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India rape highlights need for action and justice, Brandeis columnist says

Posted by Your Town  December 29, 2012 09:07 PM

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Even as the holiday festivities abound, my mind is in two places. As immigrants that is common — to straddle between two worlds. And then there are moments of pride with India "shining" and there are moments of infinite shame and anger at events that have rocked the capital, Delhi. Having spent a considerable part of my life in New Delhi I stay connected to "home" and what happens there. The recent incident of brutal rape brought to light the fact that spaces in the city are gendered still, that women are not equal citizens and the laws do not support victims' rights. Is this the "incredible" India we are presenting to the world?

While there have been continued protests in India by women and men (I am happy to note) against the ruthless rape of a 23-year-old woman by five men who left her to die, there is more to be done and achieved. Sexual offenses of any kind at home, work or public places are crimes but perpetrators get away with it because of lack of legal back up. The fear of social ostracism keeps victims from reporting crimes. Growing up in Delhi and struggling with public transport decades ago as we fielded off groping hands, leering comments and putting up a strong façade when we reached schools or colleges, was the normal. Traveling and moving around in groups was the only solution known to us. And now living in the United States, I am thrilled to note that younger women are independent, students and professionals — whatever they want to be. Safety is an issue the world over but the collective conscience works in favor of a somewhat equitable access to legal recourse.

Now Delhi, on the other hand, has the infamous title of being the "rape capital" of India. Even though the Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit hates the title she brings to light several loopholes in the legal system and has passed the responsibility of doing anything concrete to the Police Commissioner and the Lieutenant Governor. What she can provide for is "safer" areas for women. Is that all she can do — as a minister and as a woman? Doesn't that approach perpetuate the schism that already exists in Indian society? What it means is that women should not venture out at certain hours and stay in places that have been deemed "safe" and those not in those designated areas are either asking for the wrong kind of attention or have not heeded to warnings. Either way something basic is wrong there. Instead of policing the criminal, this approach absolves them of any culpability. Worse, it instills in women the fear of living the life of a citizen.

There are 2.7 million South Asians who live in the metropolitan areas on the East Coast and West Coast and Indians form the bulk of that population. The total number of Indian Americans in the United States in 2010, including Asian Indians of mixed race, was 3,183,063. Indian Americans made up 18 percent of the Asian American population in 2010, up from 16 percent in 2000. We travel back and forth to India to our families, to do business and to be "home."

Vidya Sri, the founder of gangashakti.org, is among the 2.7 million. She is an activist and a management professional who travels to India on work. On one of her trips to Delhi, she was assaulted and sexually molested. The police refused to file a report. As an American citizen, she involved the U.S. embassy who made several calls to enable her to file a basic police report.

When Prachee Sinha, a Brandeis University alum who now works in India reached out to me, expressing her shock and dismay at the heinous event I wondered what I could do and what would make a difference. Because the usual question is "will it make a difference?" And another question is as U.S. residents of Indian origin what is our responsibility given the circumstances? Are we not all affected? Violence and sexual offence is high on the minds of women traveling to India in various capacities. And for anyone woman in India or traveling to India the concern is: “That could have been me.” And because of that every contribution we make is a step forward and every drop adds to the volume in the ocean. It certainly is better than doing nothing, wouldn't you say?

At the time of writing this piece a panel has been set up under the stewardship of Justice Usha Mehra to reconstruct the events of the day surrounding the recent rape of the 23-year-old in New Delhi and analyze the role of police. And this panel will present its report in three months.

Whether it is petitioning the Chief Minister of Delhi or the Prime Minister of India or joining protests or writing opinion columns and campaign issues, I urge everyone who wants India to surge ahead as a global business leader to do their bit to change the dismal state of affairs in so far as women's safety is concerned. There is great virtue in "being the change."

Follow this link to sign a petition condemning violence against women in India.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham. This article first appeared on the India New England site and is reposted with Ghosh's permission.

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