SIVARAM: Asking the right questions in India

A couple of days ago, this country marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a case that , despite all its constitutional controversy, remains a watershed moment in American politics, as well as a reference point for women’s rights movements across the world. The early 1970s, when the famous case was decided, was also when India, my home country, established an early law that gave women access to facilities for the medical termination of pregnancy. About 20 years later, however, India needed to criminalize prenatal tests that determined the sex of the fetus, a step that the government hoped would reduce the alarming rate of sex-selective abortion in the country. Today, both Indian laws represent pyrrhic victories at best — each law promised to create positive change in the way we discussed sexual equality, but both proved inadequate over time.

The theory that economic growth augments social progressivism remains elusive in India.

Part of the problem is that the conversation has always centered on trivialities, rather than substantive issues. Discourse is shaped by news media that is bankrupt in terms of ideas — one that is unwilling to drive the national conversation in the direction it should go. And the failures of the media have been especially noticeable as of late. After the incident on December 16 — when a young Indian woman was brutally gang raped on a bus — the culture of sexual inequality in India attracted national outcry and unprecedented international attention.

Unfortunately, the questions asked and solutions debated in the aftermath of the tragedy were, and continue to be, the wrong ones. India’s major television channels and newspapers gave airtime and precious space to advocates of ludicrous proposals, like enforcing a mandatory death penalty for any convicted rapist, or encouraging every woman to carry a firearm with her at all times and in all places.

In a country where the current justice system remains woefully inadequate at addressing sexual assault and rape cases, far too much time was lost bemoaning the situation or proposing unfeasible “Band-Aid” solutions. Far too little time was spent engaging constructively with the steps necessary to correct the systemic issues that promote and propagate sexual violence.

The issue, however, is that Indians are blind to the futility of the conversations they’ve been having. Goaded on by a media that satiates their visceral desires for short-term solutions and acts of brutal retribution, I worry that we’ve lost sight — as a people and as a populace — of the correct reference points for what we’re trying to achieve.

Rallying the social movement for sexual equality around the fickle nature of the national media is also unsustainable. All it takes is another headline story — for India to win a major cricket series, a skirmish along the Line of Control or even just another election — and all the momentum and public mobility that has been built up over the last few weeks will be entirely lost as the public eye turns elsewhere.

In fact, India is no stranger to this kind of collective amnesia. In 2011, Anna Hazare notably called for an independent ombudsman to check government corruption. Today, these efforts have mostly fallen by the wayside.

How can we change this culture? The long-run solution eventually lies in ensuring that the desserts of Indian growth are more fairly allocated across the country. In the short-term, however, the onus lies on India’s large middle class to become more involved in the political process. Fortunately, the political apathy that the middle class was known for finally seems to be giving way. One need only look at the scores of college students and young professionals who protested, even at threat of arrest, across big Indian cities. Directing this energy of political engagement towards meaningful outcomes is the challenge, especially in a society with an admittedly chronic deficiency of good leadership.

The answer, ultimately, lies in not satisfying ourselves with the pyrrhic victories of the past. We must continue to mobilize and fight for justice, even when the media switches to another flavor-of-the-week issue, and when politicians dodge the hard questions. It will take effort, but I’m confident we can get there.

Anirudh Sivaram is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at anirudh.sivaram@yale.edu.

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