Perhaps the most bizarre element of the horrific gang rape and murder of a New Delhi woman is how it became fodder for the India-versus-China debate.
Chinese media, not known for chronicling human-rights abuses at home, were all over the lethal attack on a 23-year-old Indian on a moving bus on Dec. 16, and her cremation on Dec. 30. Everything from a surge in demand for gun permits among women to a dysfunctional penal system to how democracy is failing India’s 1.2 billion people got enthusiastic coverage in China.
That was until a vast crowd staged protests in the Indian capital. China’s censors also sprung into action to clamp down on Twitterlike microblogs buzzing about young, urban Indians finding their political voice and demanding change. The reaction says as much about China as India, but India’s leaders would be remiss to ignore how this story is playing out around the world.
India’s much-hyped modernity isn’t looking so modern. All the gleaming skyscrapers, software campuses and Bollywood gloss in the world can’t hide the hold that the shameful aspects of old India have on the country. If India is to thrive and move forward, 2013 must be the year of justice.
The immediate focus is on the six men accused of torturing a medical student so sadistically that they destroyed her internal organs. The issues of women’s rights, safety and respect have seldom been the stuff of headlines in the biggest democracy. It’s also a complicated issue prone to unhelpful generalities.
But the rape cast a spotlight on something well-known to India watchers but given little heed globally: how badly India often treats its women, how sexual harassment is tolerated and the extent to which backward attitudes must be stamped out. Misogynistic comments from a variety of officials suggesting the victim may have encouraged the attack based on her dress and mannerisms don’t help.
Antipathy toward women begins in the womb. Female infanticide and sex-selective abortion driven by a societal preference for boys make it a stark challenge for girls even to enter the world. A 2012 UNICEF report found that 57 percent of Indian males aged 15 to 19 think wife beating is justified.
In an odd twist, India has had its share of female leaders, Sonia Gandhi among them. In everyday life, though, women play a secondary and subordinate role. Often they are seen as human beings only if there is a man — a father, brother or husband — to validate them.
Take the chilling tale of a Punjab teenager raped a month before the New Delhi attack. Rather than receiving justice, she was humiliated by police who tried to pressure her into marrying one of her rapists. Late last month, she committed suicide by drinking poison. That might not have happened were punishment for rapists certain, severe, rapid and not biased against victims.
India is, no doubt, grating at the media scrutiny from overseas, but some good may come from it. Complacency means India could soon be the first BRIC economy — Brazil, Russia, India, China — to lose its investment-grade rating. It desperately needs more domestic investment to propel growth above the current 5.3 percent pace.
Outsiders encourage developing nations and cities to increase their attractiveness to investors, bankers and foreign talent. Attention normally focuses on the quality of roads and power grids, housing, education, pollution and legal certainty. In India’s case, add rape to that list.
The other big justice issue for 2013 is economics. The protests in New Delhi come as one of the giants of India’s economic revolution, Ratan Tata, steps down as head of Tata Sons Ltd. after two decades at the helm. He built the business into a $100 billion global conglomerate in ways that demonstrate why some bet India will be a more successful economy than China in 20 years. Yet Tata’s departure coincides with the end of another era: the easy years of globalization and the growth it brought.
Gone are the days when India could get by on pockets of success in software and industry. Rising stars such as Indonesia and the Philippines are waiting behind China to grab market share. Policy drift in New Delhi and little progress in ending corruption get much of the blame. India wants to boost growth to 8 percent or 9 percent, but what’s the point if graft concentrates its benefits among the elite?
The spark for the protests in New Delhi was an act of unspeakable violence. But the tenor has broadened, at times taking on the same Arab Springlike quality as the protests led in 2011 by anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare. It is telling that so many young, urban men are among the aggrieved denouncing the rapes. That is a nod to the important role that gender equality plays in eradicating poverty. But these demonstrations are also shaking the conscience of middle-class Indians who sense that their leaders have lost their way.
The government’s tone-deaf response initially fueled the outrage. Rather than engage the masses, authorities clashed with them and appeared more interested in cordoning off the city’s political center, China-style. Not a great report card for the India envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi.
William Pesek is based in Tokyo and writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region. His journalism awards include the 2010 Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary.