Anger over the violent attack of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi has galvanised public opinion and highlighted a number of issues related to social inequality, issues a modern India must address.
Equality in India goes far beyond women's rights
The gruesome gang-rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman has galvanised a nation not unaccustomed to matters of injustice and inequality. New Delhi continues to pulsate with protests; over 100 people were injured at the weekend amid massive demonstration calling for the alleged perpetrators to be punished. One video journalist covering the unrest was killed in the county's northeast, apparently shot by a policeman's gun.
For the thousands of people, mostly college students, who have taken to the streets, the issue is one of justice. In a country that is labelled as among the worst places in the world to be a woman, Indians today are demanding that their government address the underlying causes of the misogynistic culture in which they live.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, clearly stung by the outpouring of public sympathy, has responded by calling for calm, and promising to take strong action. "We will make all possible efforts to ensure security and safety to all women in this country," he said on Sunday. "I appeal to all concerned citizens to maintain peace."
Yet these promises come too late for the young physiotherapy student attacked in a moving bus. The woman was reportedly assaulted by at least five men, and both she and her male friend were beaten, stripped and dropped out on the street. Indian officials have made promises to protect women before, but strong laws against "eve-teasing," as sexual harassment is euphemistically called, have so far been elusive. Clearly, that must change.
Indian women face discrimination from the day they are born, sometimes even before. Issues like foeticide, child marriage, dowry and honour killings will take time to change, but the government has the responsibility to address all of these injustices. But the issues underlying public anger in this most recent case go far beyond a single assault.
India is a rapidly developing country, with more wealth and greater access to opportunity than ever before. But it is also deeply inequitable, where caste, gender and station in life determine how far a person can climb. Building a modern India, one in which justice and equality are norms, will mean tackling all types of social inequality - issues like endemic corruption, nepotism, poverty, access to education, political participation - the list goes on.
It is tragic that it has taken one case of unthinkable violence against a young woman to make "equality" a newsworthy word. We can only hope that her suffering won't be in vain.