By Keval Dhokia
Hundreds of British Asians, volunteers and lobbyists took to demonstrating outside the Indian House, in Central London on Monday, in anger at the weakness shown by the Indian government in protecting women against sexual violence within its borders.
Among those holding placards alleging ‘172 Indian MPs are rapists’ and stating ‘You have sparked a fire’, were groups as diverse as the National Union of Students (NUS), Southall Black Sisters (SBS), Ealing MP Virendra Sharma and the director of hit-film `Bend it like Beckham’ Gurinder Chadha.
Following the on-going high-profile case of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of a 23year-old student in New Delhi, frustrated members of the public gathered at the front of the embassy’s main entrance.
Many mothers had left their prams at the edge of the gathering and lifted their daughters into their arms, echoing slogans dictated from a megaphone at the dense centre of the crowd, and by 6pm other campaign groups, journalists and passers-by had stopped to discuss the condition of women in India.
Ms Rahila Gupta who is a managing member of London-based campaign group SBS, the organisation that planned the demonstration, said: “We want to express our solidarity with Indian women and we want to shame the Indian government into taking action. Women on your streets and on your cities are not safe and you need to do something about it. Especially if you want to be a player on the world stage and you have aspirations to superpower status, you need to do something about the position of women in India.”
While the protest was dominated by women, men united alongside them, bringing placards which read: ‘Men against rape’. Many non-Asians stood in solidarity with Indian women chanting with them: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” and “We want azadi! (freedom).”
Mr Aftab Ahmid, originally from Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state where Jyoti Singh Pandey, the victim, was from, said: “If men can come (to protests) they should, it’s for the better of the whole country. They have sisters, they have mothers and they have women in their family. Men should think of how they want them to be treated rather than thinking this issue is distant from them.”
The police presence was small because the demonstration was largely peaceful. Soon the numbers outside the Indian embassy swelled out onto the busy street, causing the contingent of officers to become more concerned of the bulging crowd.
At the peak of the agitation participants booed each time someone entered or left the embassy doors, aggressively chanting: “Shame on you!“ This stand by British organisations adds to the extensive reaction in this country among the Asian community, which has seen a delegation from the Indian Worker’s Association meet with politicians in New Delhi to convey their dismay, and a letter of protest from Indian GPs, including deputy Chairman of the British Medical Association, Dr Kailash Chand, who said: “The statistics are terrifying: a rape occurs every 20 minutes in India, and every 15 hours in Delhi. The real figures are bound to be much higher. We are asking for legislative change, and not just lip service from the government of India.”
The Southall Black Sisters, among the many other fringe organisations that were present, support the demands laid out by their counterparts across cities in India. These include increased patrolling and deployment of officers, including police women in public places, and fast-track courts to deal with rape cases, with hearings to be held on a day to day basis, so that sentences can be delivered within a period of six months.
However there is wide acceptance of the fact that changes in the law and the speeding up of proceedings will not solve the problem. Kelley Temple, the UK’s National Union of Students’ Women’s Officer, said: “It’s really important that we recognize that rape culture (blaming the victim for the rape as a result of the way they dress or act) transcends countries and boundaries. The turnout is a reflection that people are not prepared to accept that it’s okay to keep perpetuating victim blaming that’s been happening for so long. Patriarchy and rape culture exists everywhere and the UK is by no means immune to it.”
India’s rise on the global stage has been further smeared by this latest issue, adding to fiascos in the last year like the shutdown of the electrical grid for 600m people, the lockdown of financial centre Mumbai following the death of a right-wing personality and an investigation into the misallocation of coal resources by the Indian government.
Although the country’s constitution recognises the sanctity of women’s rights, analysts have cited the weakness of inter-gender education and the backward culture of victim-blame and female infanticide as a sign of India’s gargantuan social failings.
The importance of institutions to protect women when the government fails has been highlighted by Jyoti Pandey’s murder, however Ms Gupta of SBS added: “Southall Black Sisters is really over-stretched, we don’t have the capacity for a continuous level of action.” Funding gaps for these kinds of organisations in India are thought to be far worse. The Lohana Community North London will be holding a candlelight vigil and prayers this Sunday in memory of the victim.