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India: The Nirbhaya rape and ‘bare branches’

by Kanti Bajpai, 5 January 2013

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The Times of India

January 5, 2013

The Nirbhaya rape case has traumatised urban Indians in particular. Its political effects may turn out to be quite significant. The Congress party has been at the receiving end of things for the past two years, mostly over corruption. There is a good chance that its handling of the rape case will further damage its image with the public, perhaps irretrievably at least in the next election. The bigger question though is: how shall we think about the growing incidence of rape?

Rape has roughly doubled between 1990 and 2008. This is based on reported cases, presumably. The actual numbers may be even worse. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, rape has grown 678% since 1971. It is the fastest growing crime in the country. In 2010, a rape occurred every 30 minutes; today, it is probably even more frequent. Rape is not the only violent crime in India, nor is it the only form of violence against women. But the Nirbhaya case has drawn attention to rape. Urban India in particular is incensed over the brutality and public nature of the attack.

Why is it becoming so unsafe for women in India and particularly in the cities and towns? Part of the answer is the attitude to women which simultaneously worships and denigrates the female. One consequence of female denigration is the terribly skewed sex or gender ratio. India has one of the worst records in the world in this respect. Indeed, South Asia along with China has the most dismal record - worse than the western countries, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa.

The preference for the male child plus technology which allows parents to choose what kinds of babies they will have (male or female) has led to this disastrous state of affairs. Asia alone has a surplus of over 60 million males. According to Valerie M Hudson and Andrea M Den Boer, by 2020, China will have 30 million surplus males bet-ween the age of 15 and 34, India will have 28 million and Pakistan 3-5 million.

In less than a decade from now, we in India will have 28 million males who do not have a potential female partner. Many of these males will be found in the cities. They may be unemployed. They will congregate socially and otherwise with other unattached males. Crime statistics all over the world show that unattached young males in cities are the most crime prone segment of the population. When they hang out in small groups, they develop a herd mentality, adopt risky behaviours and are frequently aggressive. Combine this with the use of alcohol or drugs, and you have a combustible mix.

A huge population of unattached young men who are not being absorbed into permanent and remunerative employment are not just a menace to daily life and ordinary people; they are a political explosion waiting to happen. They are an army that could be mobilised by unscrupulous and ambitious politicians. The larger significance of the Nirbhaya rape is that it draws attention to the social, economic, political, judicial and administrative context around us. The Chinese call these surplus men "bare branches" or "bare sticks" to draw attention to the fact that they will not have a partner and families of their own. India’s bare branches could be a massive, volatile and violent force.

Hudson and Den Boer in their work on surplus men argue that only authoritarian rule, historically speaking, has curbed the army of bare branches. India already is drifting towards authoritarian rule. We see this most clearly, as i have suggested in earlier columns, in the states where populist leaders use huge numbers of young unattached men to mobilise and intimidate the population. If Hudson and Den Boer are correct, India’s drift towards authoritarianism will continue - or else it will face increasing lawlessness and violence. Neither future is a happy one.

We have to take a bigger view of what is happening in India that is making social restlessness, lawlessness, intimidation, coercion and violence such an endemic feature of our existence. We must act before it is too late.


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.