India and Women 57

Since the horrific bus rape case, the problems of rape in India have been firmly on the western media agenda. Today BBC World is carrying two different and terrible stories – one of the rape of a five year old girl in Delhi, and one of the death of a rape victim in a botched abortion.

I spent several weeks last year researching in archives in India. I had expected to love the country and its culture, and to my surprise I found I detested it.

I initially stayed a week in a budget tourist hotel in Delhi a short walk from Connaught Square and the main railway station. My window looked out on a street that seemed very busy with pedestrians 24 hours a day. At any moment I could see a hundred or more people clearly, and I soon noticed something very strange – there were virtually no women out on the street, undoubtedly less than 5% of the people out and about. Yes, if you went to Connaught Square you could see middle class women, particularly students, walking around. But not in more normal Delhi streets.

As I flew to different Indian cities on internal airlines, I noticed that security at Indian airports was segregated – there were separate male and female lines for bags and scanners. The female lines were virtually deserted, and it was evident that women are a very small percentage of passengers on internal Indian flights. On top of which, I three times had the experience of sitting next to businessmen who were travelling business class while their family was behind in economy. This was evidently thought perfectly normal.

It is all getting worse – just one straw in the wind, but it is only in the last two years it has become actually illegal to serve a beef steak in Delhi.

I am not even going to start getting in to the appalling caste system, and the dreadful gap between rich and poor. Knowing Africa very well, I had expected India to be in some ways similar. But in fact inequality was far worse, and the educational level of the poor was far worse, than the countries I know well in Africa. Taxi drivers in Delhi, for example, were nearly all completely illiterate. Here in Accra you would never meet a taxi driver who cannot read an address. In the National Archives of India, even some senior archivists do not speak a word of English – the official language of the country, and crucially the language of the archives they are supposed to be curating. In Accra the archivists are extremely well educated at British and American universities.

What I found most extraordinary, is that whereas here in Ghana all the rich Ghanaians I know would absolutely agree that it is highly desirable to raise the education, standard of living and welfare of the poorest in society; in India I found an extraordinary callousness among wealthy Indians to be the norm; they simply do not believe lifting the poor from poverty is desirable.

Yes, the stories about rape in India have touched on a very important point about the position of women in an increasingly oppressive and rabidly conservative Hindu society. But that is part of a much wider picture. In the UK a combination of India’s historic anti-colonial role, its legend in hippy chic and latterly a reverence for economic growth appears to be handicapping a much needed airing of truths on just what a narrow, nationalist, repressive and bigoted country India is becoming.

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57 thoughts on “India and Women

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  • Max

    I think it would be correct to say not Moghols but muslims from Central Asia. I once read History by Bartold and he insists Zahiridin Babur from nowadays Andizhan of Uzbekistan came to India in 15th century and established a powerful empire in India. He was the first emperor to ban an old hindu tradition of burying living wives of a man when he dies. Babur’s grandson Akbar built wonderful masterpiece of Taj Mahal and dedicated it to his wife.

  • technicolour

    Max, thanks. Habbakuk: I know people who are actively fighting against the caste system by giving up their caste. They are simultaneously fighting the influx of IMF sponsored projects (the injection of mysterious capital into destructive regional developments). I don’t quite get where you’re coming from? Would you like to see a devastation populated by dams and roads which lead nowhere? Because that is what is happening, in many places.

  • kathy

    I have never been to India but feel I have to defend it on account of the nice Indian tourist couple who bought me an icecream simply because I was sharing a bench with them in Russell Square Park in London during the heatwave in 2003. You would never get British people doing that or even being friendly to a stranger so there must be a lot of nice Indians too.

  • Villager


    First off, you are totally wrong about the status of Hindi and English as official languages and MJ is right on the button. For an avid researcher, i would’ve thought at the press of one (a button) you’d find the facts. Here it is:

    “The official language of the Republic of India is Hindi with English as an additional language for official work;[1] states in India can legislate their own official languages.[1] Along with languages of Indian origin other than Hindi, English, French and Portuguese also enjoy the official language status in some Indian states and Union territories.”

    The number of ‘official’ regional languages is exactly 21, as MJ stated, and are listed at the bottom of the linked page. MJ appears to know his onions.

    Second, for all the talk of India and Women, Indira Gandhi first served as Prime Minister of India from 1966 to 1977.
    From wiki:
    “Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi (Hindustani: [ˈɪnːdɪrə ˈɡaːnd̪ʱi] ( listen); née Nehru; 19 November 1917 – 31 October 1984) was the third Prime Minister of India and a central figure of the Indian National Congress party. Gandhi, who served from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, is the second-longest-serving Prime Minister of India and the only woman to hold the office.”

