Every year my grandparents make the annual trip to our holiday home in Gurgaon, just outside of New Delhi, India. I regularly join them and following the recent judgements in the Delhi rape trial and other similar incidents, one might suspect this year would be very different.
It is a wish of many first and second generation parents that their children grow with a sense of awareness about their roots and their migration to the UK that became part of the great British Asian narrative. It might be presumed that for the huge diaspora of expatriates that currently reside in the UK, the customary trip ‘back to the motherland’ may never be the same. One in eight tourists to India are British and those who holiday and pilgrimage to the nation may do so with a greater sense of trepidation and planning than ever before. Indeed the Foreign Office stated earlier this year that “women travellers should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group.”
However, despite the flurry of criticism in the media, I am somewhat unfazed. I do not feel that the plight in India now is that much worse than it was before and let me explain why.
It is true that the numbers of reported rapes in India have spiked with over 1,000 cases of rape reported until August this year, against 433 cases reported over the same period last year. But this is most likely due to more reporting than due to higher incidence, which is in fact a positive sign that the taboo is slowly breaking and victims are finally speaking up.
We agreed that we would be a little careful when visiting guests and travelling out of the popular areas but few should be any more worried than they might have been in the past. I am not saying not to exercise greater caution; but that any dangers that may be present were in fact present before the so-called sudden influx of rape cases.
Indeed the numbers of reported rapes doubled between 1990 and 2008, including the rape and murder of the Australian Dawn Griggs and English teenager Scarlett Keeling in 2008, but this did not largely deter the number of visitors. In fact the number of Western tourists went up by 7% between 2009-10. The apparent imminent ‘rape epidemic’ has only become such because the media have decided to push such stories from the back pages to the front headlines alongside politics and the economy. They were always happening in the background and increasingly so over the last 20 years.
Whilst the Delhi and Mumbai cases have been harrowing and despicable acts of violence, rampant rape has never been exclusive to the nation. The death penalty judgments in the Delhi case on Friday were warranted as the case was considered ‘the rarest of the rare,’ by Judge Khanna. But for those of us who visit India from the West on a regular basis, we know there is nothing really that rare about this incident. The only thing that was rarest of the rare in this case was the intense media scrutiny and subsequent protests. Murder, rape, ethnic cleansing, bribery and theft coupled with a cultural epidemic of misogyny have been systemic parts of the Indian society for many years. My relatives in the nation oft remind me of stories of murder, acid attacks and abuse of women on their front doorsteps that go largely unreported. Indeed there is a rape every twenty minutes and only a 3% conviction rate.
It just so happens that the lawlessness of the nation has not been a hindrance or discouragement for tourists in the past as it is quite simply ignored. The fast current of Indian metropolitan life is such that if the media do not heavily publicize it, people will eventually turn a blind eye, and eventually forget it is happening at all.
Hence, the Delhi case paralyzed the nation’s consciousness not so much for the gravity of the crime but for the pandemic of international press coverage that exposed what everybody always knew. Everybody always knew India was not that safe a place for women. Trains have long been segregated by women-only carriages as well as recreational facilities. Over the last decade, dowry death and kidnapping of women has been increasing by 15% year on year.
Tourists were maybe not as concerned before as India has long been comparatively a safer place for women than the vast majority of its neighbours – and still is. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh have laws that explicitly cement patriarchal dominance and misogyny in society mostly through Sharia law. India has in fact been seen as one of the more progressive nations for women empowerment – starting with one of the first female Prime Ministers in history with Indira Gandhi in 1966. In Hindu religious imagery, goddesses have always been portrayed as ‘Shakti’ or power with numerous weapons. Indeed the cow is so revered for its resemblance to a mother figure through its gentle nature and milk producing attributes.
The media have so eloquently typecast India in the past as a brutish nation of curry, caste and cow, and now chauvinism. And thus the stream of international condemnation flows from there. Maybe it is just that people expect more of India. I, for one, just see it as it always was.