Many think of India, born of a violent partition in 1947, as itself harboring two identities: a smartphone wielding, English-speaking, fast-growing democracy that prefers macchiatos to masala chai, and a predominantly lower-caste, mystically minded mass of peasants who spend their days herding buffalos and wading through water-clogged rice paddies.
Geographic and class divisions have come to the fore again following the notorious gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi last month — a case that drew more attention to the status of women in India than any event in recent history.
The sight of thousands of women demanding justice led observers to point to the demonstrations as “a middle-class movement,” akin in style to the Arab Spring. Their power was demonstrated in 2011, when a hunger strike by the anticorruption activist Anna Hazare set off a wave of protests against graft.
Armed with diplomas and aspirations for upward mobility, a rapidly expanding consumer class is said to be driving political activism and, thanks to its media savviness, forcing the government to listen. The woman who was killed fit this narrative: an ambitious college student who had watched “Life of Pi” with a male friend on the night of the attack.
But where does this narrative leave rural women, who make up about 70 percent of India’s female population? There can be no genuine change without them.
After the rape, Mohan Rao Bhagwat, the head of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said: “Such crimes hardly take place in ‘Bharat,’ but occur frequently in ‘India.’ ” Bharat, the Hindi word for India, is, in this view, a rustic idyll where virtuous women keep their bodies covered, and thereby are safe and protected.
Of course, Mr. Bhagwat was swiftly ridiculed. Using the hashtag #Bharat, many posted tongue-in-cheek online comments. One wrote on Facebook: “Don’t live in India. Migrate to Bharat instead.” They noted the persistence of child marriages, domestic violence and sexual assault in what urban Indians still call “the hinterlands.”
With the record now corrected, attention returned to the capital and its middle-class protesters, whose adroit use of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had captured the world’s imagination. The gulf separating the women of “Bharat” and “India” seemed all too real.
But urban Indian women owe a debt to their rural forebears. In the 1970s, Himalayan women led one of the country’s most successful grass-roots mobilizations, the Chipko movement. By hugging trees destined to become timber, the women protected their soil from erosion, as well as their supplies of water and firewood. They started what many consider India’s first ecological movement.
Rural women have taken the lead in contemporary battles too. Consider the Pink Gang, or Gulabi Gang, based in Bundelkhand, a remote area of central India that is often written off as “lawless” and “bandit plagued.” Founded by Sampat Devi Pal, who was married off around the age of 13, had her first child at 15 and is essentially illiterate, the Pink Gang — an all-women’s vigilante organization estimated to have around 20,000 members, named after their pink saris and batons — gained fame for beating up men who had abused their wives. The gang has fought corrupt politicians and crooked police officers as well. It also runs vocational centers that empower women.
The women of Khairlanji village, in the state of Maharashtra, are another example. In 2006, after a mob raped and killed a mother and daughter from a dalit (lower-caste) family, and also killed two males in their family, lower-caste women used handbills to organize mass protests that swept across the region. “It was an entirely new kind of protest organization,” said S. P. S. Yadav, the police commissioner in Nagpur, one of Maharashtra’s largest cities.
The fate of India’s women will rely on the uniting of rural and urban activism — and there are signs of hope that this is happening. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, an artist with the Raqs Media Collective who has covered the protest for, a political blog, told me the mass movement “cuts across age, experience and class in ways that I don’t think any other mobilization has in recent times.”
A leading activist, Kavita Krishnan, a leader of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said: “I met many women who work as domestic help at the protests. There were local protests held in working class slums and localities all over Delhi. I know there were protests in far-flung parts of India.”
Previously, when Ms. Krishnan tried to raise awareness about divisive subjects, like the rape of lower-caste women by upper-caste men, “we did not get support,” she recalled. This has changed. “I think that it is rare that you get this moment where people’s ears are wide open and you get an audience that is thinking of the nature of rape. You can’t compare this moment with any previous moment.”
If rape happens in “Bharat” as well as “India,” then the solution will come only from the mobilization of the women of both “nations.” That would be a double blow to bigots like Mr. Bhagwat, who deny that unity is possible, and to the oppression of women across the subcontinent. If anything can unite Indian women across the divide, it is this moment.
“I think there is an element of discovering solidarity with strangers,” Mr. Sengupta says of the movement. “I think it has even taken protesters by surprise.”
Amana Fontanella-Khan is the author of the forthcoming book Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India.