London: The grievous assault on a hapless woman in Delhi is a reminder, if one were needed, that it is one of the worst cities in the world for women. Delhi is all the worse because it professes legality and boasts moral superiority, unlike major South African cities and vast tracts of the Congo, where women and girls are mere helpless prey. Many other Indian cities, including now Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore, are also apparently competing for the crown of being named as the most venal for women.

The vicious assault on the young woman’s life and dignity are an indication of the unique new depths to which India is sinking. India seems unable to face a modernity that offers a modicum of advancement for women and there is a political class that has abdicated the most basic responsibility of society, the protection of women, girls and children from egregious violence. A new vocabulary is required to adequately describe these crimes. Everyday words have been rendered innocuous because of the frequency with which they have to be used. Yet, this particular assault that included the vilest imaginable torture, with the use of an object to rupture her internal organs, is a compelling metaphor as well. The sexual violence to which she was subjected mirrors the grotesque economic rape of contemporary India by its ruling elite, unmindful of consequences and quite unafraid. And this elite is perfectly willing to assault potential critics in the way the woman’s companion was silenced with an iron rod.

This horrendous crime is a possible turning point in the nation’s political perceptions and its political class stands exposed as the most callous and corrupt in living memory. The holding forth on the ghastly episode by honourable women members of the Samajwadi Party, themselves complicit, by association, with the most lawless of political dispensations in modern India, is a sight to behold. One of them suggested the solution would be mob justice, the other hanging. Perhaps they should have affirmed their prescriptions would apply to votaries of their own political party, often in the forefront of violently affronting women’s personal and political rights. Others in positions of power, across the political spectrum and especially women legislators, need to answer what they were doing while umpteen sexual crimes were taking place earlier. The thought that grandstanding for political advantage is what motivates all of them, women politicians included, is the dismaying inference. The media, as usual, seems to have only sensed an opportunity to manipulate already manipulated ratings, animatedly soliciting the views of actors and celebrities of every description, as if they were best fitted to offer serious comment.

In my thankfully brief recent sojourn in Delhi, I was daily astonished at the sheer audacity of the verbal and physical crimes committed against women going about their lawful business. I often wondered how they put up with being touched physically in broad daylight, subjected to crude gesturing and endless sexual obscenities. Of course women had no choice, since the city was deeply hostile to women and they had to be out of the home. Quite outrageously, the insolent granny, masquerading as Delhi’s chief political honcho, advises women to stay home after dark. Like the political elite to which she belongs, a product of vulgar preferment, by virtue of obsequies loyalty to their betters, the stuttering mediocrity does not inhabit the real world, only a few metres from her home and office. It was, therefore, no surprise that she also opined last week that it was possible for a family of five to eat on 600 rupees for a month in Delhi.

The behaviour of the self-willed and utterly unreasonable chief minister of West Bengal has the merit of crude simplicity since she offers no apology. She has denounced rape victims as politically motivated and ended the career of one exceptional women police officer, who succeeded in establishing the truth of one rape victim’s claims. A horrible suspicion lurks that the chief minister regards incidents of inter-communal rape as too sensitive, potentially explosive and, most relevant and disgracefully of all, disadvantageous to the electoral fortunes of her own political party. She has evidently enjoined the West Bengal police to deter registering of FIRs and, to my own certain knowledge, harangue and harass the victim’s family, pressing for the withdrawal of allegations. Some police officers are more receptive to victims, but it is not to be taken for granted, even when a minor has been kidnapped, raped and marriage obligated. Quite clearly, the chief minister has taken a leaf out of the social mores of Pakistan’s Sindh province, where the frequency of such occurrences has drawn the attention of newspapers like the Dawn.

But on the whole, the police in India are another matter, which anyone who has had the misfortune to interact with them will know. In purely quantitative terms, if appropriate methodology could be evolved to compile and add up their violent conduct towards the powerless and bribe-taking, they would qualify as the single biggest crime syndicate in India. I recall once walking into a Delhi police station to report a missing passport and wondering at the sullen indifference. I then received a telephone call from a senior IAS officer friend, who berated my recklessness walking into a police station because terrible things could have apparently happened to me. I received a telephone call from a police Joint Commissioner a few minutes later and found myself drinking tea in the office of a solicitous OC! The police are entirely the creatures of lowly politicians, tasked to look after their every need and allowed to proceed unmolested with their own criminal activities in exchange. Enforcement of the law for the benefit of the citizen is a periodic gimmick entailed if electoral advantage is to be gained.

The greatest single challenge facing Indian society and indeed the wider world is the place of women in a just society. In the West, labour shortages during major wars and ease of access to contraception created the underpinning for women’s empowerment. The women’s movement in advanced market societies might, in retrospect, question some features of the destination which has been reached so far. Nevertheless, women in India and elsewhere, unavoidably, have much to learn from their experience and indeed imitate some of their strategies, if not all their goals. The slogan of equality may be politically necessary, but does oversimplify some of the practical choices women face. Their equal humanity ought to surely be first accepted and must begin with an end to violence towards them, as the most basic unarguable step. The rights women wish to enjoy in a just society as individuals, but also as members of a family, which most choose to belong within, is something they themselves will enumerate. In the meantime, men should hang their heads in shame and reflect on the long history of humankind that consigned those who reproduce life itself, often in remarkably demanding circumstances, to not just second class status, but myriad barbarities. The fate of the woman in Delhi going home on a bus is just one more sad and horrible example of this shamefully cruel reality.