The Silence in Delhi

The trial of India's vicious gang-rapists is under way, but don't think for a second the government is really committed to reform of women's rights.

When U.S. President Barack Obama declared, "I will put everything I've got into this," at a Jan. 16 news conference unveiling his proposals on gun-control laws, more than one activist in India surely let out a wistful sigh. Obama's proposals might not be as robust as all gun-control advocates would like, but at the very least he was taking firm executive action -- the proposals came barely a month after the Dec. 14 Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shootings, which killed 20 young children.

Just two days after the Newtown tragedy, on the other side of the world, a young woman was brutally gang-raped. The assault -- which took place on a bus in New Delhi and resulted in such terrible internal injuries that the woman died two weeks later -- had nothing to do with the horrors in Newtown, other than it was an incomprehensibly brutal act of violence that brought about fury and national outrage. But to many in India, America's official response to the tragedy in Newtown became a kind of measuring stick against which they gauged their own government's response to the Delhi incident. And by every means of quantifying it, India's government came up short.

It may have fast-tracked the trial of the men accused in the gang rape -- they are in court this week -- but that is simply a band-aid over a gaping wound. Quick arrests and even convictions cannot replace systemic reform of rape and policing laws. Worse, India's government seems to hope that people will simply forget the need for these reforms.

Obama gave a news conference only hours after the shooting, even before the names of the dead had been released. Speaking to the media, he said he was reacting to the news "not as a president, but as anybody else would -- as a parent"; he wiped his eyes. The show of emotion in that response is a far cry from the immediate political reaction in India to the rape and death of the 23-year-old woman. Even as tens of thousands of Indians flooded into the streets to protest and mourn, the country's political leaders were either silent or much worse.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said nothing about the violence for more than a week, though the situation continued to escalate. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at Delhi street protesters, only heightening their sense of being under siege. When Singh finally addressed the incident, it was to appeal for calm, in a stilted video address. "I feel as strongly about this as each one of you," he said, reminding Indians that he was the father of three daughters; yet his speech sounded canned and dry.

Earlier that day, police had closed off central Delhi in an attempt to tamp down the protests. Indian TV commentator Rajdeep Sardesai noted that the prime minister missed the chance to "take the emotional and moral high ground" with an India that feels "a loss of faith and an absence of trust in government." In fact, the most memorable part of Singh's two-minute video address was the last couple of seconds, which inadvertently aired in some broadcasts, when Singh asked the videographer, "Is it OK?" (Indian social media exploded with ironic references to everything "being OK.")

Of course everything was not OK. It wasn't until two days later that Singh responded to the pressure to take action; then the action he took was only to set up a committee, led by a former chief justice, J.S. Verma, to evaluate what needed to be changed to make India safer for women. This week, the "Verma committee" came out with its report, after receiving more than 80,000 responses to a call for input. The report slated the police and government for displaying "total apathy," and it recommended taking broad action to strengthen India's rape laws and policing standards.

For weeks now, everyone from Bollywood stars to politicians has talked of "India's rape culture," making this most taboo of all crimes an open topic of debate for the first time in the country's history. The conversation has widened to include other inequalities women suffer in "modern" India, from dowry requirements to arranged marriage to the lack of job prospects. Writing in the Times of India, a former editor of that paper, Dileep Padgaonkar, declared that India is in the midst of a collective grieving process that he called "a catharsis." But India's government has failed it, he wrote, by refusing to hear its people. Its response was "tepid and tardy, to say the least." Women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari, head of the Center for Social Research, called her government a "failed system." Without dramatic action on the part of the political leadership, she said, Indians will simply lose faith in democracy.

Sadly predictable were those who leapt to blame the victim. A well-known Hindu spiritual leader, Asaram Bapu, said that the young woman could have prevented the attack if she had begged her attackers for mercy and called them "brothers." A cabinet minister in the state of Madhya Pradesh suggested that when women cross moral limits, they will suffer the consequences. Still others have used the opportunity to call for greater restrictions on women's lives. One politician in the state of Rajasthan demanded that skirts be banned as a part of school uniforms in his district, in order to prevent "men's lustful gazes." Perhaps this is not so different from some of the extremist responses to the Newtown shooting, out of which a reprehensible "truther movement" has sprung up; an important difference is that these extremists have no influence on policy, the way some of India's rape deniers do.

