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Laxmi Hariharan

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The Rape of My Image of Modern India

Posted: 28/12/2012 11:52

As a young girl working in India, I found myself in a rather unsavory situation one evening. Having stayed late at the newspaper where I worked as a journalist, I had boarded the ladies' compartment on the local train for the journey home. Imagine my shock when at the very next station, hordes of men poured into the empty compartment. I hadn't realized that at 9pm the entire train became uni-sex or oversexed in my case. As my stop drew nearer my heart started pounding in anticipation of the inevitable. When I could delay no longer, I clutched my purse close to my body, hugging it as if it were an oxygen cylinder, wishing it were something as substantial so I could protect myself with it. By the time I reached the exit every part of me had been squeezed, my shirt was torn, and sobbing and shoeless I had tumbled out, my handbag still miraculously in grasp.

Years later this incident still sends shudders down my spine. I can only imagine then, what trapped memories the endless nights and years ahead hold in store for the poor girl who was raped and beaten in Delhi a few days ago. I read the reportage of the incident in horror wondering how much the mother country had changed in some ways, and yet how much it hadn't.

Some in India and in the UK have pointed to provocative Bollywood films as a primary encouragement for men to just go out there and plunder. But I think it goes deeper than that. The land that invented the Kamasutra has long swung the other way when it comes to sex. For a billion strong population, which has obviously indulged in activities of the nether-regions, we of Indian origin have always had a close your eyes and pretend it does not exist attitude.

Adding complexity is that a tiny percentage of youth in the bigger cities are sexually far ahead. They look, dress and act with the confidence that comes with education, international exposure, and the security of knowing that they have a lifetime of things to do and people to see. Cheek-by-jowl live those who don't have the same. Not the assurance, or the instruction, nor the opportunities. Put them side by side and the equation of the have's plus the have-not's takes on a dangerously new meaning.

The situation feels like an explosive mixture of radical-repression meets extreme-economics. Frustrated by what they cannot have, aggravated by lack of opportunities, and aided by a legal and political system which has shown scant sensitivity for rape-victims and little inclination to bring the guilty to justice, rapists in the country have been for too long allowed to get away after doling out fates worse than murder on their victims.

As someone who dreaded the daily onslaught of revolting stares, lewd gestures and 'accidental' brush of the passing male on public transport, while growing up in big city India, I for one, fully support the Indian government's move to name and shame sex offenders. I realise that to the Western world, this seems like an open invitation to vigilantism, but extreme times like now--when men accused of sexual violence still go ahead and stand for elections in India--call for extreme measures. This may just be the most powerful deterrent to the perpetrators, for what it ensures is loss of face and lack of a future--both extremely important in Indian society--for the violators and something that not even the fear of a death sentence delivers.

For too long has the common woman in India lived like second-class citizens. It is time we were treated like the very goddesses so revered in Indian culture and tradition.

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