    So, 1966? In contrast Margaret Thatcher arrived on the seen in 1979. Granted both equally controversial, but it is said Maggie was inspired by Indira Gandhi.

    “Americans are making much of the partnership between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher following her death last week, but the baroness’s real soul mate was another Iron Lady, Prime Minister Indira Nehru Gandhi.”…,and ” As one of Thatcher’s biographers later wrote, the two had from the beginning a “uniquely easy relationship.”

    Turn now to the “increasingly oppressive and rabidly conservative Hindu society” and “just what a narrow, nationalist, repressive and bigoted country India is becoming.” So then where does Antonia Albina Maino, born a catholic to ” Stefano and Paola Maino in Contrada Màini (“Maini quarter/district”), at Lusiana, a little village 30 km from Vicenza in Veneto, Italy, where families with the family name “Màino” have been living for many generations.”, come into the picture? Oh nobody consequential, but she just happens to be President of the Indian National Congress party since 1998. And “She has served as the Chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance in the Lok Sabha since 2004. In September 2010, on being re-elected for the fourth time, she became the longest serving president in the 125-year history of the Congress party.” Thats, Sonia Gandhi, coincidentally another woman, this time Italian.

    Some of my Indian friends have offered to send her to Italy to sort out their political leadership and unite them! 🙂

    Now what next from your grossly misinformed post, based on your unfortunate experiences. Next time, you really should ring your erstwhile colleague, Sir Richard (‘Dickey) Stagg, or someone like William Dalrymple or even Sir Mark Tully, ex BBC and get briefed before you fly out.

    But before that lets better understand what you mean by your rather sweeping statement of an “increasingly oppressive and rabidly conservative Hindu society.”? i.e. the World’s most populous democracy, now ell-practiced for over 65 years. And where some 180 million Muslims live alongside the majority Hindus, i.e. about the same population as Pakistan, some 25 million more than Bangladesh, same no less than Indonesia and a 100 million more than Iran and only 150 million more tun Saudi Arabia. And ‘rabidly’? Any links or personal anecdotes on this would be welcome. Throw in some 35 million Christians, 30 million Sikhs and 12 million Buddhists for good measure. Add to that the number of times that blessed country has been invade over the centuries, the number of invasions it has inflicted on other countries near and far. And its impeccably managed nuclear arsenal and voluntary, unilateral ‘no first-use commitment’.

    Perhaps the senior archivists you encountered really did pretend not to understand you?

    As for, your “in India I found an extraordinary callousness among wealthy Indians to be the norm; they simply do not believe lifting the poor from poverty is desirable.”, I question, while you may be able to rustle up all of Ghana’s billionaires in the back of your taxi, how many Indian billionaires do you know? Re education I’ll introduce you to one: Sunil Mittal (no relative to Lakshmi) who owns Airtel (wiki:Bharti Airtel Ltd is the third largest mobile operator in the world, in terms of subscriber base, and has a presence in 20 countries) and whose family according to Forbes is worth a mere $7bn.

    “The Satya Bharti School Program is the flagship rural education initiative of Bharti Foundation aimed at holistic development of children. It is intended at delivering free quality education to underprivileged children across rural pockets and lays special emphasis on education for the girl child and children from marginalized communities. Bharti Foundation envisions 500 Primary and 50 Senior Secondary Schools, reaching out to over 200,000 underprivileged children through free quality education.

    As of January 2013, approx 38,000 children are enrolled across 254 Satya Bharti Schools, of which 187 are primary schools, 62 elementary and five senior secondary Satya Bharti Schools in six states of India (Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal).”


    And research more at wherever you like, but really please do some.

    Last but not least, there is no Connaught Square in Delhi last i visited, there is a Connaught Place or Circus — since you were there for several weeks, you may have noticed its a large round circle, not a square. Square pegs in round holes, perhaps. As i said earlier ring Dickie or someone before you go. You claim to know everyone in Ghana so obviously you get a different perspective, but i’ll tell you, you are the only one comparing those two countries.

  • technicolour

    Gosh, thanks, Kathy, and how right you are – there are nice people everywhere. Any thoughts on the IMF, anyone?