For the most part, such voices have been shot down by India's educated middle class, the group often referred to as "civil society" in India. But civil society is not a majority in India. In spite of heady economic growth and a fast-expanding middle class, the country remains a traditional place, with only 54 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys over age 7 literate, nationwide. The comments blaming the victim -- or women in general -- for the actions of their attackers actually represent a significant strain of thinking in today's India.

India's top political leaders are careful not to make such gaffes. Neither Singh nor anyone in the central government made any stray remarks holding the woman responsible for going out to see a movie with a male friend, wearing highlights in her hair, or displaying other signs of globalized culture, as she apparently did. But more than likely, Delhi's top leaders know well that these small transgressions against an ancient cultural code of honor are what got this young woman killed. They know she lived in a violent city that has not accepted that women have the right to independence. India's police force is ranked second-lowest in law enforcement resources among 50 countries, according to the United Nations. Yet even in the weeks since India convulsed with anger over the shortfalls in the country's policing, there has not been any official move to add to police numbers or improve police training.

The prime minister sought first to ignore, and then to tamp down, India's fury. He promised to take action against the accused, but chose not to wade into an emotional issue that was sure to turn into a political nightmare, as Obama has done with gun control. Perhaps he was slow to recognize that this would become a national crisis; after all, the young woman's victimhood was hardly unique. One woman is raped every 20 minutes in India, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau.

India's leaders seem to have finally recognized that this issue isn't going away. On Jan. 23, a prominent member of the prime minister's cabinet promised to make reform of rape laws a top priority. The recommendations of the Verma committee include trying rape cases in separate courts, preferably by female judges, broadening the definition of sexual assault, and making police more accountable. Prime Minister Singh has not yet responded to the suggestions.

There's no doubt that the young woman's rapists will be punished -- and quickly. While it's not unusual for normal rape cases to drag on through India's overburdened courts for a decade or so, the trial of five of the six accused in the gang rape began this week in a Delhi court (the sixth is a juvenile and will be tried separately). They may be convicted within two months of committing the crime; that's lightning speed, by Indian standards. They may even receive the death penalty, which many of the protesters have demanded (and which has sparked its own controversy).

But other activists are concerned about what will happen after these men are convicted and the case fades from prominence. They say that India needs a raft of reforms -- even beyond Verma's extensive recommendations -- if the country is to end the culture of impunity around sexual assault and give women some incentive to report the crime. For instance, India's definitions of crimes against women do not include sexual harassment, stalking, or even acid attacks.

It's not surprising that rape goes unreported in India when you consider that victims are often subjected to an archaic "two-finger test" that involves law enforcement officers using their fingers to ascertain whether a woman was "habituated to sex" before the assault. The idea is to determine whether "victims of sexual assault are 'bad,' 'loose,' or otherwise responsible for the attack," according to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report. The test makes sexually assaulted women feel "they are the 'accused' when they submit themselves for medical examination and trial," two Indian sociologists argued in a recent commentary. "Unscientific and degrading" are the rather more blunt words that a government panel used to describe it.

Almost everyone agrees that India's police need a radical overhaul if women are to be safe on city streets. The public transportation system in Delhi, as with many other Indian cities, is unreliable; most bus, taxi, and rickshaw drivers are not tracked by GPS or held accountable for the well-being of their passengers. And in spite of government promises, there are no policy prescriptions about transportation yet. More than a month after the high-profile gang rape, a steady pulse of protesters remains on the streets, including one rape victim who has launched a hunger strike in Delhi that she says will not end until the men who assaulted her are punished. But India's Parliament has yet to debate a single new law on crimes against women, and Singh has been noticeably silent on the topic.

In the month since the Newtown school shootings, Obama has brought up gun control and school violence innumerable times. Of course, that isn't a guarantee of legislative change. But it is a way to lay down a marker, to demonstrate that an issue is at the top of a government's priority list. The head of India's governing party, Sonia Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit -- two women with rare positions of top political power in India -- have made emotional appeals for a change to India's systematic disregard for women. The government says it will listen to the demands for a transformation of its laws and attitudes toward women. But the official silence is still the loudest thing the people of India can hear.



Covering the Syrian Catastrophe

The 22-month civil war is even worse than the headlines make it seem.

