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.