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Could gang-rape protests mark beginning of an age of activism for India? (+video)

India's youth bulge and its disillusionment with political leaders may have helped drive recent post-rape protests and an anticorruption movement. But it's not clear the new activism will sustain itself.

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Another young protester, Pallavi Srivastava, personifies that difference. Like generations of middle-class Indians before her, the urban planner left the country to study in the United States in 2003, but unlike her predecessors, she chose to return after eight years because of improved economic opportunities and the chance to be a part of a society in the making. “Things are in flux here,” she says, holding a placard that reads, ‘I pledge to use public transport.’ “There’s a lot of energy, but what this nation is going to be, nobody knows yet.”

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Role of the media

The protest she attended was organized through Facebook. Social media has been instrumental in mobilizing young outrage – Internet penetration is relatively low in India, but the bulk of the 135 million people online are under the age of 35. Still, the old media, especially English television news channels, have also played their part with wall-to-wall coverage: By contrast, a rally Tuesday of more than 1,000 slum-dwellers protesting the demolition of their homes as well as corruption in a government housing plan barely got any coverage. 

In earlier years, Indian television largely presented the public as a mob, says Arvind Rajagopal, a media studies professor at New York University. “There was always this fear of law and order being violated but now the public is assumed to be on the side of the good,” he says.

“There is a simmering sense of injustice that the media is building on,” he adds, empowering "the sense that moral authority lies outside the political institutions.”

India has a history of effective social movements – the anti-Narmada dam movement of the 1980s, for example – but these have been mass movements dominated by the left.

The new activism isn’t allied to any political party, and whether it will be sustainable or effective without a unifying agenda or without reaching across caste and class barriers remains unclear.

Some have already criticized the recent protests for being incoherent and even displaying an authoritarian impulse – a charge also levied at the Anna Hazare movement.

“Their demands are very basic and undemocratic, they want immediate justice and have no understanding of democratic processes and constitutional requirements,” says Flavia Agnes, a lawyer and veteran women’s right activist with the group Majlis.

Those demands have included punishing rape with castration or the death penalty and fast track courts to try those cases – measures that women’s groups don’t necessarily support. Death penalties may deter reporting of the crime – most rapes go unreported, it is believed – and may cause the rapist to murder the victim, say many women’s activists.  Ms. Agnes also opposes fast track courts, which she says is more likely to lead to “fast track acquittals.”

Only about 25 percent of rape cases resulted in convictions in 2010, and conviction rates were less than 10 percent in some states last year.

“What is needed are nonsensational, small measures,” says Agnes. “Getting women better access to the police station, getting the medical reports done sensitively.”

Potential to be transformative

Still, observers like Nigam believe the new movement has the potential to be transformative, even if it is temporary.  Unlike the upper-caste youth protests of the late 1980s against affirmative action for lower castes in colleges, the present movement is not about “defending privilege” so much as “more general issues of governance and what is generally perceived to be a collapse of the rule of law and mechanisms of justice,” he notes. “The middle class is no homogenous and unchanging entity.”

Even Agnes believes that the protests are largely positive. Her group’s support program for rape victims has gotten new attention and a senior police officer recently called her for ideas to encourage women to walk into his police stations.

Meanwhile, one state party has pledged not to field candidates with rape charges – a third of national legislators have criminal charges against them, including two with rape charges.

“For some reason, this rape has caught the national imagination,” Agnes says. “If that means the government and police cannot ignore this issue anymore, that’s a good thing.”

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