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.