The 23-year-old student whose struggle against sexual assault, rape and death shone a harsh light deep into the ugly, rotting interior of our society is no more. But like Byron’s young woman “too soon returned to earth,” her extinguished life-star shines fiercely as it shoots along the sky, and it is up to us – as a people, as women, and as men — to fix the fractures and fissures it illuminates in the process. The government and political class would like to have speedy closure by ensuring the “maximum punishment” for the men who grievously assaulted the woman inside a bus as it sped along one of Delhi’s busiest roads. Punished they must be. But even if the six are hanged, and even if our legislators, in a fit of conveniently misplaced concern, prescribe the death penalty for rape, the pathology we are dealing with will not be so easily remedied. If anything, the past week has shown how so many of the framers and implementers of the law in India are themselves complicit in the very culture of patriarchy that produces, sanctions and makes excuses for violence against women. Their complicity lies not just in the foul statements we have heard but in the silences and compromises of senior politicians and officials who have presided over the multiple organ failure of the Indian state, a failure which denies security and justice to women across the country.
Laws to deal with rape and sexual assault exist but not the police, judiciary and leaders to work them. It is this leaderless vacuum that ordinary citizens must step into in order to affirm the rights of women. The right to be born and fed, and to study; the right to work and live with dignity, the right to dress and travel and love as they please. Of course, those who rule are not ready to accept such an affirmation. That is why a police blockade of Rajpath — the road whose very name symbolises rulership — was imposed within hours of the young woman’s death. There are specific steps — administrative, pedagogic, cultural — that must be taken to prevent sexual assault and rape. But there is a wider question: Would the Indian political system and class have been so indifferent to the problem of sexual violence if half or even one-third of all legislators were women? The Congress and the Opposition should forget about playing to the gallery. If they are serious about the rights of women, they should quickly pass the Women’s Reservation Bill. Let the presence of at least 181 female MPs in the next Lok Sabha — and the political mobilisation of women this will slowly catalyse — be Parliament’s way of honouring the death of the Unknown Citizen.