  • Jemand

    Is a barrel of bad apples with one good apple the same as a barrel of good apples with one bad apple? No. You can find exceptions everwhere – Lawyers who are honest, wealthy people who help the poor, archivists who speak English and Indian men who are considerate of women. So what? Do exceptions excuse the norm? The exceptions prove nothing but the fact that nothing is ever 100%. India is not like everywhere else. It is a place of extremes and some of those extremes are extremely unpleasant. However, those are India’s problems – until they start exporting them.

    One of India’s exports is gaining attention –

    Rise of the superbugs

    Defeating the superbugs

  • Abe Rene

    @Craig: I spent several weeks last year .. in India. I had expected to love the country and its culture, and to my surprise I found I detested it..

    Oh dear, not so liberal after all. Could you name the wealthy Indians who were so callous, O fearless one when it comes to libel? If you don’t like it, don’t go there.

  • Seasick Dave

    Of course there are lots of nice Indians and I work offshore with a few.

    However, on visiting India I think that you may have to reset your value system or you could be going off the dial!

  • Abe Rene

    PS. Actually I wouldn’t libel rich Indians if I were you. But remember that Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa did not hate India.

  • technicolour

    What is not ‘liberal’ about objecting to what the objector sees as an illiberal and intolerant society?

  • craig Post author


    I have of course read Babur’s memoirs, the Baburnama. The dynasty he founded are known as the Moghuls (generally spelt Mughals nowadays but I find I spell almost everything Indian the way Alexander Burnes did).

  • Ben Franklin -Machine Gun Preacher (unleaded version)

    Police not taking rape seriously, is a problem generically in India, I believe.

    “The area around the India Gate in Delhi was cordoned off by police late on Sunday, amid protests sparked by a brutal rape of a five-year-old girl.
    Following a sit-in by Indian students, police built cordons and brought water cannons to the area.

    Both houses of the Indian Parliament were adjourned for the first session of the day on Monday morning amid protests by members against the incident.

    Security was also enhanced in other areas where protests erupted, including the city’s police headquarters and the residences of prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

    The Delhi Metro shut its Race Course Road station near the prime minister’s residence after a request from the police, local media reported.

    The government on Monday said an inquiry has been ordered into the lapses on part of police to investigate her disappearance and attempt to hush up the matter.”

  • Habbabkuk

    Technicolour says :

    “Habbakuk: of course, but rather than allow the natural progression of humanity towards rationality and balance take its course, the IMF stepped in.”

    And I say : oh, for God’s sake! Are you seriously claiming that progress (was there any?) towards getting rid of the caste system came to a stop because of the IMF???”

    And you saying, in another post :

    “I know people who are actively fighting against the caste system by giving up their caste. They are simultaneously fighting the influx of IMF sponsored projects (the injection of mysterious capital into destructive regional developments).”

    does not prove your point either. The fact that some people are fighting both the caste system and the IMF does not prove that the IMF somehow brought progress towards getting rid of the caste system to an end.

  • Max

    Craig, I agree and you may be right. But he was not in favor of Moghuls. I read some of his poems translated by John Leyden, and he clearly dislikes being named Moghul. In fact, I would agree with him. Between Chengis Khan and him there were nearly 300 years of distance. And, only his mother had some connection to Moghuls. He also spoke and wrote in Turkic language (most modern Uzbek historians prefer to say he spoke Uzbek). Because he was born in Ferghana, and his father being from Osh (where massacre of Uzbeks took place in 2010) it would be fair to say Babur was not moghul. This is the opinion of Vasiliy Bartol’d, a famous Russian historian of the last century. I don’t know who named his empire in India as Moghul empire. There is a clear evidence both ethnically and linguistically him being as Turk from Central Asia rather than a Moghul. Just a thought, really.

  • Paulo

    Er Villager.. I too have spent many months walking India and I concur with Craig et al. It is a manifestly corrupt male dominated society with genuine infrastructural, social, sexual and religious problems, strung together with a fundamental lack of basic human respect. I see you spout knowledgeably about Delhi locations etc. but to what extent have you traveled through real India, as I have in buses full of locals for 18hrs or more and explored the backwaters of India? I have seen with my own eyes the issues and I went to India with high hopes and left hating it – quite literally – and I have traveled extensively in well over 50 countries and have never felt that way about any other country. I could write for days about the potential solutions, however, a hand-to-mouth India with a small middle class of ‘Euro-wannabees’ replete with Ipads is acceptable to the upper classes and military who retain control. Villager – step outside the village, thanks..

  • kathy

    “Gosh, thanks, Kathy, and how right you are – there are nice people everywhere.”

