By Gurmukh Singh
Few issues have convulsed India since its independence in 1947 more than the gang-rape of a 23-year-old medical student by six men in a moving bus in Delhi on the night of Dec. 16.
The young student, who was going home after watching a film with her boyfriend, was tricked into a chartered bus by the men, gang-raped, then beaten up and finally thrown off the bus to perish on the roadside in the cold winter night.
She survived briefly, but succumbed to her terrible injuries after being treated in a Singapore hospital.
As the details of the crime emerged — that the six men had inserted a rusted L-shaped iron rod (used to operate a jack to change flat tires on buses) into the woman after sexually assaulting her — a nationwide fury broke out.
Protesters marched on the seat of Indian government — the presidential palace, the Prime Minister’s office and Parliament — to seek accountability from their leaders, and fought pitched battles with security personnel even as the Prime Minister and his government appealed for calm.
Thanks to the incessant media coverage of the issue, the Indian government airlifted the victim (whose name remains unknown) to Singapore’s elite Mount Elizabeth Hospital: the first time in independent Indian history that a private citizen has been sent abroad for treatment at the government’s expense.
Why has this particular incident galvanized the Indian people, while other crimes against women have remained rampant in the country for generations?
One trigger was the sickening details of the crime. But these protests also represent a new assertiveness by the country’s middle classes, whose sexual mores and values have undergone a major shift since India embraced globalization two decades ago.
As a novice journalist in New Delhi, I was witness to those heady times in the early 1990s: the advent of satellite TV in 1992, the crowning of Indian girls (including Ashwariya Rai and Sushmita Sen) as Miss Universe or Miss World in quick succession, and the growth of family buying power.
By the end of that decade, globalization had catapulted India into the league of the world’s fastest-growing economies. As the ranks of the Indian middle-class swelled, one could see a new openness about sex and relationships. Live-in relations and pre-marital sex were no longer taboo.
It is this ascendant Indian middle class that is at the forefront of these protests. This Westernized constituency represents the new India, and its women are asserting their new-found independence about sexual and reproduction choices.
But then there is the “other,” poorer India — mostly rural — that accounts for more than 70% of the country’s population.
This “other” India is rooted in taboos and social conservatism. Women are seen as little more than tools of reproduction. Educated and independent women who assert their independence are despised as “loose,” and so must be subdued, including in sexual and violent ways.
The Delhi gang rape is the result of this mindset. All the alleged perpetrators of the crime came from rural and feudal backgrounds. They thought that a woman out with a man (other than her husband) late at night must be available for whatever depravity they wished.
One is left to wonder why a country that gave the world its first sex manual in the form of the Kama Sutra more than 2,000 years ago is sexually so repressed today. Even erotic carvings on Hindu temples confirm that ancient India was a liberated place. Moreover, Hindu gods are considered incomplete without their female part. In fact, some gods are depicted as half male and half female.
So what went wrong?
Many historians argue that India’s descent into sexual repression began with the Muslim invasions that began in the seventh century. Muslim leaders abhorred the culture of eroticism in India. Later, the British, who replaced Muslim rulers, brought with them Victorian prudery.
The good news is that India is re-discovering its past — though much of this re-discovery is coming through Indians in the West such as filmmaker Mira Nair (Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love) and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra (Kama Sutra: Including the Seven Spiritual Laws of Love).
The reawakening of enlightened and ancient Indian attitudes toward sex, combined with the liberating effects of globalization and modern feminism, could lead India away from the cruel misogyny that still afflicts the majority of the country. In this important project, the recent protests could serve as an important landmark.
(This article appeared in the National Post on Thursday)