January 1, 2013: She died in hospital on Saturday morning, aged 23, with horrible injuries. She was gang-raped, beaten with an iron bar, thrown from a moving bus, left naked in the road, ignored by many passers-by. The death of this unnamed woman in Delhi has galvanised fury across India. Civil unrest, demonstrations and vigils closed down swathes of the city; Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi, was booed when she tried to address the crowds. State and national governments are seriously alarmed.
Good. About time too. We in the West enjoy an image of India: industrious ambition, rising economy, colour and vigour. We romanticise it, cooing at garlands and tuk-tuks in films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. We admire its art and buildings, and borrow shreds of its ancient spiritualities to decorate our wavering agnosticism.
There is a bitter irony in learning that the young woman and her male friend had been out to see the Life of Pi, in which the cinema-going world watches a brave young Indian boy crossing an ocean, exploring the exalted spirituality of the three religions of the subcontinent while suffering the inability of animals to coexist peacefully.
It has been easy, despite brave voices from within India, to ignore the ugly faultline in the world’s biggest democracy. Despite its modernisations, the country has taken little care to promote serious cultural change where women are concerned. A newspaper editorial charitably describes a "twilight zone" where traditional social and religious norms are fading "while modern values based on individual liberty have not yet gained acceptance".
Delhi itself has a particular problem because tens of thousands of newly urbanised people, from villages still almost medieval, live alongside modern workers including liberated women. Many young men consider "Eve-teasing" (the disgustingly coy subcontinent euphemism for sexual harassment and assault) as their male birthright. The rapists in this case were, we are told, from this demographic; their victim a medical student whose parents sold their land to pay for her education.
Such men see successful and ambitious young women on their way to work in short skirts, laughing and holding hands with boyfriends. Cue scorn, anger, envy and lust. I put lust at the end of that list, because rape has always had an element of contempt, a desire to put uppity women in their place. Ask any prison psychiatrist: serial rapists often hated their mothers or were rejected by girls.
But India can’t pin the whole atrocity on a few bad boys. The current healthy protest demands a wider change. A benign cultural earthquake is necessary if the country can be allowed to hold its head up in the civilised world. A recent TrustLaw survey of major nations ranked India as the worst in which to be a woman. "Women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes, and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour," says Gulshun Rehman of Save the Children. "This is despite a groundbreakingly progressive Domestic Violence Act enacted in 2005 outlawing all forms of violence against women and girls."
In India, oppression begins before birth: it is a good 20 years since brave Indian researchers blew the whistle on the fact that female fetuses were routinely aborted. There are villages where you can hardly get clean water but you can definitely get amniocentesis, to check you aren’t carrying a "useless" girl. The result is a skewed population. Economists Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray estimate that 12 per cent of what would be a normally proportionate female population disappear at birth, a quarter die in childhood, and nearly a fifth around childbearing age. More women die of "injuries" than in childbirth. Injuries. Think about it. A major cause is fire. Like being set alight in a row over your dowry. Prosecutions are rare.
As to violence, rape cases are rising, though maybe partly due to willingness to report it. Most victims are family members or neighbours of their attackers. Police indifference and delay are widely reported. Abduction and trafficking of women and girls is up too, and healthcare, as the Nobel winner Amartya Sen has pointed out, is far worse for women than for men.
There is unignorable, statistical evidence of this cultural rottenness. Yet the leader of the ruling party, Sonia Gandhi, is a woman; so are the Speaker of the lower house of parliament and at least three chief ministers. They should be mired in bitter shame at their failure to make a difference to women below their own social and professional level.
The Prime Minister and others have laid wreaths for the dead girl, expressed suitable outrage and talked of exemplary sentences and chemical castration, but enraged protesters ask why nothing really changes in law enforcement. And how political lip-service to the issue can be credible when major parties field numerous male candidates charged with rape, and six state legislators have similar charges against them.
We in the West have the luxury of fretting about feminist issues such as magazine images, rude remarks and men not doing housework. But we should honour the rage of the good people, from Bollywood and literary stars to anonymous demonstrators, who are out on the Indian streets, defying festering old taboos and cruel dead religious ideas. They demand attention from their leaders and law enforcers. Slowly, it seems that the latter are realising that decent anger cannot be damped down with teargas and water-cannon. This last death, symbol of many others, may be India’s tipping point. Let it be so.