Journalists knew from the start that we were watching an opaque conflict: The restrictions on foreign correspondents made it nearly impossible to cover the conflict from the ground. President Bashar al-Assad's regime regularly denies visas to reporters, and those who sneak into the country are at grave risk of being killed or captured. Almost two years later, these obstacles continue to confound our understanding of events -- leaving us to draw conclusions from threads of information, largely ones that opposition activists and a scattered few reporters can provide.

As a result the Syria story we know is like Plato's Allegory of the Cave -- just shadows on the wall, just a fraction of reality.

I built Syria Deeply because I myself struggled to keep track of what was happening in this war, and I knew my audience was having the same problem. A year ago, Syria was in and out of the headlines, many days buried on page 3 of the newspaper, if anywhere at all. Readers and viewers saw it as a chronic issue and struggled to comprehend the different aspects of this complex conflict. This fueled a building frustration and story fatigue, motivating me to think of how we could systemically change the way we see this story. 

The final push came while watching the siege of the city of Homs on television, mortar fire captured in real time by a Bambuser live stream. It reminded me of watching the scenes from the first Gulf War -- Baghdad bombarded, live on CNN. But this time there were many mini-CNNs: Users were on the ground sending invaluable content, with precious little context or curation. People's lives were at stake, and weighty geopolitical consequences rested on what was happening on the ground. 

My team takes a different approach. Syria Deeply makes use of social media and places a growing emphasis on visualization -- starting with data and video mapping, and visual backgrounders on key elements of the story. The Twitter feed on the site presents the up-to-the-second news and views of users we've found to be reliable over the 22-month conflict. But what has truly enhanced our view of the war is how, over the course of our efforts, we've become a magnet for those on the ground. Syrians send us their stories of daily life, activists invite us into their private Skype rooms, and contributors reach us after frequent trips in and around the country.

This has given us a more nuanced view of Syria's war. It's still not a full and complete picture -- we'll all have to keep striving for that. But the model has delivered insights that grant us a greater understanding of what's going on.

For starters, it's important to understand that this war looks very different from the power centers in Damascus. Wrapped up in its own narrative, the Assad regime still thinks and acts like it can win. Today's bloody equilibrium means it will keep killing and shelling, asserting just enough control over just enough territory to stay in power. In a boost to its narrative, Assad's allegation that the opposition is made up of foreign "terrorist gangs" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- bolstered, ironically, by the U.S. terror stamp on the fundamentalist group Jabhat al-Nusra. Syria has become a honey pot for jihadis who consider the country's religious minorities as little more than roadblocks on the path to creating an Islamic state.

The stories we have received from regular Syrians also show that many do not see this as a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. To many Syrians, rebels groups have earned themselves a reputation for bad behavior. Rogue brigades and assorted armed thugs have been looting, kidnapping, and extorting the local population. Syrians who fall prey can pay with their lives or their life savings. Those crimes may not reflect the Free Syrian Army as a whole, but they are enough to damage the rebels' reputation.

"Support for the government increased after people saw what [the rebels] are doing, how the other side is committing inhuman atrocities," said a man in Damascus who sent us his testimonial. "It has been a boost to the government position...people supporting the regime because they think it will defend them."

An urban-rural divide also defines the Syrian conflict: Assad largely still has control over the cities, while outlying areas are fraying or fully in rebel hands. The notable exception is Aleppo, where rebels claim control of 75 percent of the city. Syria's largest city has been the scene of brutal urban warfare as the rebels try to expand their control - as a result, much of its cultural heritage has been destroyed and its residents have been alienated from both the regime and the revolution. We've heard the voice of Syrians who complain that the rebels pushed in too soon, before they could secure the city. Meanwhile, some residents in the regime-held neighborhoods are clinging to Assad's forces as their protectors.

The Syrian conflict appears in the press as one big war -- but in reality, it is a multitude of smaller conflicts scattered across the country. Multiple pots are boiling over: Fighting rages from the alleyways to Aleppo to the suburbs of Damascus to the distant eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

Though it's rarely covered, the northwestern governorate of Latakia, which was once a regime stronghold, has become a battleground state. Its sizable Sunni and Alawite communities are locked in a showdown: Rebel commanders have taken control of Jebel Akrad and Jebel Turkman, the northern areas bordering Turkey, and tell us they are moving toward a full-on siege of Latakia city. Their stated intent: to avoid any coherent Alawite state that could split off if Assad loses Damascus and the rest of the country.

