On 16 December the most egregious assault took place on a Delhi bus on a young female student who was on her way home from the cinema with a male friend. She was gang-raped by the six other male passengers, who apparently thought they had the right to ‘punish’ her for being out after dark with a man who was not her husband, and both she and her friend were attacked with iron bars which in her case were also used to cause severe damage to her internal organs, that later necessitated the surgical removal of 90% of her intestines. When she and her friend became unconscious they were thrown out of the moving bus on to the road. A week later, after a brave fight for her life, she died in hospital as a result of organ failure. She has now been dubbed ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Daughter of India’.
When the attack became known, the young people of Delhi, men as well as women (men in fact somewhat outnumbering women) came out on to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest against the failure of the Indian authorities to take steps to ensure the safety of women at all times. It turns out that Delhi is the rape capital of India, if not the world:
“ Official statistics reveal that Delhi is India’s ‘rape capital’ with 414 rapes in 2010 and more than 600 this year alone. Only one in three reported cases end in conviction but campaigners believe victims are so afraid of the police – many officers believe victims are to blame – that only one in 50 rapes are registered .” (‘Death of Delhi gang rape victim horrifies India’, Telegraph, 29 December 2012).
In India as a whole, rape and violence against women in general is a major problem: “ National statistics show that in our country, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. Daily life for women is littered with abuse – unwelcome stares and leering, groping and harassment, lewd comments on the street; beatings, molestation and rape by male family members and threats for dowry in the home. Rising figures of female foeticide show that [large numbers of] girls are killed in the womb. Women who assert their independence and marry outside the caste or community are beheaded or hacked to death by their own families in ‘honour’ killings ” (Maya John, ‘Fight violence against women across the country!’, Centre for Struggling Women).
And rape is used not only to terrorise women and suppress their growing tendency towards independence, but also as a means of religious and caste oppression, with members of the majority religion, or of the higher caste, feeling that they have a god-given right to make “these people” (i.e., the oppressed) see that they must know and accept their lowly place in society. Given that the advance of capitalism is, as it does everywhere, breaking down the old feudal structures that assigned extremely subordinate positions to women, as well as to members of minority religions or low castes, life is seeing to it that those who were the most oppressed under feudalism no longer accept their subordination.
Engels explained in ‘Origin of the family, private property and the state’ that because capitalism had made it possible for women to earn money outside the home and thus made them less dependent on their husbands, a mortal blow had been struck at the domestic slavery that had been women’s lot for many centuries: “… now that large-scale industry has taken the wife out of the home onto the labour market and into the factory, and made her often the bread-winner of the family, the last remnants of male supremacy in the proletarian household are deprived of all foundation, except, perhaps, for a leftover piece of the brutality towards women that has become deep-rooted since the introduction of monogamy ” Engels (‘Origin of the family, private property and the state’). [Note that when Engels uses the word ‘monogamy’, he is talking about households where the wife is subordinated to the husband’s every whim, i.e. domestic slavery. It is domestic slavery he is condemning, not sexual exclusiveness].
It is because those who have traditionally been oppressed are no longer prepared to accept this, and no longer have to either, that they are deemed to be “ asking for” the furious and frequently violent retribution that is all too often meted out to them by those who are nostalgic for the old order.
“[In] September in Haryana… twenty cases of gang-rape were reported in a month and many of these were Dalit women raped by upper caste men. In 2006, Priyanka and Surekha Bhotmange, two Dalit women demanding rightful ownership over their land, were raped, stripped and beaten to death by a crowd of dominant caste men and women in Khairlanji, Maharashtra. During the Gujarat riots of 2002, many Muslim women [were] raped and murdered by Bajrang Dal and VHP activists. These women were all attacked not only because they were women but because they were Dalit and Muslim women. In the past month, two minor girls were raped in other cases in north and east Delhi on December 16th itself. A young woman in Siliguri was drugged, gang-raped, and then burnt, and a 5 year old Dalit girl was raped and killed in Bihar ” (Maya John, op.cit.).
Why was nothing being done?
The mass protests that have been taking place in Delhi and other centres of India ever since the dreadful facts came to light, while demanding severe and brutal punishment for the offenders, are also very much directed against the Indian government for not taking the steps needed, in the light of the widespread danger of rape that is constantly threatening India’s working women, to ensure their safety. Such was the anger of the demonstrators that when Delhi’s Chief Minister, a diminutive 74-year old woman called Sheila Dikshit, sought to address them, they would not allow her to speak at all. And certainly it is clear that the political will to take the necessary measures, that India could well afford, to protect its citizens has certainly been absent.
This lack of political will is to be explained by the fact that the various bourgeois political parties vying for control of the Indian government or the government of any of its component states cannot, if they want to get elected, afford to take a stand on any issue of principle because of the probability that this will offend people who might otherwise have voted for them. So they have no principles, preferring to rely on fielding charismatic candidates, or rich candidates with a large following of hangers-on, and on the straightforward purchase of votes. More importantly, no bourgeois government tends to put a very high premium on safeguarding the interests of those who are relatively less well off. A combination of all these factors has led to almost total inaction.
And when did the Indian government get galvanised to act? When tens of thousands descended into the streets to protest, when the government’s immediate response was to send in the police with batons and tear gas to try to terrorise the peaceful protesters – to no avail, we are glad to say. In the end the mass protests persuaded several of the more intelligent big shots of Indian bourgeois politics to condemn the barbarity of the rape and to make promises of reform of various kinds. The Indian government also arranged for the victim to be taken to the hospital in Singapore where she unfortunately died in spite of the best medical care that money could buy which the Indian government found itself compelled to proffer.
One can only hope that the shock and anger that the 16 December crime has engendered will imbue even the callous moneybags who control the Indian government with a desire to remedy a situation which has truly put them to shame in the eyes of the whole world.
The depressed state of women and the so-called low castes is eloquent testimony to the consequences of the failure to complete the anti-feudal democratic revolution, for the extreme oppression of women and the low castes in India is inextricably linked to the continued existence of semi-feudal relations and the absence of revolutionary land reforms, which alone could have destroyed feudalism root and branch throughout the Indian countryside.
Ultimately, though, we can be sure that it is only with the completion of the democratic revolution and passing over to socialism, when it is the working class which wields state power and wields it for the benefit of the members of its class, that there is a real incentive to ensure that the needs of ordinary working class women are properly catered for. Neither the Soviet Union nor China suffered a painful interregnum between the prevalence of the feudal oppression of women and the advent of women’s emancipation since the change was managed by the proletarian state and not by the state of the exploiting classes. In Europe it is true that the change was not marked by such aggravated violence as characterises India today, but as Engels explains in ‘Origin of the family’, there were historical factors at play in Europe that somewhat attenuated the worst effects of monogamy for women. However, as is clear from the reports (that came out at the same time as the dreadful news from Delhi) of an Italian priest warning women that they should not provoke their husbands to domestic violence by failing to keep their house tidy or by dressing provocatively, even in Europe there is a fair amount of domestic violence and general denigration and contempt towards women (as typified by so-called jokes at the expense of mothers-in-law and blondes) which still awaits the advent of socialism before it will be finally swept away.