Rapes, Suicides, Cultural Curry and India

Posted on March 19, 2012 in Society

By Ajay Chaturvedi:

Rape is a heinous crime, far more than even murder. Even multiple capital punishment sentences can’t bring back the person inflicted with the trauma. The recent Gurgaon verdict directing women  to not step out after 8pm as a preventive measure is condemnable and retroactive for this “Millennium” city.

Recently, a journalist friend posted an article on his blog regards the recent suicides at IITs and AIIMS. I felt his opinions were skewed and very metro-centric. I went to BITS Pilani myself, and having lived through the best time of my life in those four years, I can confidently say that there is a lot more to engineering college suicides than what meets the eye. We had a couple of cases in our batch too. The pressure in Pilani, a rural setting, was not anywhere close to the pressure for kids that come to professional colleges in metros like Delhi. The best and the brightest kids come to these professional colleges from across India and try to fit into the super cool, apparently urbane Delhi life. Peer pressure on grades and lack of girls on campus are ascribed as the primary reasons for some of these kids going into depression.

But it isn’t the lack of girls, or a troubled hormone. Truth is that these students are simply unable to blend in. The small towns they come from are nowhere culturally similar to the metros they come into. Not only the languages, the way they dress, eat, and the lifestyle differences, everything takes a hit. I’m not judging here, though, on what is right and what is wrong. A lot of ‘trying to fit in’ with the world outside the campus gates leads to depression and kids taking their lives when the fitting-in gets too overbearing. Higher the inequalities and perceived un-coolness, higher the depression. Having come from a small town myself, the realization was greater. Some kids wore lungis and mundus and did not start wearing jeans until after graduation when they went to the US. Who says wearing lungis is not cool? Rajnikanth does it. Who is driving the consumerist economy and changing the cultural perceptions?

When I sat down to think about it, I realized that cultural inequalities are increasing at a faster pace than economic inequalities are, leading to more frustration, and at some point the rapes and the suicides have something in common along with a lot of other cultural offences.

On a Sunday afternoon, few years back at a park in Dubai, a friend and I were enjoying an ice cream while we noticed passersby giving us unusual stares. Unfazed, we stayed focused on the ice creams until a cop came out and warned us that we shouldn’t be eating in public spaces during the Ramadan month. While impressed with the adept administration, prompt police action on a seemingly innocuous act seemed peculiar.  Just spitting in public that comes naturally to most Indians can get you fined in Singapore. We all are impressed with the administration and cleanliness there. More often than not, we are self-deprecating and condemning the Indian men and society at large. The first time I came back to India for a vacation after a couple of years from the US, I carried around an empty coffee cup for a few hours, unable to find a dustbin. My cousin urged me to throw it anyway because that’s how it is done here in India. Aamir Khan’s insisting on keeping India clean in “Incredible India” seems like a great idea, only there is no infrastructure that supports it. Through the length and breadth of Gurgaon, one can’t find a single dustbin or even if one does find it is overflowing with trash which has accumulated over the days. Let me not get started on the toilets.  Demeaning Indians, men in particular is the most obvious criticism but where is the infrastructure.

Having relocated back from the US and now living in the Millennium City, US seems like a country of roads, toilets and free t-shirts. Despite this, we have a world-class Delhi Metro rail that’s squeaky clean after being operational over a year. Why don’t the people litter there? The foundation was right. People are requested not to carry eatables or eat in the metro. I didn’t see any cops monitoring that and neither do people question apparently such a ridiculous request. But it makes sense and we are all supportive. People are not the problem. They follow. Institutionalizing initiatives is a better idea. Leadership will have to come from the civil society and implementation from within the government.

My company works in villages in and around Gurgaon. Purdah or ghoonghat system is prevalent in these places within the 20 km radius of Gurgaon. Largely, these are remnants of the hijab system from the Mughal times when the Arab and Mughal invaders made in-roads to central India. Culturally, these areas around Gurgaon are as far apart from DLF in Gurgaon as the LA gentlemen’s clubs are from madarasas in Mewat or the temples in Allahabad. Economically the people have done well from real estate economy but socially and culturally, they are very different from the fashionistas of Gurgaon. Women don’t step out after dark in these villages and don’t wear any less than a burkah or a foot long ghoongat. About a year ago four men from Mewat (a Gurgaon suburb) were convicted of raping a girl in a moving truck in Delhi. Do they define Indian men? No. Can such men be controlled or tamed? I don’t think so. From that perspective, as much as a cop told us to not eat an ice cream in public in Dubai during Ramadan, the directive for women not to step out after 8pm seems fair! Cultural dissimilarities can’t be dissolved over-night. Notwithstanding the infrastructure issue, this is a disease we need to deal with collectively.