In the north, meanwhile, there are the first stirrings of Free Syria -- areas completely beyond the regime's reach. In Idlib province, Assad forces pulled back to the provincial capital and left the countryside without any government beyond what the opposition can provide. Further north, Kurdish areas like Qamishli, Kobani, and Amuda are functionally autonomous.

Homs, meanwhile, is a city divided and under siege. In neighborhoods such as Khalidiya, Jouret al-Shayah and Baba Amr, Syrians face continued shelling and violent clashes. In the rest of the city, the Syrian Army enforces relative calm -- but residents often live in extreme poverty, reporting shortages of the basics: heat, electricity, water and gas. One resident told us that the population of the district of al-Waer has jumped from 150,000 people to 450,000, as displaced crowds flee the fighting. By one Homsi's estimate, in regime-held areas "around 40 percent of the people are still with the regime...60 percent are against, but they live in fear." 

In Damascus, the regime is making a push to take back the rebel-held suburbs that form a semi-circle around the city's perimeter. But meanwhile, fighting inside the city chips away at its control. "There are more checkpoints, more closed streets around the city. Damascus looks like an Army barrack," one resident told us. 

All of this has pushed human suffering beyond what's bearable. Parents have to ration their children to a few precious pieces of bread. Heating and power have failed in much of the country during this cold winter. Syrians' life savings are threadbare, and banks have periodically stopped handing out pensions and salaries.

Syria's humanitarian decline is not only heartbreaking -- it risks contributing to the deterioration of law and order throughout the country. 

"My fear is that we will move from a crisis to overthrow the regime to a new crisis, extending civil war and chaos," said Michel Kilo, a famed Syrian dissident who answered our questions over Skype.

"Syria is destroyed ... much of the people are homeless, hungry, or displaced, and this atmosphere will encourage chaos," he said. 

This chaos is tearing apart Syria's social fabric. We've written about how Syria's young women face forced marriage for the sake of the bride price, their families desperate to live off their dowry. Funerals, a solemn but sacred tradition in Aleppo, have devolved into a stock dumping of bodies, devoid of religious ritual. Profiteering has left citizens disgusted and distrustful of each other as they witness price gauging of food and basic necessities - the haves ripping off the have-nots.

For Syria's kids, it's leaving scars that can last a generation. Violence is breeding nightmares. Schools are overflowing with refugees, leaving few open to actually teach in overcrowded classrooms. In refugee camps, as NPR's Deborah Amos explored, the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder are made manifest in children's drawings.

Among adults, Syrians have been enveloped by a hardened fatalism that we journalists used to only among the survivors of Lebanon's civil war. 

"Whether we're bombed or killed, it doesn't change anything because we're hopeless. [Syrians] say, ‘If I'm going to die, let me die in my home,'" said one resident of the embattled neighborhoods of Damascus. "There is something broken inside the people."

Amidst the suffering, international actors like the United States have been practically irrelevant. From the ground, if you're not helping rebel groups win the war or delivering aid people can see, you're not present. And on those markers of influence, the United States has been missing in action: While Washington debated arming the rebels, the rebels armed themselves. While the West considered removing Assad by force, Russia and Iran gave him a sufficient lifeline to stay in power.  And while Washington worked to formulate its policy, conditions devolved to the point where it can no longer be effective. 

Syrians see the past two years as a failure of global leadership -- a case of total inaction on the part of the United States. People waiting on bread lines and suffering in Aleppo's cold ask us if America's leaders even know what's happening to them. They can't believe they would let it go on.

"No American flags were burnt, but Syrians today are more skeptical of Americans than they were in the year past," wrote Yassin Al Haj Saleh, an opposition voice in Damascus who keeps in touch with us by email. 

"Washington failed to mobilize the international position in favor of changing the Syrian regime. That could have been the meeting point of the Syrian interest and the enlightened American interest," he wrote. 

That is, at the end of the day, the grim message I've taken away from watching this war: We have lost Syria -- we've lost the good faith of its people and lost the opportunity to stem its decline. Everyone, everywhere we've reached has said the same thing: Stop the bleeding. This message speaks to wounds we cannot see and stories we can hardly fathom. But they will shape the Middle East for generations to come.