Saturday, 1 February 2014

India: is it safe? A question answered

Calcutta, 2013. Image (c) Bidisha

I was born in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in India. I grew up there, went to university there, spent many charming evenings with friends there and worked there until I emigrated to the UK 40 years ago. Despite the dust and the chaos, being myself among people who are generally open, genuine, courteous and uncomplicated is something I long to go back to year after year.

Not long before I made my most recent trip back, two of my longstanding friends in England - both academics who, like me, have worked in the field of technology all their lives - were at my house having lunch. I was telling them about a previous trip and how impressed my daughter and I were by the progress the younger generation of Indian women have made. This was the same time that the news of the gang rape, torture and murder of a woman on a bus in Delhi was spreading worldwide. To this, one of my friends kept asking, "But is India safe?" I told her that for a long time Delhi had had a bad reputation for sexual violence, but those were isolated incidents, occurring late at night, in certain areas, committed by a certain type of people. Then I added, "Let's face it, sexual abuse of women happens everywhere in the world, doesn't it? And, in any case, Calcutta is much safer."

Having thought it over, I have a better answer to my friend's question.

Indian women have made enormous leaps. They are ambitious, proud, independent, uncaring of prejudicial criticisms and forward looking. They care less about what men think of their looks and behaviour and are more focussed on their own aspirations and achievements. This is true of women of all social and economic classes - within their own contexts.

In the past, educated and ambitious women went into careers such as teaching, academic research and medicine. They very rarely made the top ranks but, within a certain confinement, they earned respect and authority as long as they maintained the code of conduct expected of their gender and class. Poorer women worked all day, at home, in the fields and in rich peoples' houses to feed their children and do their best to give them a better life. Middle class men had always been ambitious and high achieving. They took jobs wherever they got the best opportunity, within India or abroad. Poorer men had little or no money but they were hard working, God fearing and simple minded. At the risk of sounding patronising, they were happy and busy trying to feed their families.

With India's economic progress, things have changed a great deal. Men are enjoying even more privilege and opportunities than before. Women are getting into careers monopolised by men in the past and they are progressing much further up their career ladders. Those people now have better spending power than non-resident Indians like me who, in the past, used to enjoy the privilege of spending foreign money in a land with a low cost of living. However, although there has been a significant trickledown effect towards the poorer classes, the difference between the rich and the poor is now enormous because of the phenomenal rise of the middle classes.

The daily papers in India are littered with reports of rapes and murders of women. We have all read about the Danish woman who has recently been gang raped in Delhi. As in every country in the world, sexual abuse and rape always existed but were not reported because of the stigma attached for the women survivors. Today, Indian women are ready to report such crimes. Most of those are committed by the lower economic and social classes. It goes without saying that middle class men commit sexual crimes also, but that happens in India the same way it does in every country in the world and the perpetrators get away with it the same way everywhere.

Having thought about the rise in sexual violence in India, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the side effects of the country's growth in economic power and, more significantly, the progress women have made. Since everyone has more, people - both rich and poor - have become greedy. Men who have not made much progress but whose greed has increased with the increasing aspirations in the country have lost all sense of reality, fear, civility and self-respect. These are not starving or destitute people; they have access to TV and mobile phones, they walk around the shopping malls and can see how much they still cannot afford. They grow increasingly jealous and desperate, full of vengeance for those who are moving ahead and they want what is not theirs. They are angry with the women who they could command before and can't anymore and they want those women too. So they grab by force what they cannot get legitimately - they steal, rape and rob. The rape of foreigners is a bigger achievement: the more unavailable the target, the better the fulfilment.

The answer to my friend's question is No, India is not so safe anymore. Calcutta was once safer than Delhi but, since the rape case last year, there has been a rapid increase in rape in my home city too - almost like a war. It's the same old story: men using physical violence against women as a weapon to gain an upper hand.