Deadly boors

While India was seething in anger at the gangrape, our home minister betrayed neither a flicker of emotion nor a tinge of outrage

The inevitable has happened. The gangrape victim, who, in the throes of her painful and prolonged ordeal, became a heroine and a national symbol for Indian womanhood, has died. All the young girls and boys who gathered in Delhi and elsewhere to protest against the attack on her and the lack of safety for women in general, are in mourning.

But do our politicians feel their pain? One somehow doubts it, for on the day that all of Delhi seemed to gather on Raisina Hill to voice its anger against the gangrape, home minister Sushilkumar Shinde was reading (yes, reading) his speech in Parliament in the routine manner used for introducing legislative bills in the Lok Sabha.
Whatever you might think of the substance of the Opposition Big Guns’ speeches (L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley), they are delivered with hoarse voice, clenched fists and unsuppressed rage. The Congress’ Big Guns (Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh) read their speeches, whether in Parliament or at election hustings, in a tone usually reserved for the reading of company annual reports. Mr Shinde now joins their honourable ranks with his typed sheets of paper containing speeches probably written by a joint secretary which the minister seems to have seen for the first time while reading. While the whole of India was seething in anger at the brutality of the gangrape, our home minister betrayed neither a flicker of emotion nor a tinge of outrage.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Mr Shinde decided to show the world that he had another side: the bland one we saw in Parliament reading out the stern measures (banning tinted glasses and curtains on buses) his ministry was going to take to protect women wasn’t his only face; he had an insensitive side, too. Asked by Rajdeep Sardesai why he or Mrs Gandhi or the Prime Minister did not go to India Gate to talk to the protesters who had gathered there, he said, “Governments cannot go anywhere like this. Tomorrow, it could be Congress activists, next day it could be BJP; you will even ask us to meet armed Maoists. What if 100 tribals are killed in Gadchiroli or Chhattisgarh? You will expect us to go there, too.”
This was in the course of a longish interview in which Sardesai’s insistent questioning was obviously getting under the home minister’s skin. Politicians usually have a practiced face and an expert line in prevarication. It’s only when they get rattled or exasperated do they truly reveal themselves. Mr Shinde did so in
several ways:
“Governments cannot go anywhere like this”: the underlying message was clear. I, Sushilkumar Shinde, as an ordinary politician might have gone out at election time to seek people’s votes. But now, I am the government. And governments do not go to people; people go to governments.
“You will even ask us to meet armed Maoists”: This is the statement which upset the young protesters at Raisina Hill the most. “Are we like armed Maoists?” they asked, resenting the home minister’s implied comparison. You can understand that since initially — till violent provocateurs, professional thugs and thrill seekers infiltrated the crowd — the gathering of college boys and girls was only shouting slogans and displaying placards. In other words, staging a spontaneous, peaceful demonstration.
But to me what shows Mr Shinde at his most insensitive is what he said next: “What if 100 tribals are killed in Gadchiroli or Chhattisgarh? You will expect us to go there too.” Read between the lines — and you really don’t have to dig too deep. It implies: “Hey, these are tribals getting killed, in godforsaken places like Gadchiroli and Chhattisgarh. So even if there are a hundred of them, should the government give up its important work in Delhi, and rush there?”
When a psychopath recently went on a rampage and killed 20 children in an American school, US President Barack Obama was on national television that very night, expressing his sense of outrage. In a couple of days he was there, in Newtown, personally expressing sympathy with grieving relatives and friends. Why didn’t anything of this kind happen in India? Why didn’t the home minister, responsible for law and order in the country, feel any outrage at what had happened under his charge? Why, even after the prodding of the large crowds at Raisina Hill/India Gate, did he not venture out of his office? Protocol? A sense of importance? Or, infinitely worse, the feeling that it was only a rape, and rapes, even gangrapes, happen all the time, so what was the fuss all about? Similarly, tribals get killed all the time, why make a fuss if a hundred of them get massacred?
I don’t suppose any of us feel particularly charitable towards
Mr Shinde, but to be fair to him, he isn’t the only one to show insensitivity bordering on callousness in the present case. The Prime Minister spoke to the nation (read speech) almost a week after the gangrape; Mrs Gandhi, on an issue she should have identified with, kept mum for days; Rahul Gandhi, who could have easily been part of the crowds at Raisina Hill, kept to himself. Did none of them consider this issue important enough?
When other people did open their mouths, they revealed the real picture of gender inequality and male prejudice in our country, as Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee did just a few days ago: “Those who are coming (to the demonstrations) in the name of students, pretty, pretty women, highly dented and painted, giving interview on TV…” Now Mr Mukherjee is not only President Pranab Mukherjee’s son, he is also one of the younger generation of politicians, educated, well travelled… clearly not one of the rabble-rousers from a remote district. If someone like him displays such blatant male chauvinism, what hope is there?
In the way they speak, in what they say, people like Mr Shinde and his peers sound not just insensitive but callous and uncaring. Let’s hope that our braveheart’s death makes them introspect. Let’s hope that her death shakes them up as it has shaken all of us, and they put such safeguards into the system that no one suffers her fate again.

The writer is a senior journalist

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