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One more rape
Thursday August 29, 2013 11:33 AM, Aijaz Zaka Syed

Some years ago, India Today did an interesting cover story titled "The Ugly Indian." That June 1998 magazine issue has remained etched on my memory all these years because of the unusual candor with which it captured our psyche as a people. As India is rocked by yet another gang rape, this time of a journalist and in cosmopolitan Mumbai, the land of all-embracing Bollywood dreams, I am reminded of the story by Swapan Dasgupta, a loquacious Hindutva votary incidentally. "The Ugly Indian" is back in focus. And our "ugliness" seems to be growing by the day.

In Delhi, a 72-year-old "guru," revered by thousands and with sprawling ashrams all over the country, molests a 16-year-old. In Jharkhand, a female cop is gang-raped on her way home from hospital with her family and a dead relative, right in the same car. In Maharashtra, a 20-year-old pregnant woman is repeatedly violated in front of her husband.

These are but few of the most recent examples. Indian papers report numerous such attacks on a daily basis — cases of women — young and old — and even children suffering the ultimate abomination.

Rape is India's "national problem," says United Nations, and the most common crime against women. Every 20 minutes a new rape is reported; Delhi reports the highest number of them. Many go unreported out of fear of social stigma. In any case, justice seldom catches up with the guilty. Even in the infamous Delhi rape last year that shook the nation and produced a new law to deal with the scourge, justice is still awaited.

India is a living hell for women. That is the conclusion of Michaela Cross, an American student who spent three months in India last year as part of her South Asian studies project. Her stunning first person account for CNN, "India: The Story You Never Wanted to Hear," is a stinging critique of the country that has come to look so strange to its own people in the past few years. The 23-year-old redhead talks of being stalked, groped and even suffering rape attempts. She went back in December, days before the Delhi rape outrage, and had a post-trauma breakdown.

She writes: "There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body. I got stares so sharp they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. There were no sex signals, only women's bodies to be taken, or hidden away. So I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the Internet. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography. For three months I lived this way, in a traveler's heaven and a woman's hell. I was stalked, groped, masturbated at."

Cross's powerful piece, which has had more than a million page-views, coincided with the Mumbai rape last week and understandably generated all-round shame and anguish back in India with many writing in to apologize to her.

What has gone wrong with India then? Once the very name generated spontaneous smiles and warmth around the world. It was seen, especially in the West, as the land of Buddha and Mahatma — and of spiritual salvation and yoga. In the past few years though, the world's view of India has undergone a perceptible change.

Whatever happened to us? Why have women become so vulnerable in the land where they've been idolized for thousands of years? Our movies are an endless tribute to women personifying piety, purity and sacrifice.

What explains the growing depravity and corruption of Indian men then? Why have we degenerated so fast? Whatever happened to the Gandhian motto of "simple living, high thinking"? Rape and corruption of all sorts seem to have become a national fixation. Our greed knows no bounds. Nothing is enough. "Hal min mazeed,' (Give me more!) in the words of Qur'an, is the mantra now. Gandhi would find it hard to recognize the nation that exalts him as Bapu. So are we really "the Ugly Indian" that Dasgupta thinks we are?

Here's what he had written in a rare outburst: "The most fascinating thing about India is its capacity for self-delusion. As a nation, we seem less concerned with being than with reputation. Hundreds are butchered in those senseless bouts of sectarian madness that periodically grip the country. Hundreds of millions of public money are siphoned off into private coffers because Indian ingenuity is more potent than complex rules. Come Independence Day, the nation wallows in the "tryst with destiny" recording and awaits reassurance it's indeed the land of the Buddha and the Mahatma. Privately, the Indian epitomizes goodness and morality; collectively he is the Ugly Indian."

Phew! It's a long but must-read rant and is available online. Here is the sting in the tail: "To understand Kaliyuga (end times), don't look at the man next door. Just look in the mirror for the Ugly Indian."

So are we prepared to look in the mirror? One thing is for sure. All these rapes and epic scams are only symptoms of a deeper malaise that has set in, not the disease itself. Blaming Bollywood, Internet, Chinese food — how ridiculous can we get! — and women themselves for our corruption wouldn't get us anywhere. The growing objectification of women in the movies and media and the unfettered, ubiquitous access to porn, liquor and drugs may be contributing to the sickness. But its source lies elsewhere.

First and foremost is the endless Indian glorification of the male of the species and the inherent superiority it enjoys over women even before it comes into being. Women are a burden, an embarrassment.

So they must be discouraged and prevented from coming into existence, as thousands of "gender selection" clinics across India have successfully doing all these years. Even when a girl arrives defying all odds, it must be shown its place, at every stage of her life — from sexual harassment and rape to acid attacks and dowry killings.

Second, we have lost our moral compass as a nation and it's time we faced it. There was a time when moral education was part of school syllabus and children got an early grounding in what is right and what is not. The focus was on inculcating honesty, integrity and morality, rather than producing robots trained to crack exams and score impossible grades.

Third, no concept of accountability and crime and punishment is left. Karma isn't about paying for your deeds but how cleverly you beat the system. You see politicians get away with murder, often literally, and scams worth hundreds of millions of rupees. Someone who presided over the massacre of thousands of people is a pretender for the top job in the land. Men responsible for our security routinely gun down innocent men and women in the name of fighting terror and get away with it.

How do you then expect common criminals, rapists and murderers to fear the law? Is it any wonder women and the most vulnerable sections of society feel so insecure? If journalists in a metropolis like Mumbai aren't safe, imagine the predicament of ordinary people.

One can identify with BJP's Sushma Swaraj when she says those responsible for the Mumbai outrage should be simply shot dead. Indeed, if justice had been swift and certain in Delhi, a repeat in Mumbai might have been avoided. But, Swaraj, can we expect the same justice in the case of Asaram Bapu and all the rapists and mass murderers in the vibrant Gujarat or should justice remain selective?

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely publsihed Gulf based commentator. The above article was first published by Arab News.

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