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01 January, 2013

Attitude towards tragedy: A tale of two democracies

Exclusive to The Gulf Today
BRP Bhaskar

As the year 2012 ended, millions of Indians were mourning a young woman whom few of them ever saw. They knew neither her name nor what she looked like. Yet they had accepted her as a sister or daughter in distress and prayed for her — alas, in vain — as she bravely battled with death after being gangraped and brutalised in a bus in New Delhi.

Doctors at the hospital where she was first admitted said they had never seen a patient in such battered condition before. Her valiant struggle against heavy odds won headlines on news channels and newspapers for days together, but the media kept her name out even when it became known, with scrupulous regard for the law that prohibits identification of rape victims.

Even without a face and a name, she came to symbolise Indian women seeking a just place in the society. As people identified themselves with her, the state was gripped by a siege mentality.

The gangrape took place immediately after the United States was shaken by the shootout at Newtown, Connecticut, where a man killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where she taught and mowed down six other teachers and 20 children. Both were senseless crimes, and united the people in grief — and possibly anger and shame too.

The similarities end there. One occurred in the nation’s capital, the other in a small town with barely 500 families. One was a sex crime, the other a massacre. The starkest contrast, however, lay in the way administrations in the two countries responded to the tragedy.

One was open and empathetic, the other was secretive and betrayed a sense of guilt.

Within hours of the shootout the White House said President Barack Obama, as a father, felt enormous sympathy for the affected families.

He told the Governor of Connecticut he would have every single resource that he needed to investigate the heinous crime, care for the victims, and counsel their families. He was seen fighting back tears as he addressed the nation.

Obama visited Newtown within three days, met the victims’ families privately and spoke at a candlelight vigil in the school where teachers and children were killed. He ordered that flags be flown at half-mast, and a day of national mourning was designated.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not associate himself with the popular sentiments as protests continued for several days and the police kept pushing the demonstrators away from New Delhi’s Central Vista where the president’s mansion, Parliament House, the Secretariat and major government departments are located. When he spoke, it was too late and too little.

The police in the capital is directly under the central government, and outside the control of the Delhi state government. The chief minister, who belongs to the Congress, disapproved of the police’s handling of the protests. When Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde spoke, it was mainly to defend the police conduct.

The protest was largely peaceful but small groups did attempt to break the police cordon.

A policeman collapsed at the protest site and died in a hospital later.

The government said protesters had beaten him up but its version was disputed by an eyewitness who had provided the cop first aid.

The rape victim died in a hospital in Singapore, where she was flown in an air ambulance secretly in a move which many doctors believe was taken on other than medical grounds.

Her body was flown to Delhi at night and cremated early in the morning. Police barred access to the place to all except her close relatives. The prime minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi were at the airport to receive the body but there was no official mourning.

The media is trying to use the heightened awareness of gender issues, generated by the tragedy, to push for some long-delayed laws. The real problem, however, is not absence of laws but lack of enforcement.

The nation gives the appearance of going through a process of catharsis, but so far there is no sign of the public outcry and media glare making a difference to the ground situation. Politicians continue to make sexist remarks, and crimes against women continue to be reported daily.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 1, 2013.

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