    No need to be sarcastic. Sorry I spoke.

  • kathy

    Previous remark to “technicolour”. By the way, I could spout off all sorts of ill-informed nonsense about the IMF and the caste system etc. but prefer to stick to facts that I know.

  • A Node

    India: my tuppence worth.

    Qualifications: 6 visits in the nineties, average duration 10 weeks.

    Excuse to taxman for visits: searching out interesting fabric to make jackets.

    Actual reason: love India, plus where else could I afford to travel for 10 weeks.

    Areas travelled: far and wide, always somewhere new, always by bus or train.

    Arriving: From the moment you arrive, India is a riot of sensations, an assault on the senses. Colour, noise, smell, and jostling touch. Correction, you can smell a mixture of bonfires and incense before the plane lands, ie before you even arrive. I can’t put it better than Technicolour’s god-mother (above) : If Europe’s a water-colour, India’s an oil painting. I’m stealing that.

    A country: inadequate description. A sub-continent: that’s more like it.

    If you only had one day in India: spend it sitting, observing on the steps of the ghats at Varanasi/Benares. Funerals and laundry, dolphins and yoga, holy rituals and teeth brushing, pilgrimages and dawn boat trips, every day.

    Hampi : three different reasons to be a wonder of the world if it was any other country but India where such wonders are taken for granted.

    Story: My daughter and boyfriend were in a tuk-tuk auto rickshaw in the main street of Agra, capital of dodgy carpet salesmen and scammers. She heard a voice shouting from behind “Madam! Madam!” but employed the necessary survival technique of ‘not hearing’ the beggar. They moved painfully slowly through the traffic and the persistent caller’s voice got louder and more breathless as he slowly gained upon the rickshaw. When the disembodied voice finally drew alongside and could no longer be denied, she faced her pursuer who handed her travel bag (containing all her money and passport) to her saying “Madam, your bag, you dropped it” and then he stopped and was lost in the traffic before she could thank him.

    Memory: on a bus, passing a country roadworks, men with sledgehammers smashing huge boulders into rocks which were broken by women with hammers into stones which were pulverised into chips, gravel and dust by successively smaller children, a human quarrying conveyor system.

    Drinking : Diu. Opium : Puri. Cannabis : Kullu Valley. Partying : Goa.

    People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones : are we (Brits) really in a position to pass judgment on anybody else’s culture.

    Reason for stopping visiting India: dawning realisation that my relative wealth and their poverty were not unconnected.

  • Jan Wiklund

    For a long time I wondered why western opinion put Muslims in the bad guy box for treating women badly, knowing that a plank of the Hindutva party’s program is the right to burn widows alive. I hope there will be a change now.

  • technicolour

    Kathy: I’m sorry, I wondered whether you were being sarcastic. Please accept my apology for misinterpreting. As for the IMP – ‘ill-informed’ – sadly not.

    Habbakuk: yes, I am saying that the role of the IMF is not helpful to human progress/structural change, which is why Malaysia told them to get knotted (wiki has the basics).

    A Node – great summary. Agree about relative poverty/wealth, of course.

  • guano

    I was once shown some sanskrit texts on palm-leaves at the Wellcome Institute in London. They were threaded through at about one-third and two thirds of the width, and to turn the page you had to pull the next leaf forward on the string. ‘If you’ve got a way of conserving them, you’ve got a job’ the conservator told me. But even if I had thought of one, I was put off by the idea of shuffling the parts. What if you joined up the wrong parts of the leaf because you couldn’t read the writing?

    BTW I think India is a fantastic country and I was impressed that in the madrassahs where very small children are given a safe haven and Islamic education, there was a noticeable female presence in the form of a matron. What a blessing and joy is my lovely religion of Islam.

  • kathy

    Technicolour – thanks. No, it really happened and I was so impressed. They just treated me like one of their family. Not what you expect in London! Of course, in a country so huge and varied as India, it’s not that simple but I have no real first-hand knowledge of it.

  • technicolour

    Kathy, thanks back – and so pleased you responded. Maybe it was something about you too! But yes,that courtesy and delicacy – thanks again.

  • technicolour

    Villager: thanks so much for that link: Kathy and anyone else interested in India, if you get a chance to read it, please do: it’s succinct and extremely informative (I’d quite like to know what Habbakuk would make of it too…)

  • Dirk Townsend

    Recently, much attention has also been paid to the so-called backlash — the inflammatory comments made by religious and other figures, not least by a lawyer for one of the accused — about the culpability of women who get raped.

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