But one has to be cautious. As the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign has only recently showed, projecting an issue into the public sphere is one thing; marching through the institutions is another. Whether or not this movement can sustain the necessary momentum for genuine reform calls for a broader understanding of what movements are, how they operate, and the contextual conditions in which they either fail or ultimately succeed.
The first observation is that this movement is not new. The feminist movement in India has a long history. Through repeated contestations, the women’s movement has built a rich normative discourse and has established a broad presence in civil society. But for all its successes, it remains largely absent from political society, a point underscored by the parade of politicians who recycled sexist stereotypes in commenting on the tragedy.
What is also not new is violence against women. Indeed, one of the clear successes of the movement has been to make the daily violence against women an issue of public debate; to make, as movements do, the ordinary outrageous. But if sexual violence is so widespread, why is this mobilisation taking place now, and why in Delhi? The factors that converge to make a movement go viral are complex and defy simple explanations. Analysts often try to dissect the core or essence of a movement, but this flies in the face of the diffuse, diverse and de-centred nature of movements themselves. Nonetheless, it is useful to explore two contextual factors that were critical in the movement’s genesis and will be critical to its long-term effects.
The first is that this movement has clearly been fuelled by the support of a rising urban middle class. The term “middle class” is so overused and overstretched that it often becomes meaningless, but there is little doubt that this movement has been driven by a social strata that is, for the most part, young, educated and inseparably linked to the rise of the city as a site of social transformation. This is significant because, on the one hand, this urban middle strata class has unique mobilisational resources, not least of which is its capacity to rouse the traditional media and fully leverage social media.
On the other hand, this aspirational middle class, unlike the propertied rich that can provide for themselves, depends on public goods and in particular on the freedom to work, socialise, learn and play in the city. The urban middle class in India is often taken to task for being politically disaffected, mindlessly consumerist or narrowly self-interested. But in demanding a city that is accessible, open and safe for all, this middle class is staking a claim that cuts across the social cleavages that have traditionally marked the city. In the US, Anne Pride famously linked the problem of violence against women to their right to move freely with the clarion call of “taking back the night”. At a time when urban politics is increasingly fragmented by nativism, communalism and various forms of class retrenchment (gated communities, privatisation of services), the articulation of a vision of the city that is broad and inclusive points to the possibility of a politics of social solidarity.
This leads to a second observation that links the demand for freedom to a demand for greater democracy. The protests have been fuelled by a recognition that this crime was not just an arbitrary act of brutal patriarchal violence, but also a symptom of a state that has failed its citizens. Cities throughout the world can be dangerous places, but the indifference and venality with which the political class treats the Indian city has made urban life especially precarious and insecure. Inadequate investment in public transportation not only congests the city, but gives rise to the kinds of unregulated bus service that was the site of the attack. Citizens often see the police as more foe than servant, more preoccupied with protecting VIPs and hastening their movement through the city than serving citizens. Across the city, men urinate in public even as women are denied public facilities. The failures of planning and public provisioning that have made housing precarious for the lower and middle classes have provided opportunities for politicians and developers to collude in the great land grab. So even as the city in India has become a place of dynamism and aspiration, the lack of responsive governance and inclusion have fuelled a wide range of insecurities.
The movement has already succeeded in starting a public conversation, the first step towards changing gender norms. Whether or not it can translate this discursive moment into institutional change will of course depend on how parties and the state respond. But in its anger and
demands, it has already raised the stakes. As the great sociologist Charles Tilly has argued, all progressive social movements pose the fundamental question, “do sovereignty and its accumulated wisdom lie in the legislature, or in the people it claims to represent?” The state’s clumsy response to the protests (closing subways, charging protesters) and politicians’ pathetic efforts to deflect attention from the root causes of the tragedy say much about where the wisdom lies. As for the movement, it has redeemed sovereignty, not only by asserting women’s rights to freedom, but the rights of all citizens to take back their city.
The writer is a visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and professor of sociology at Brown University’s Watson Institute, US