New Delhi: Sociologist and women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari said in an interview that the recent protests in the aftermath of the gang-rape in the Capital have exposed the “leadership crisis” in the country and if serious corrections were not made in the system, people may lose faith in democracy. Kumari, who heads New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, said those propelling the movement must make sustained efforts not to let it fade. Edited excerpts:
How do you explain the rage we have seen on the streets?
There are three factors. This has become an everyday affair for every woman who is in the workplace or in a public place and also at home. Lots of data speaks volumes about such acts even inside the home by intimate people. People were not happy with the conviction rate, which is at 26%.
The second factor is that there is a feeling that we are living in a failed system, which has made people very, very angry. Also, there is a growing confidence and assertion among women of autonomy and identity. That also propelled this whole thing that we will not take the whole thing lightly. There was a feeling that enough is enough. When you are drowning, either you make an effort to survive or drown yourself.
I was also trying to understand why men also came out. This is the trend in India now. Boys and girls walk together, they move around together, there is lot of openness in relationships. Also, the prescription is that you should be with men at a place which is deserted and (in) the evenings. For the first time, boys in India also felt equally threatened. In my 35 years of activism, people used to ask ‘What are you (women’s groups) doing?’ Today, the question is being asked about the system. The system is under question today.
As a sociologist how do you see the emergence of spontaneous public protests last year?
I think democratization is taking root in India. Young people are understanding the role and value of their voices. It is very clear from the way they became so angry and vocal, which was not only in Delhi, but also in small towns. Lots of people are becoming aware and vocal—this is the assertion of people and civil society at large in a democratic set-up.
How do you explain the order in a leaderless movement like this?
It is not actually leaderless. We sit and discuss strategies every evening. What is leaderless is our democracy at the moment. It takes seven days for a Prime Minister to come out (with a statement on the issue). There is a national leadership crisis at the moment. We want people to be firm in making decisions and responding to the call. After all this is what democracy is all about. If you have made voting a right at 18, you will have to listen to voices at 18 also.
People are rallying around an issue. That is why I have hope that even if it slows down, it is certainly going to have a much deeper and bigger effect on our society. Even in the anti-corruption movement, you had one binding issue.
Any movement leaves immediate impressions and immediate cause. In this case, the government came up with more policewomen at the stations and other measures. When the movement starts fading out, if the movement is around a cause, it will leave a deep impact in the minds of the people and that is where we need to focus at this moment. More than keeping the system in place, what we need is to change the mentality.
These protests will have a deeper impact on society. There has to be also a sustained effort from the people who are propelling this movement. You have to take a long-term responsibility.
Do you think legislation and government measures alone can make a difference? Should society not go through more systemic changes?
The immediate effect that is seen and very visible is the chargesheet they (the police) have filed on the day they promised. If they can, they should deliver justice in 100 days, and that is the demand of our movement also. And, also the punishment given to these people, I do not know what kind of punishment (they will get), but according to today’s law we have the provision to give capital punishment. Though capital punishment is a different debate, at the moment the law stipulates that and they can be given that, minus the minor (accused in the rape and murder of the woman). I am not of the opinion that he should be treated in the same way; I think he should get a chance.
Plus, the preventive system in which we need more police patrolling, better counselling, etc. We do not have any special health facilities for rape victims. There is a need for improving medical facilities for them—special rooms for treating them, etc., and an economic package, which is not a compensation for them. Rape victims should be the state’s responsibility, so many countries have that. There has to be (a) sexual offenders register which has to be made public with their photograph(s) and names so that when they come back they should not get a job, a house on rent—a complete social ostracizing. So far it’s the girls who are named and shamed.
Do you think as a country we have woken up late?
Most certainly, we woke up late.
Do you think the protests indicate that people are demanding a more rules-based regime?
Educated people are more exposed to many parts of the world. They travel and they know it is possible to have a rules-based regime, and that it is possible to have an egalitarian regime—not some rules for VIPs and some others for common people. People are not ready to accept it now, not only youth, but people by and large are rejecting this idea of making 30% of police to protect the VVIPs and say that we are short of police forces for protecting the rest of the 70%. There is no choice other than a rules-based regime for our democracy to be sustained. If everybody is equal before the law, please show it in your actions.
The political parties have been caught flat-footed in recent times—be it the movement led by Anna Hazare or violence against women. Why?
There is a big disconnect between political class and people. There is a total disengagement of the political class with the people. It is visible not only in this; there are so many laws pending before Parliament, so many suggestions on gender questions, there are so many laws to be amended and passed. The political class will have to wake up to this situation because there is a very thin line between democracy and anarchy. If they will not wake up to this call and the only thing they can galvanize is the vote by using muscle, money, fear and caste, it is going to be very risky in the long run. I don’t see any immediate crisis to our democracy, but certainly if people’s faith starts dwindling and they think that politicians are not somebody who represent us and what we believe, it will certainly be dangerous.