In the weeks since a woman was viciously gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, the misogyny and parochialism of India’s mostly male, mostly rural politicians have been on full display. Senior politicians blamed the rape on Western culture, on Westernized women, on modern city life, even on bad karma. The government’s mishandling of the popular outrage made the situation worse: Police in New Delhi used tear gas and water cannons on female protesters, many of them college students.
As the entire country monitored the health of the young woman—who died in a Singapore hospital on Dec. 29—Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said something that made sense. “The emergence of women in public spaces, which is an absolutely essential part of social emancipation, is accompanied by growing threats to their safety and security. There can be no meaningful development without the active participation of half the population, and this simply cannot take place if their security and safety are not assured.”
Singh’s comments were aimed at a constituency Indian politicians rarely cater to: the growing middle class. Close to three-quarters of India’s parliament is voted in from rural areas, with poor urbanites voting in almost all the rest. The middle class, in contrast, votes far less often than rural Indians. “If you’re middle class or rich and you need something—water, electricity, even police protection—you have ways of arranging it yourself,” says Imtiaz Ali, a politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “If you’re poor and you need the same things, your only option is to find a friendly political candidate.”
In the last two years, though, the government has been rocked by middle-class anger. When an old friend of Mohandas Gandhi went on a hunger strike to protest corruption, the middle class unexpectedly backed him, with tens of thousands joining the rallies in New Delhi. TV news provided 24/7 coverage of talks over a new law to halt graft.
The rape was one of thousands that happen in and around Delhi each year. This one caught the attention of the middle class partly because the victim was educated and the crime took place in a posh area. For nearly a week central Delhi was locked down as students and families organized protests. English-language papers and TV channels, which target the middle class, carried pictures of the protests live, nonstop. The protests prompted official action: Some fast-track courts for rape cases were opened after being shuttered as too costly, and a retired Supreme Court judge was picked to seek advice from women’s groups and others on how to reform laws and improve police efficiency.
For educated Indians, securing the safety of their young women has been an exercise in public segregation and private efforts. On the New Delhi metro and Mumbai’s commuter trains, women have their own carriages to protect them from being groped. Call centers and outsourcing companies, where many, if not most, of these young women work, hire fleets of taxis to drop employees home, often with a security guard in the car late at night since public transit is either nonexistent or unsafe. “You don’t see waitresses in high-end restaurants. You see male staffers, because the women can’t be sure of how to get home late at night,” says Rupa Subramanya, co-author of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India.
Since the rape made international headlines in mid-December, a third of the 250,000 women who work in call centers or outsourcing shops in and around Delhi have either quit or stopped working after sunset, a survey from the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry found.
Educated women who ventured into the public sphere have provoked a backlash from conservatives. Indian corporations struggle to promote or retain female talent because women’s parents or in-laws often frown on their working. Village elders have triggered national headlines for banning young girls from owning cell phones or from working outside their homes. “It has been a patriarchal, traditional society, and this is rapidly changing. This creates a major conflict,” says Alok Sarin, a psychiatrist at Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science & Research in New Delhi.
The stories of the victim and the accused rapists trace the contour of that conflict. The woman—her father would like her name known; Indian courts prevent us from printing it—was educated and ambitious, studying physiotherapy while paying for her classes with a night-time job at a call center. She watched English-language movies—on the night of the crime she was leaving a modern mall in an affluent corner of New Delhi after seeing Life of Pi. She craved Western clothes, according to her male friend, who was beaten unconscious before the rape. (He too cannot be named.)
The alleged rapists were strivers in their own right but far removed from the world their victim inhabited. Four of the six accused lived in a Delhi slum, working on the fringes of the economic boom: cleaners on buses, fruit vendors, and a fitness center worker. The slum they lived in is mostly inhabited by rural migrants, frustrated by their inability to join the middle class. “What did they want from life? Money, jobs, a car, everything that I want,” says Rakheel Alam, a local vendor who says he sold them liquor occasionally and was friendly with two of them.
Even though cases of sexual violence against women are vastly underreported, 73,000 were recorded in 2010, and 6 million female fetuses may have been selectively aborted in the decade before, according to a 2011 report in the Lancet medical journal. Some 825,000 cases of violence against women are pending trial, but rape cases take years, and evidence and witnesses “have a tendency of disappearing,” says Ajay Verma, a defense attorney in New Delhi.
India needs to modernize its police and its judiciary. There are barely 11 judges for every million people. In New Delhi the police are so mistrusted by women that traffic cops are barred from stopping single female drivers past 11 p.m. unless a female police officer is present. Yet there’s a shortage of policewomen.
The case has led to national introspection. “India thinks it can be a superpower and a developed country, but we have these problems rotting out the core,” says Sunita Thakur, a counselor with Jagori, a nonprofit that promotes women’s empowerment. “How can we change? These values have been deeply ingrained over thousands of years.”