I am a horrible person. I’m cynical, I imagine the worst-case scenario and more often than not the idea of humankind behaving with any kind of selflessness or kindness makes me snort with disbelief. This is not the bad part. However, the fact that the world isn’t much better is definitely a cause for tears.
Last week, while reading newspapers that tried to find that elusive balance between getting into the festive, year-end spirit and sustaining their coverage of violence against women in India, I remember thinking, “Someone is going to up the ante. This isn’t cutting it anymore.” Just the thought gave me the shivers and I gulped more tea, and did my best to not think such icky thoughts. I’m aming those who believes one of the few silver linings of the terrible gang rape that took place in Delhi on December 16, 2012, was that newspapers took this opportunity to show readers how widespread violence against women is. It isn’t something that happens only in villages or late at night or to women of dubious moral standing. Most women in India have been at the very least groped and almost all of them, in some recess if their mind, think theirs is a unique experience. The memories of being molested in public places, at social events, in homes, wherever, comes with a deep sense of shame. The business of being a woman is a solitary affair in India. You don’t share because you fear you will be judged by other women (and often, you are). I don’t know whether a week of constant reports of crimes would be able to counter centuries of inherited insecurities (read: socialisation), but I do think it made men and women aware of how prevalent these crimes are. And how inventively brutal the perpetrators of these crimes are. This is good. But the tipping point from feeling outrage and empathy to being “raped out” is one the newspapers needed to be wary of. They needed to choreograph the coverage better, offer a few constructive pieces, take a break and then return to the subject of gender violence. But of course they didn’t. Net result: readers start getting sick of the subject. So what do you do then to get the eyeballs? You up the ante and find something sensational.
First, Zee News telecast an interview with Awindra Pandey, who had been with the woman who was gang-raped. He was beaten up by the same men and thrown out of the bus with her. In the interview, Pandey criticised people in general for turning a blind eye to people who need help. He recalled passersby staring at him and the raped woman (both nude and battered), some even talked about them, but no one came to help. He complained the Delhi Police wasted time figuring out nitty gritty like jurisdiction etc, leaving the two of them in their wretched, naked condition. (The amount of time wasted differs from interview to interview. In one, it was 15 minutes, in another it was 45 minutes.) The police also didn’t want to carry her body and made him carry her into the van. He then complained that the police could have taken them to a hospital that was closer than Safdarjung Hospital. Once at the hospital, Pandey said they had to wait for a long time till any doctor came to look at them. He said he believed that if his friend had got better treatment, she would have survived.
In short, he was upset with everything and everyone. And it’s only natural that he would be. The man went to see a movie with a friend and the next thing he knew, the two of them were in the middle of a gruesome, gruesome attack. On top of that, with his friend dying, you can’t expect this man to feel charitable towards the world around him. Of course, he’s looking for people and things upon which he can pin the blame. This is what we all do when we encounter far slighter tragedies. This is the only way we can make sense of terrible events. So give the man your sympathy, but would you take his complaints without a tiny pinch of salt? I’ve very little love for the Indian police service, and even less for Delhi Police, but the fact of the matter is that if they’d argued for even 2 minutes, it would have felt like forever to Pandey. Should they have made an injured man carry his unconscious friend into the police van? Of course not. But the average police joe, like the civilian bystander, is petrified that they’ll be blamed for the crime. This isn’t a justification, but it is an explanation. Similarly, chances are he’s absolutely right that no one at the hospital came to treat them until the paperwork had been sorted out, but it’s also true that no one had believed that a person with the injuries that this woman had suffered would survive even a day. Surely the doctors of Safdarjung Hospital deserve some credit for that, rather than being blamed as the ones whose lack of expertise may have caused her death?
That was round one.
Then yesterday, the UK tabloid The Mirror had a scoop: “India gang rape victim’s father: I want the world to know my daughter’s name is Jyoti Singh Pandey.” I have to say, when I read this, my first reaction was to cheer for Badri Singh Pandey, father of Jyoti Singh Pandey, for the pride he had in his daughter. I like feminist or leaning-towards-feminist men. What to do? Considering the Indian news media has, with astonishing insensitivity, rechristened her things like Nirbhaya and Amaanat and heaven knows what else, announcing her name was like re-establishing her as a person rather than as a symbol. Jyoti Singh Pandey was no longer just an anonymous victim of a heinous crime, but a person, with a name, with ambitions and aspirations, with courage. All of that lovely, fuzzy stuff. Ok, so her father had picked The Mirror, but what the hell. The Indian legal code doesn’t allow any local news media to divulge her identity (that’s supposed to somehow “protect” the person who has been raped) so Pandey went with the most persuasive foreign journalist, I figured. I have no trouble believing a journalist for The Mirror would be able to wheedle and eke with greater efficacy than most others. The point was that Pandey hadn’t behaved like a stereotypical, conservative, patriarchal Indian man, and this was remarkable considering his lower middle-class background. This was particularly satisfying to me because it really annoyed me that Arundhati Roy had smoothly assumed Jyoti Singh Pandey was a member of the affluent middle class. Roy had probably put on her Sherlock Holmes cap and deduced that a woman in Delhi who goes to see an English film (if I remember correctly, Jyoti had gone to see Life of Pi) in a multiplex MUST be posh. Annoying woman. As it turns out, the Pandeys are affluent. Badri has some agricultural land and makes a very modest living in Delhi. His wife has at best completed basic schooling. Their daughter, however, wanted more and she convinced her father to sell some of his land to fund her education.
Then, reading the article in The Mirror, I came to this bit.
Badri said Jyoti’s friend Awindra was not her boyfriend – just a very brave friend who tried to save her.
He said: “There was no question of her marrying because we belong to different castes.”
This was when I was certain that Pandey had not wanted his daughter’s name to be revealed and The Mirror had done something sneaky. Not that caste and gender discrimination are necessarily inter-related, but I just found it hard to believe that a man who puts up difference in caste as the reason why two people can’t be in a relationship would be quite so progressive about a raped woman’s dignity. And whaddyaknow, I was right. The father told Hindustan Times that he had said that he wanted the world to know his daughter’s name only if the law to punish rapists was named after her. That’s the level of heroic stature and public applause Jyoti Singh Pandey has to attain to earn the right to not be ashamed for having been raped. “I want my daughter to be known as the one who could bring a change in the society and laws, and not as a victim of a barbaric crime,” Pandey told Hindustan Times. Except the fact of the matter is, she was raped and she only becomes a “victim” when she’s seen and treated as such. In fact, if he had made her name known, that would probably have been a step towards erasing the victim tag.
That said, at least Badri Singh Pandey did do what he could to give Jyoti an education. I just hope he encourages others to do the same and doesn’t tell them to keep girls at home because his experience of educating a daughter and sending her to Delhi ended so tragically.
Incidentally, the word “jyoti” means light. How perfectly and heartbreakingly fitting.