Is Delhi gang rape India's 'Rosa Parks moment'?

Group of demonstrators hold placards during a protest against the alleged inaction by the Indian government in the case of the gang rape of a 23-years old student in a bus in December There were thousands of demonstrations across India against the brutal assault of the young woman

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Rosa Parks had a choice about making her sit-down protest on an American bus in 1955.

So when a well-known Indian entrepreneur said last month's gang-rape on a Delhi bus was India's "Rosa Parks moment" he took some flak.

And many others simply scoffed at his idea that the outcry over the crime has reached the level of a new civil rights struggle.

Remember the protests over the Mathura rape case, the sceptics say, or the huge crowds for the anti-corruption protests in 2011: What did they achieve?

More of that later. But six weeks on, the brutal assault has at the very least changed the conversation and how India sees itself.

'Minds in turmoil'

And even if their instinct is to ride things out, politicians are having to listen.

It's hard to think of another situation in which a head of state anywhere would use a national day address to mark the death of one 23-year-old woman.

This weekend, India's President Pranab Mukherjee, was doing just that in his speech to mark Republic day.

He called the anonymous rape victim a "symbol of all that new India strives to be".

The student's death, he said, "has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil".

Her shadow was also hanging over India's biggest literature festival, that's been taking place in the city of Jaipur - but with participants trying much harder than politicians to respond to this turmoil.

Last year, the five-day jamboree of writers and thinkers was dominated by the exclusion of one man, Salman Rushdie.

This year, the unofficial theme was, the exclusion of half of India's population from playing its full role in the country.

And you could hear conventional wisdoms crumbling as restrictions on women came under scrutiny.

Vikas Swarup (l) and Ashok Ferry (r) at the Jaipur Literature Festival The shadow of the gang rape hung over the 2013 Jaipur Literature Festival

It was men not God who bar women from mosques, said Muslim academic Ashgar Ali Engineer, deriding the idea that such bans are to protect them from harassment.

"There's something wrong with men, if even in the presence of God they cannot control their desires," he said.

He got cheering applause, as much for the novelty of hearing a man attacking male rather than female behaviour.

American philosopher Michael Sandel sparked more soul-searching by asking his mainly Indian audience to debate attitudes towards rape and moral parallels between the sexual and the communal violence India has seen so much of.

It's not a discussion any Indian politician would go near yet.

But the responses were illuminating, with some arguing sexism is so embedded that like untouchable castes, women need special legal protection to "level the playing field".


Yet, many other women complained such thinking was demeaning and kept them on a "mother-goddess" pedestal, with their virginity as the touchstone of family honour.

"My identity is more than my virginity," said one.

It was at the Jaipur festival that Nandan Nilekani, the founder of Infosys, made his "Rosa Parks" remark, in a discussion on why India has fallen so far behind China.

His fellow panellist Gurcharan Das echoed his thoughts, praising the youth-led protests over the Delhi gang-rape for opening up a new "dynamic for reform".

Like many, he sees a continuum from the anti-corruption movement.

Far from fading away, he believes it provided a base for a wider campaign for India to run itself better.

And he predicts more "eruptions" until the political class responds.

Of course, a literature festival hardly represents a national mood.

But former chief justice Jagdish Verma was sounding the same note when he released his review of India's rape laws, saying "a failure of governance" was at the root of the country's troubles.

It was also time, he said, to review the immunity of Indian forces from prosecution, for widespread allegations of using sexual violence against women in Kashmir.

Just a week earlier, India's ruling Congress Party was in Jaipur too, for its annual brainstorming session.

With a general election just a year away, this was an especially important meeting and how the grand old party of Indian politics should respond to the new voices emerging from the rape protests, dominated their discussions.

Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi promised the woman's death would not be "in vain".

So far though, all they seem to have come up with are plans for more training in social media and anointing her son Rahul as her successor - who managed to sit out the rape protests without saying a thing.

But six weeks after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she could never have guessed how big was the wave she had begun.

And the ripples from the Delhi gang-rape case haven't petered out yet.

Andrew North Article written by Andrew North Andrew North South Asia correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Artsatbest- Why a widow, not a widower, have to observe so many restrictions in diet, dress etc?

    Almost all religions r the same in this regard.

    If you, as a women, show your vulnerability, 'cleverly' exploit ur helplessness (as many does), then there r so many men who will be happy to help you out to strengthen that weakness & exploit you for the same vulnerability (physical or emotional).

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    @ 76 Chopra - It took a British - Andrew North to listen and report --
    And now one more request - Andrew could you do more listening and let us know about the treatment of rape victims at Safderjung Hospital and what has happened there since.
    Thanks a lot in advance!!!

  • Comment number 107.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    @ artsatbest.
    How many times ur hubby/father observe bratas for ur/mom's happiness/health? Not much I assume!

