With molestations and rapes continuing with impunity, we will have to face more India-bashing before we can once again lift our heads.

The brutal sexual assault and murder of the 23-year-old paramedical student has anguished and angered India in many ways, jolting our collective consciousness to stop brushing under the carpet the harsh and brutal reality of how 21st century India treats its women.

She held out a mirror to show us the ugly side of our face, and her 13-day valiant fight was symbolic of the Indian woman’s indomitable spirit against all odds. Her trauma has triggered an unprecedented demand for a safe environment for women.

But at the other end of the spectrum, the seething anger expressed on Delhi’s streets by the young, articulate women, accompanied by men, has darkened India’s image in the world.

The world media has picked up and debated this story threadbare. Editorials and analyses in The New York Times, commentaries and in-depth features in The Guardian, have discussed how India treats not only its own women, but also female tourists.

In response to my earlier column “Rape is about power, not lust”, Michelle Young, a writer from New York, wrote to appreciate the “powerful and simultaneously gut-wrenching commentary”, but went on to add how this tragic event and “the spate of articles on other horrific abuse of women and girls throughout India has given me some unexpected fears.”

She’d been saving money to visit India in 2013, but now wondered “how safe I’ll be.

To hear some speak, you’d think I would have no issues. That’s not what I’m hearing in these articles.

I tend to believe the articles and what I'm hearing in them and sense I’ll need someone travelling with me when I come over.”

Of course, I assured her she must come, but should take some precautions, as she would in most parts of the world.

Worse than Iran, Afghanistan?

Now, reading a series of articles in the western media, and scanning readers’ comments, one shudders to think of the colossal damage a section of India’s twisted and misogynist males have inflicted on the image of their motherland. Worse, people are now questioning their governments for being “soft” towards India in the “international PR stakes”, despite its horrific record on abusing its women.

In one article in The Guardian titled “Delhi bus gang rape: ‘What is going wrong with our society?’”, comments from the readers were scathing about not only how unsafe India is for women travellers, but also on why the West was not as harsh on India, as it was on Iran or Afghanistan, for its abysmal record on women’s rights.

A reader calling herself KrustytheKlown had a very perceptive comment. “India seems to be a horrible place to be a woman. Infanticide and neglect of baby girls is extremely high, and ‘dowry killings’, as well as appalling incidents like the one described above seem to happen with great regularity. And yet, India gets off pretty lightly in the international PR stakes. If India were a Muslim-majority country with a government hostile to the West, Hillary Clinton would have called for an invasion to ‘save the women of India’ long ago.”

Responding to a sanctimonious comment from an Indian, male of course, she explained that she wasn’t advocating any “invasion” on India, and added: “I think one of the reasons India gets off lightly is that a) it’s not Muslim, b) its governments are mostly Western friendly and c) many people in Western countries harbour a fondness for Indian culture — or a sanitised, romanticised version thereof. I blame The Beatles, personally.”

I would have smiled at the last sentence, had her comment not made me hang down my head in shame. While one woman said India was ‘famous’ among backpackers for being an unsafe place for single women, “only place worse is Egypt!”, another, calling herself Zedhed said that, as a frequent Western traveller to India, she found the harassment and violence “I’m subjected to there has increased significantly in the last ten years, to the point where I was nearly gang raped in a small village in Haryana last year (while searching for a toilet).”

Her boyfriend was waiting in an adjacent street and she was so petrified that she has “decided not to go back… I dread to think what Indian women’s experience is.” And all this despite dressing “modestly” while in India, she adds.

Medieval attitude

Many other women confessed to being “groped and grabbed” while in India. What is most disturbing is that women said, 10-12 years ago, it wasn’t so bad, and the north apparently, is much worse than the south.

One said that over 10 years back, on her first visit to India at 18, all she had to face were marriage proposals, but over the years she’s found “sexual aggression much more pronounced”.

The rape of a Norwegian woman in Himachal Pradesh, about 18 months ago, was recalled and the “friendly hotel owner” responded to a query with “Yes, this happens everywhere”, with “a shrug and a level of casual indifference”.

A comment, with an apology, went thus: “I’m sorry to say this, but Indian men have an appalling reputation in the rest of Asia.”

The temptation is too brush off such comments as exaggerated generalisations, but surely we can’t shrug off the serious question marks being raised on India’s status in the international community, particularly when we pride ourselves on being an emerging economic giant. For instance, what answer do we have to Icarusty’s question, “What baffles me is why, despite this sort of medieval attitude being prevalent in India all this time, the western press in particular are (sic) so eager to look at India with such rose tinted glasses.”

He wonders why India gets a better press than China, despite its abysmal record on the gender front, and adds, “It’s the same with western tourists — ‘Oh, I was ill for all the trip because the food and water is contaminated, but it was worth it, such a romantic/culturally rich place etc. to be.’ Is it some sort of post colonial guilt, which gives India a free pass?”

Respect and envy on international platforms is got after long and arduous battles. From the way things are going, with molestations and rapes continuing with impunity, even while street protests continue, we will necessarily have to face more India-bashing before we can once again lift our heads.

How do we, as a nation, look in the eye a 19-year-old mother who admitted to doctors at Mumbai’s KEM hospital that her delivery was the result of her gang-rape in Mumbai “by three men in a black car” in April? They had picked her up while she was visiting her sick father in another hospital; only now she has filed a complaint.

Or the middle-aged woman, who as gang-raped and killed in West Bengal? Or the minor girl who attempted suicide after she was raped in Gujarat?

Response to rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 31, 2012)
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