Few weeks back I read of a 17-year-old girl raped by three boys of her school on one boy’s birthday party. They had picked her up from her home and dropped her back. This is the classic “3 idiots” meets “American Pie”. Who we really are and who we think we are is not the same. On the one hand you have a Rancho of “3 idiots” who is so engrossed in engineering, he doesn’t know that the nose does not come in the way while kissing yet there are kids living the “American Pie” life in Delhi where losing virginity on high school Prom night is the thing to do. I’m not judging here, but it seems like few different worlds colliding and the misfits revolt or commit suicide.

Every Gurgaon road has light poles; somehow the corruption seems to hit right at the point of plugging in the bulb. It amazes me to see that not a single streetlight works, yet we are a millennium city. There are dead dogs decaying on the road and the body goes through a whole decay process. Passers-by susceptible to diseases, but not to worry, we have the world-renowned medical tourism hospitals to get admitted to.

There is a definite opportunity for the government and district administration to get their antics right, however, when comparing the safety and security of women and suicides in colleges in Delhi, we need to be sensitive to the cultural and social inequalities. For the reasons above, Delhi and more so Gurgaon and the surrounding areas are culturally more unequal than any other part of the country. The problem is not with the women wanting to step out after 8 or the students wanting to be a part of the mainstream. We, the more culturally west-inclined, need to be open-armed, sensitive and embracing for the people coming into Delhi from other parts of the country.

I can’t say that wearing a ghoonghat is any right or wrong than wearing a miniskirt, however we need to be culturally sensitive. HarVa runs an all women rural BPO in the highest sex-ratio skewed states of Haryana and Rajasthan. These women still wear ghoongats and work for US and Canadian clients. We approached with an inclusive approach – accommodating everything without offending their cultural values and systems, while solving a problem. I am confident that the same can be accomplished with the civil society of National Capital Region. We need systemic changes from grass roots up and not top down or outside in.

Women’s liberation will not come from men or the society; it will come from within the women. Indian women are beautiful, smart, intelligent and resourceful. They need to take lead and bring about the change in the society by inclusion, not activism. By doing, not asking. Support will flow in. Let’s not succumb to the fair and lovely pressure. It’s great to be condemning khap panchayats and female infanticide by taking out processions at Janpath. It’s no different from complaining of corrupt politicians and not even going out to vote. The reason for female infanticide is the perception people carry of only a male child being able to earn a living for the family. We managed to change that by setting up all women rural BPOs in the heart of villages in Haryana and Rajasthan. Do you think the villagers don’t want a girl child when they see their village women earning more than the men in some cases? Kill the problem at the root. Watering the leaves is as insensible as “Birbal ki khichdi”.

Likewise, letting the kids in IITs and AIIMS go into depression, as misfits, is a collective failure of our civil society. We need to be adapting to their needs. Why is speaking English cool and Hindi or any other regional language,uncool? In my humble opinion, we should teach the kids as many languages as possible. Why restrict our learning of languages? In fact, every school should have English, Hindi, one regional language and at least two international languages as experiential learning. We say we are poised to be a world power by 2050. How are we preparing Gen-Z for it? Language is a mode of communication. More the merrier! Inability to speak a certain language should not be condemned, but worked upon while keeping and encouraging what we already know. It saddens me to see surveys on Facebook on Sanskrit being a dead language and a show like Upanishad Ganga not making a mark while people are getting PhDs in Sanskrit from Germany. Beat that!

Let’s get away from the band-aid fix-it approach and get to prevention of the problem from root up. I’m doing my bit. Are you?

The writer is the Founder of HarVa, a rural start up that primarily focuses on Skill Development, BPO, Community based farming and Microfinance.