been colossally insensitive. Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde announced a slew of measures on Wednesday, but they are all backward-looking, middling efforts that tinker around the edges and don't go to the  heart of the issue.

And the responses of the Union government, the Delhi government and  the Delhi Police Commissioner. As an outraged protestor at India Gate lawns hyperventilated on Wednesday (here), everyone seems to be playing pass the parcel, without anyone taking responsibility for providing security. Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote letters to Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit and Shinde seeking action, as if she were a powerless petitioner - rather than the puppeteer who presides over their destiny. Dikshit in turn asks the Delhi police chief to provide security - and pleads against politicisation of the rape.  And the Delhi police chief in turn goes on air to claim that this isn't just a policing problem.

Even in this moment of national outrage, our leaders have  shown abysmal lack of empathy. Their view of the world from within their security cocoon is blind to the real-world anxieties of ordinary folks. They perhaps reckon cynically that the merciless churn of the news cycle will draw attention - and the outrage - away from themselves and their failings.

Events over the next 24 hours are crucial not just for politics in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, but for the rape victim's struggle for life. Let's hold her in our hearts, even if our minds are consumed by the political chatter from elsewhere.

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