Sorry Chetan Bhagat, outrage over rape isn't elitist!

“What kind of imperialist vocabulary is this? If you treat everyone who does not agree with you as aliens and fools, if you refuse to accept them as your own people, what gives you the right to dictate to them? What makes you think they will even entertain your criticism?” asks Madhu Kishwar in a recent Tehelka cover story titled, "Rape. And how men see it."

Kishwar is criticising the recent media outrage at views expressed by the likes of Asaram Bapu and Mohan Bhagwat.

 Sorry Chetan Bhagat, outrage over rape isnt elitist!

What is at stake in the debate over rape is not some culture war over westernisation but the basic human rights of women: AFP

Ad guru Santosh Desai chimes in to warn of a backlash: “Media in India is more loud than representative,” he says. “If the framing of this debate gets too vociferous and extreme, it can galvanise the opposition in disturbing ways. Our society has always had a way of evolving organically, using a combination of strategies to create space for new ideas. As long as that change is gradual, the anxiety it produces is also gradual. If one gets too absolutist, the whole thing can boomerang.”

To be fair, Tehelka doesn't make clear if Desai is talking about calls for radical measures to combat rape -- i.e. capital punishment, castration, fast track courts -- or a zero-tolerance attitude in the media toward misogynistic, traditional attitudes that justify rape. There's a tendency to mix one apple with the other orange throughout the piece. But Desai and Kishwar aren't the only ones to question the recent outcry over the Delhi gang-rape

Chetan Bhagat offers a variation on the theme in his Times of India column, where he first divides the populace into four classes: One, the political elite; Two, the business elite; Threes, the rising lower and middle classes "with a certain amount of affluence and education"; and Four, "people with limited education, abysmal standards of living and little hope for a better future." The Threes may be the heroes of Bhagat's stories -- and their hero in turn -- but here he takes them to task for "imposing their new-found modern values" on the less-progressive masses "For example, Fours may see women-men relationships in a regressive way. The Threes, exposed to the latest Western beliefs, will mock them." The column offers instead a more peace-loving recipe for change:

We have to take the Fours along. If we want people to change, we should not mock or deride. Instead listen and understand first and slowly nudge people towards change. Don’t just laugh at anyone who says women should cover up and not venture out at night. Suggest that while this old belief may come from a place of practical reality, this cannot be the primary solution. I am not saying these people are not regressive. However, if you want change, be inclusive.

So are we a little too mad at "medieval" mindsets? Should we set aside our righteous rage and -- as the Tehelka story seems to conclude -- make a "commitment to participatory dialogue" because it will produce ideas that "will always have greater validity and acceptance by plural cross-sections of society"? Or as Bhagat argues, stop being cultural elitists, trying to ram our ten percent views down the throat of the other 90 percent?

The argument sounds appealingly democratic and progressive, until we realise what it really means is taking seriously the views of the many men quoted in the Tehelka 'dipstick survey', like Raju, the auto driver:

“The root problem for all these crimes is women themselves,” Raju told Tehelka. “The mirror in my auto tells me everything, what young boys and girls are doing behind me. They are willing to pay extra because they want to make love. In my village in UP, my wife keeps her ghungat even in front of my mother. Now imagine if a person from such a strict society comes to Delhi where women flaunt their bodies and provoke men with their dresses, what will he do? You may want to close your eyes at first, but if someone offers you fruit on a plate, will you deny the invitation?

Delhi girls are like mangoes. What do you do with the fruit? You eat it, suck it, and throw it away. These women are being used and overused. Sometimes, they have 10 boyfriends. In such a situation, how can you stop rapes? The current discourse is being created by elites and it ends there. You have all these rich people talking on TV, but if the rich want to have fun, they can afford to hire women and go to a hotel. Where will a poor man go?”

The notion that a modern democracy can and should countenance the view that bodies of nearly half of its citizens are "fruit" to be enjoyed by the other half is, in one word, intolerable.

What is at stake in the debate over rape is not some culture war over westernisation but the basic human rights of women. Poverty or sexual deprivation is not an excuse for rapists to violate the basic rights of their fellow citizens. Women are not some "special" category citizens whose rights are up for negotiation or can be downgraded because, oh, the rest of the country isn't quite there, dear! Besides, this isn't about getting the village elders to get on board with a family planning program. Rape is not a cultural bias, it's a crime.

Most democracies that have attained greater gender parity have not done so through gentle persuasion. In each case, a full-blown, sustained uprising was necessary to push society down a more enlightened path. Steven Pinker attributes the 80 percent reduction in rape cases in the United States since the 1970s to the women's right movement -- which included massive, sustained protests filled with outrage and ire -- as he tells the Times of India:

I credit the women's rights movement and its decision to target rape, harassment and domestic abuse. Women worked with lawmakers, courts and police to treat rape and harassment seriously. Popular culture changed - no more jokes about rape, harassment or spousal abuse. More rapists were deterred - or, if deterrence failed, thrown into jail. Even minor harassment or unwanted touching were punished. All this came about when women began to assume positions of power and make their interests known. It happened quickly because their arguments were irrefutable - no decent person can honestly argue that rape and harassment are justifiable or that we need to tolerate them.

Great social change is never a consequence of mere public dialogue. In the United States, for instance, the courts had to impose desegregation on a racist and reluctant South. Popular attitudes changed because the laws either changed or were finally executed without fear or favour due to political pressure from a more progressive minority.

The argument that basic equality is far too "radical" or "elitist" a notion for our society to tolerate is patently absurd. Sixty-plus years after independence, we are finally and rightfully enraged by sexual violence against women. And women's bodies ought not to rely on changing tens of millions of minds -- i.e. another 60 years -- in order to be safe. So hurray for all the 'westernised,' 'out-of-touch' Indians, men and women, who insist on change, and now!

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2013 18:21:38 IST