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Two sides of a coin

Institutions like khap panchayats are not alone in subverting India's march towards modernity. The values of neo-liberal consumerism play their role too, writes Sitaram Yechury.

columns Updated: Jan 07, 2013 21:18 IST

Some weeks ago, much before the gruesome gang rape and murder in the capital ruptured the country's conscience and forced our people out of their stupor to rise in widespread angry protests, The Guardian had posed the following question: "Of all the G-20 nations, India has been labeled as the worst place to be a woman. But how is this possible in a country that prides itself as being the world's largest democracy?"

A survey conducted by Thomson Reuters' Trust Law Women, a hub of information and support for women's rights, ranks India with Afghanistan, Congo and Somalia as one of the most dangerous places for women. In India, across the country, on average, one woman is kidnapped and raped every 40 minutes. The latest statistics compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau show that during the last five years, between 2007 and 2011, incidents of rape increased by 9.7%. Worse is the fact that in three of four cases of rape, the culprits went unpunished between 2002 and 2011 in Delhi.

There are two sets of issues that explain this contradiction. The first relates to the structural problems of a functioning modern democracy that we have failed to resolve even after six decades. Our law enforcement and justice delivery systems continue to remain pathetic. India does not even have enough judges to expeditiously try those investigated. In 1987, the Law Commission drew a blueprint to raise the judge-population ratio from 1.05 judges for every lakh population to five judges within five years. But 25 years later, the ratio is still 1.4 judges per lakh population. Unless time-bound fast-track special courts are set up to deal with cases of sexual crimes, the situation cannot improve.

Universally in every state in India and for the country as a whole, the ratio of policemen to population is one of the lowest in the world. Unless steps are taken to augment the law enforcement forces with adequately trained women personnel, the situation cannot improve. It is no wonder that in 2011, no investigation was done in 36.6% of the recorded instances of rape.

The other set of issues concerns with our practice of a modern democracy. Noted sociologist, Dipankar Gupta, in his book, Mistaken Modernity, defines modernity as "characterised by an attitude of equality with, and respect for, others. It is not as if in a modern society all are actually equal. Yet, in spite of the many differences that exist among people, modernity demands a baseline similarity so that people can live with dignity and can realistically avail of opportunities to better their conditions of existence. It is on this bedrock of equality that other differences and inequalities can be added on. But the foundational equality cannot be compromised for it is on this that claims of citizenship are made in modern societies. In traditional orders, there were rulers and subjects but no citizens."

An Iranian intellectual, Jalal-e-Ahmad coined the term 'westoxication' as opposed to 'westernisation' in the context of the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Iranian revolution. With due apologies, I wish to extend this as modernity vs modernoxity. Intoxication with the modern consumerist display of latest commodities and gadgets is currently being passed off as modernity. This has become India's symbol of an 'emerging economy' rubbing shoulders at the G-20 high table. A mere glance at the matrimonial columns will show the most modern sections of our society, including NRIs who have never stepped on Indian soil, seeking alliances in their sub-castes. Those who scrupulously respect the law in western countries are the most eager to violate the law in India. The more expensive and modern cars on Delhi's roads are often the ones that violate traffic rules.

India's march towards modernity is being subverted not merely by the tenacity of past institutions - caste-based social oppression, patriarchic order that suppresses women, the khap panchayats, unequal treatment of religious minorities etc - alone. This is buttressed by the values of neo-liberal consumerism (modernoxity), treating women as objects of display and not as human beings etc. This is also strengthened by the widespread opportunism inherent in our electoral system where all these unjust and unequal features of our social order are reinvigorated for electoral gains. Thus, there appears to be no contradiction when people wearing the most modern fashionable branded clothes, Gucci shoes, sporting expensive perfumes and displaying Mont Blanc pens, indulge in all these practices that ought to be consigned as anachronistic in a modern democracy.

India can emerge as a truly modern society only when we are able to banish this hypocrisy of passing off modernoxity as modernity. Our Constitution lays down the foundations of a modern democracy based on liberty, equality and fraternity. It guarantees equality irrespective of caste or creed, religion or sex, etc. Unfortunately, however, the collective consciousness of our people has not risen, as yet, to these levels.

Establishing the rule of law and thereby a modern society requires that all violations - petty, minor or major - need to be punished. Recollect the story of the seasoned criminal who when sentenced to death by the courts sought a last wish to meet his mother. When he met her, all he did was to bite off her ear. When asked why, he replied saying that if she had stopped him on the first occasion when he brought home what he stole, then he would not have grown into becoming a seasoned criminal. When petty crimes go unpunished, they graduate to the levels of heinous and gruesome crimes.

India must emerge as a modern society where there is not merely fear of but respect for the law and equality of all people as established by our Constitution.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal