Exploding tear gas shells, water cannons, men in uniform beating up men, women and children, the jackboot of brute authority stamping down on democratic protest Tahrir Square, Cairo, where the ‘Arab Spring’ has become bitter winter? No, it was India Gate, New Delhi, last Sunday, when the police clashed with largely peaceful demonstrators protesting against the savage rape of a young woman in the city.
As protestors uprooted the wooden barriers erected for the Republic Day parade and set fire to them, the symbolism couldn’t have been starker; it was the people versus the state. And the battle didn’t take place somewhere in the remote, rural ‘badlands’ where self-styled Maoist insurgents combat para-military forces. The battle took place in the heart of the country’s showcase capital, the seat of our democracy.
Later, police spokesmen blamed the shameful episode, which left more than 60 people injured, on ‘lumpen elements’ who instigated violence. There could well have been troublemakers in the crowd of largely peaceful protesters. But the reference to ‘lumpens’ sought to tarnish all the demonstrators with the same besmirching brush. When citizens demonstrate people power, as distinct from the state which claims a monopoly on power, they become ‘lumpens’. However at election time, the same ‘lumpens’ become the lauded ‘aam admi’ whose votes politicians covet and desperately vie for.
Sunday’s protests were not confined to Delhi. Across the country there were simultaneous and spontaneous demonstrations against the perceived apathy of the authorities in the face of recurrent attacks on women. In Imphal, a television journalist was killed in police firing.
The immediate provocation for the demonstrations was public anger and anguish against the chronic inability of the authorities to provide protection to that half of the country’s citizens whose
misfortune it is to have been born into the wrong gender. But the protests, and the violently authoritarian reaction to them, revealed a fundamental mismatch between the people of this country and the state which claims to represent them.
India bills itself as the world’s most populous democracy. But how democratic is our much-vaunted democracy? Yes, we have regular elections. Yes, we change our governments with equal regularity (though all the governments we elect have more then their unfair share of known criminals, including murderers and rapists).
But these are democratic rites, not rights. A satirist who lampoons a politician on the net is summarily jailed. Two girl students who share an innocuous Facebook comment about the enforced public closure of Mumbai because of the death of a neta can be persecuted by what for want of a more appropriate term we call our law enforcement authorities.
What is law, and how is it enforced? That was the question raised by the battle of India Gate. Are the enforcement agencies there to protect the citizens or are they there to protect the state, in the avatar of our elected representatives? The answer to that has long been clear: the larger part of Delhi’s police force is routinely deployed to provide security to so-called VVIPs, leaving ‘ordinary citizens’, like the most recent rape victim, vulnerable to criminals.
In a democracy the first duty of the state is to protect its citizens. In the democracy that is India, the first, and only, duty of the state seems to be to protect itself, if necessary at the expense of its citizens. The battle of India Gate was indeed about rape. The rape not only of one young woman, but the rape of democracy itself.