The challenge, though, for these new forms of activism is to press for change in a useful way. Their demands, right now, tend to petition the very state they revile, even to ask for greater control and repression. For instance, for all the valid protest against corruption, the only solution proffered was a heavy Lokpal bureaucracy, which would only add to, not reduce, the invasive powers of the state. Similarly, the current outpouring of anger about rape and sexual violence has focused almost exclusively on the state’s solutions, rather than looking within for the social roots of the problem. Again, many of the answers are blunt — hanging and castration for rape, moral policing and bans for other manifestations of sexism, with Honey Singh’s “rapist” lyrics, for instance, becoming a lightning rod for this anger. With this new alertness to toxic gender politics, attention has turned to things that were always around us — Bollywood’s blithe objectification of women, the clear misogyny in certain popular songs, advertisements that speak to dangerous cliches about masculinity. Disturbingly, however, the reflex is to legally ban and punish, rather than to boycott and avoid.
Civil society must hold the state accountable without making a fetish of the state, and inadvertently propping up statism by assuming that all order flows from “the authorities”. A more mature activism around sexual violence would ask questions of ourselves, analyse why women’s humanity and agency are systematically denied and how that can be changed, piece by piece. When the next wave of protest rolls in, it must interrogate the state to the extent necessary, but also realise the limits of such an approach, and use its own greater capacity for constructive change.