The horror that one human can unleash on another is sometimes impossible to gauge. The usual tools of measurement - descriptions, statistics, comparisons, reactions - fail. All one is left with is an anti-exaggeration of not only how much a human can suffer at a very individual level, but also how much a human is capable of causing incredible suffering.
'Rape', or 'gang rape' with its description of a venal 'pack' mindset, doesn't come anywhere close to describing the hell that descended on the 23-year-old woman on the evening of December 16 in Delhi. The hell that descended on the victim's male friend, who was also attacked by the six maniacs and was made to witness the brutal assault on the woman, is of a different order. But if the victim's pain is incomprehensible to us, her friend's emotion is somewhat more palpable. It is of helpless, rageful impotence.
Since the media started covering the news, we have followed all possible narratives that have sprung out of this single source of horror - from the blame-game between the Delhi Police and the Delhi government, the death of a police constable in the clashes with the 'anti-rape' mob, to the victim being flown to Singapore to save her life and the ensuing debate about whether only medical reasons led to the decision. One narrative is glaring in its absence: the statutory announcement of a 'zero tolerance' policy on sexual crimes.
The police take sexual violence as seriously as drivers across India take zebra crossings. FIRs are routinely discouraged, evidence is destroyed crippling most cases even before they go to trial, and victims are given the short-shrift at police stations - that is, if they aren't shooed away. A 17-year-old rape victim in Patiala who killed herself last week after running from pillar to post to seek justice since November, faced policemen who not only tried to dismiss her case, but also humiliated her by calling her at the police station at nights and asking her pointlessly suggestive questions. And if a victim is from below a certain socio-economic class, the police are sure to, at best, treat her complaint as a waste of time, or, at worst, humiliate her further.
We live in a country where a 'Vande Mataram' mother-devotion fetish covers up a cult of misogyny. The belief that 'the woman asked for it' is hardwired not only in men but also in women. Mothers refuse to hear their daughters complain about any family member abusing them. Instead, the girls are taught to 'adjust' by shutting up as if nothing happened. If a woman was drinking and was out 'late', that becomes an 'invitation' for sex. If she's wearing 'revealing clothes', that's as good as consent. The truth is, far too many men and women think that 'women ask for it' by simply being women. So, women, not brutish torturers, 'cause' rape.
Last week, in another state with a woman chief minister, a theatre personality insisted that the February rape case in Kolkata shouldn't be seen in the same light as the Delhi rape. "The girl in the Park Street case got into a car on her own accord at midnight. In Delhi, the incident took place in a public vehicle (sic) at 9.30," she said. When did consent to travel with anyone at a late hour become a good enough reason to be raped?
This is a country where the Ramayan story of Sita's agni pariksha (fire purification test) to prove that she wasn't 'tainted' teaches us to see even the perceived victim as the source of the problem. Ravan, even if he had 'touched' Sita, would have just been one more example of 'boys being boys'. Sita would have ended up being a slut.
Sexual violence is unleashed on faceless women by faceless men regularly. We won't ever know how most recorded cases rank in the hierarchy of horrors. The rape of a Dalit woman, or of a girl in a city slum, or of a child inside a home is, alas, a standard event in a standard clichè. But the Delhi rape (its victim could have been you or your loved one) has the power of using its visibility and the way its brutality has scared, enraged and shamed us, to force the law to take the complaint of every victim seriously.
Changing the mindset of misogynistic India will take eons. And the angry mob will soon move on to something else that will disgust it. Which is why Sheila Dikshit must order a 'zero tolerance' policy and make an example of this case that's sickened even this fatalistic nation. (Delhi also needs functioning street lighting, stretches of the city being covered in darkness, a preferred prop like dark screens on car windows for potential perpetrators. It also needs more public transport vehicles like autos willing to ferry stranded commuters at night.)
But above all, we need law enforcers who must be charged with criminal neglect if they fail to take effective action against rapists. For, it's only by making the scum run scared that one can clean the scum off the streets.