11 PM, paint cans ready: Rush was going to make her mark. I was a lookout, and the photographer, but for the moment I was given a brush and told to paint the wall blue. She’d invited me to come bomb the spot with her just hours before; she wanted everyone who got on the Green Park metro to know that she cared, that she was sick of the rape and abuse of women in India. She wanted to make her mark as part of the rage that has swelled among India’s youth.
We painted until we had a whole field of blue on the wall and on the sidewalk, and then Rush took her spray can and made a statement. The exit of the Green Park metro station was now a designated rape zone.
On December 16th, a 23 year old woman was brutally raped by six men on a chartered city bus in New Delhi and left naked on the side of the road. The crime ignited a media frenzy, and a movement of protest all over India. It was a fantastic story for a sensational press. The bus had passed through several police checkpoints while the crime was in process, and not one of the khaki shirts moved a finger. The gory brutality of the affair makes you cringe: the rapists mutilated the victim’s uterus. It was the perfect spark for a millennial generation itching to make its voice heard.
Rush talked to me about what it meant to her in her small South Delhi studio. The 22 year old Manipuri is a freewheeler. She likes going out alone at night, wearing whatever the hell she wants, bombing walls. Her freedom is everything. The rape scared her, because it easily could have been her, and it made the city she knows so well an uncertain place for a night stalker.
But Rush didn’t quite know what to make of the protests she was joining with her paint cans. She expressed anger at attitudes towards women, at the stigma that follows rape victims, at the corruption and incompetence of the police. She was going to tell the world that she was pissed, but she confided that she wasn’t sure what, specifically, should change. There was no course of action she would advertise on the walls of New Delhi’s public space. All she might champion was a vengeful justice- fast track courts and chemical castration for the rapists.
That justice was being demanded on signs all around me a few hours earlier, at the protests in the center of New Delhi. There were dozens of different groups there- student unions, leftists, conservatives, mourners, and legions of the press. There were also the onlookers, the people who came without an agenda, who had been caught in the emotional sweep of a mass movement.
The students brought signs that screamed justice, that demanded dignity, that asked for the death penalty. Various political groups formed clusters around portable microphones. The microphones were passed around to whoever wanted them, and rhetoric and cheers boomed, mostly empty. The rhetoricians demanded the dignity of the woman, and a more equal place for her in society. The students cried for their right to protest, and decried the closing of the national monument, India Gate, to the gatherings, but they weren’t feisty. The line for the security check into the protest zone was the most orderly thing I’ve seen in India, and nobody yelled at the riot police behind the barricades. There had been some violence in the days before, with overturned cars and burned government property, but it had quieted with the death of the victim and time.
The area between the gates became an unfocused free speech zone, and people felt good about saying their part, but there was no cohesion. The only people who didn’t get to use the microphones were the politicians who showed up. Nobody wanted this politicized, because nobody knew what to ask for.
The atmosphere was mirrored in the press. Coverage of the movement over the last few days had been focused mainly on heartwarming profiles of the victim and statements of grief from politicians. They lionized her—calling her “India’s braveheart.” When she died, the headlines said “India Has Lost its Daughter.” The 24 hour news coverage was filled with talking head debates, 8 heads to a screen, and they said the solution was everything from more female university graduates to bus charter reforms. No mantra emerged. No leaders with a voice. With nothing to tangible to champion, the press devoted itself to showcasing the movement they themselves had created. At the central protests in Delhi, there were almost as many journalists as earnest protesters. The TV crews had all brought out cranes, and the sky was thick with them. They would all sweep in unison to zoom on the most rabid of the microphone holders.
The onlookers, meanwhile, didn’t know what to do with themselves. Swept up with the great mass of energy and rage fueling the movement, they had braved the police lines and cold to come to center city. I can only imagine that they were waiting for the energy to push them somewhere, to give them a slogan, or at least a physical direction into which to stand and shout and raise a fist. None came. The onlookers mostly nodded their head here and there, gave half-hearted yells to one slogan or another; no commitment. They just milled with curiosity.
I went to the demonstrations with my Indian host, Anne. She was almost giddy with excitement as we walked in. It faded quickly as we walked around the groups, each watching a different person shouting. “All the people have their own agendas,” she said, with a little bit of disgust. We ended up sitting in the only group that wasn’t yelling, a silent vigil. A small group around burning candles, saying nothing, simply meditating on death and horrible rape and injustice. It was the most honest group there. They had no policy proposals to offer, no chants to rankle the streets, only sorrow at the injustice and incompetence that had let the crime come to pass.
That is what this movement is really about. It is a new generation flexing its muscles, taking stock of the deep problems in this wonderful and diverse country that has endless potential to offer them. It is a showcase of the frustration with the inept bureaucracy and corruption that governs so many aspects of their lives. It will blow over, because it is leaderless, a voice of discontent with the status quo that offers no prescriptions. A bill or two might pass, the call for the rapist’s blood will be honored, and the politicians will simply weather out the storm. But it will not be forgotten, and I think its greatest gift will be the molding of a few future leaders. India’s new globalized generation is flexing its political muscles, though they are weak and confused. The next time they do, I think they will be better organized and more powerful.