    During almost every Hindu religious proceedings, women hardly have any meaningful duty- be it rice ceremony of ur child, ur own marriage or Brahmhan's upanayan (screed thread), except taking care of the household. All important mantras are chanted by hubby/father!

    Ignorance is a bliss!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Before hoping that anything will change for the better, India needs to change its sense of right and wrong. Realize that cronyism, chamchagiri, people worship, superstitions, swami worship, fear of God, fear of authotiries, know their rights. Unless we know what we are doing wrong at home and work place, no change will come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    @ artsatbest. I'm sorry to say that U like "hundreds of Indian women" who don't know the meaning & origin of these traditions.

    Check it: Early evolution of religion-

    Most of such bratas are nothing but superstition to make women more subservient to men.
    Ever wonder why Indian men rarely observe bratas?

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    @ artsatbest (100). Yes, u r right. It's Good vs Evil.

    But that G vs E is NOT men vs women. Women must accept that they also have some black sheep among them. Women must accept their share too.

    Do U think it's only the men responsible to make the dowry law (498a) the most abused law in India?

    Check it- "but, what can I do?"-

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Jay, I am not sure which world of Hindus you are referring to, I and hundreds of Indian women I know here in USA and India do understand the traditions of vermilion/bangles/mantras. Please don't beat it out of shape with your ignorance! Our traditions also give women an escape to network with other women and make friendship in the name of vrathas and kathas.poojas! It is your choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    How many Indian (Hindu) women bothered to understand the Sanskrit mantras they say during marriage?
    How many ever pondered how the strict tradition of vermilion & bangles originated for married Hindu women?
    How many will oppose such derogatory traditions, which has nothing to do with religion, once they understand its origin and meaning!

    Everything don't & must not start or end with others!

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Jay, I read #61 and #83. It is both ways. I also know of women who falsely accuse their Indian husbands of violence in USA and India courts, using false/fake/lie tacts/lawyer and using influence of power in India. Google false 498a cases/ statistics of how many people are falsely accused in Indian jails and how many USA Indians cant travel to India due to this. THIS IS MORE ABOUT GOOD VERSUS EVIL!

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Cont. #97. That is equally true of any country & society as well. Chanting mantra of peace does not guarantee peace or dignity.

    Exploiting helplessness, giving excuses, shifting blames does not solve problems- for anyone- be it a feminine issue or national issue or something else.

    Again, this rape is less to do with sex/women but more to show-of-power and then utter failure of governance issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Indian males treat their women like dirt.

    This is deep rooted and needs a complete culture change. The civilised world should shun India, socially and commercially. Only when they are completely ostracised will this primitive society move forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    @ artsatbest (94). There is specific example (in #83, #61). It'll be helpful if you put the statement in context.

    Nobody, no minority (gender issue is just one of that) get peace, freedom, dignity for free. It has its price. ONLY those deserve peace & freedom/dignity etc who is able & ready to pay that price.

    Yes, other can help. But one has to fight his/her own battle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    But, I like the way the author Andrew North has highlighted how very little has been done /said by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Interestingly Sheila Dixit from the ruling congress party has been ruling Delhi, for decades and yet women safety has only gotten worse over the years! What does that tell us? What does this mean? What should you do next elections? Not that politicians are any better!

  • Comment number 95.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    It is hurtful to see comments (JAY) that woman get used to abuses and have no dignity. These problems are universal. A woman might feel like she is weak at home, work or society BUT that does not mean she is weak and that she is not fighting her battles! Just like if a person screams louder in an argument, does not mean he wins! The protests might give these woman a feeling they are not alone!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    In 1945 Parks was sent to Abbeville, Alabama, to investigate the gang rape of Recy Taylor. The protest that arose around the Taylor case was the first instance of a nationwide civil rights protest, and it laid the groundwork for the Montgomery bus boycott.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    When we were growing up in India, wise men used to say - stay away from the "Thug of Delhi" and "Mawali of Mumbai". After growing up, we saw how true it was. These cities still demonstrate the same behavior. People say a lot has changed but as Urdu poetry goes - "it's the Same Corpse, Only the Shroud has Changed". India really has a problem with its moral compass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    To add: Woman do try to stand up for themselves and fight for their dignity. BUT there is a limit of how many battles they can pick at a time in this everyday demanding and busy life of a middle class or lower. Empowerment/ Literacy/Education makes some difference. Also one needs to be at guard on their own, instead of waiting for the ever delayed police and justice system of India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @ Ram (87). I checked again. But still could not find any credible reference of Gandhi to inspire Parks.

    Do you think that any civil-disobedience, "satyagraha" in any part of the world, by anyone have to be inspired by Gandhi? Or only Gandhi could do that? Who inspired Gandhi?

    I too admire MK Gandhi, but that does not mean I have to push him everywhere to prove his or other's greatness.


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