India's attitudes towards women and rape will not improve until the country rids itself of its "chalta hai" approach to the law, writes Soumik Mukherjee.
The reason for India’s misogyny is encapsulated in one simple term
When foreigners learn Hindi, one of the terms they pick up first is “chalta hai”. This expression, loosely translated as “it will do”, means brushing off things such as rules – and even matters of conscience – because people think they don’t matter. But why is this concept so fascinating? Is it because, as a colleague who is not an Indian but speaks a few Hindi words told me, that you can’t survive in India if you don’t adopt the “chalta hai” attitude?
He might have been joking, but it’s not a trivial thing in the Indian context, as it largely defines the national culture. And it’s this attitude that prolifically breeds irresponsibility, insensitivity, stupidity and, above all, utter disregard for women – so much so that it can lead to rape, dowry murder and female foeticide.
While those in power make noises about female empowerment and combating misogyny, this reprehensible attitude towards women is so entrenched in the Indian psyche that even supposedly educated and progressive politicians such as finance minister Arun Jaitley apparently consider it to be normal. This is why the brutal rape and murder of the Delhi girl, Nirbhaya, in 2012 – which still touches a raw nerve in India – seemed to him to be “one small incident” that “cost us billions of dollars in terms of lower tourism”.
It’s sad that an event that provoked an outpouring of anger and soul-searching about the place of women in Indian society has, in less than two years, paled in significance compared to tourism revenues.
What prompted Mr Jaitley to make such a shockingly insensitive remark is clear to everyone: the typical Indian mindset. When the situation proved too hot for him to handle following an outpouring of anger on social media, he took recourse to a time-tested formula. He expressed regret that his statement had been misconstrued, and said that he was merely trying to explain to state tourism ministers why India needed to address security concerns to make tourists feel safe in the country.
Nirbhaya’s mother regretted that “when they wanted votes, all political leaders were talking about Nirbhaya’s case ... He [Mr Jaitley] can see the loss of [rupees] due to tourism, but an honest citizen lost her life, isn’t that a loss to the nation?”
But some Indians still wonder why this is such a big deal. In India, everything is “chalta hai”. And Mr Jaitley is not the only politician to have expressed such sentiments. There are other examples, such as Sharad Yadav, a senior political leader who argued during a parliamentary debate in March that making stalking and voyeurism a punishable offence under the new rape law was too harsh.
In his reasoning, he referred to the attractiveness of two popular actresses: “When you watch Sheila Ki Jawaani or Munni ... what goes on in your mind? So what, we are all men after all.”
Where else on Earth would one get away with such an argument in parliament? And where else could one think of drawing inspiration for a fashion shoot from the gang rape of a young student on a Delhi bus, as did the Mumbai-based photographer Raj Shetiye?
The images, titled “The Wrong Turn”, depicted an upper-class woman dressed in high-end designer clothes having to fend off a group of equally well-groomed men on a bus. The outrage that those photographs drew on social media has had little effect in a country where, according to the latest statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped each day. More worryingly, the number of rapes is increasing – from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,707 in 2013.
It’s this concern that prime minister Narendra Modi sought to address during his Independence Day speech in Delhi on August 15, when he urged mothers to teach their children to respect women.
A good first step would be to eliminate the “chalta hai” attitude.