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India awakens to its grass-roots power

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NEW DELHI

It’s common these days for people to compare India with China and conclude that maybe democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In India, they note, power shortages force factories to rely on generators, and investors may spend years trying to gain title to land for construction. In China, by contrast, power plants, factories and entire mega-cities seem to sprout overnight. Sleek trains streak across China’s countryside while Indians cram themselves into — or cling to the tops of — wheezing old buses.

These are caricatures, of course: Most Chinese cannot afford to ride on their high-speed rail; New Delhi’s Metro is modern and efficient. But when I asked about the comparison, a senior Indian official did not dispute the advantages of a one-party state in propelling infrastructure projects forward. Instead, he told me, India has advantages of its own.

You can see the possibility of one such advantage emerging from the extraordinary month of ferment, protests and soul-searching that has followed a horrific gang rape here Dec. 16.

The details of that crime have been told and retold: A 23-year-old woman and her boyfriend boarded what they thought was a public bus, only to be brutally beaten and, in the woman’s case, repeatedly raped and then left bleeding on the road. She died days later.

It is more than the random brutality that captured Indians’ attention. The victim’s story spoke to “the aspirations of new, young India,” the feminist author and publisher Urvashi Butalia told me, “not of the already rich but of those who can just begin to see the opportunities that may be offered by a changing country.”

The victim was from a poor farming family but was training as a physical therapist. She was lower-caste but dating a Brahmin. They had just seen “The Life of Pi” in one of the capital’s new malls — public spaces that allow young men and women to socialize as never before.

“New, young India” reacted to her barbarous end with an outraged determination that stunned those in power. Facebook- and text-message-fueled demonstrations at first demanded vengeance against the rapists; evolved into demands for better policing, better-lighted streets and swifter justice; and then moved into broader conversations about prejudice against females in schools, bureaucracies, offices — and inside families.

India’s lively media jumped on board and have not let up. In one investigation, a CNN-IBN television crew challenged a father who had disowned his daughter after her rape. “She should have protected her honor,” he said.

“Was it her fault?” the (female) reporter pressed.

A Sunday talk show took up workplace harassment (“Have you slept with your boss?” it asked in an instant poll, to which 3 percent said yes) and suggestive dancing in Bollywood movies (“Is it time for cinema to introspect on how it portrays women?” Eighty-six percent said yes.).

Newspapers invited women to tell their stories, anonymously if they chose, and reported old crimes that had received no attention when they occurred. Unimaginable ugliness and despair have been exposed in an unrelenting torrent: rapes inside homes, kept secret; rapes that police refuse to investigate; rapes by police of rape victims seeking justice. Some Indians bridle at the picture being presented to the world.

But the world has seen something else as well: thousands of Indians taking action, not as members of a particular party, caste or religion but as individuals joining to demand more responsiveness from their government and to talk about changing their culture, attitudes and schools.

The protests build on a similar grass-roots uprising against corruption last year. This time, protests of solidarity have taken place in Bangladesh and Pakistan and as far away as Egypt.

In China, state-controlled media “have really been going to town on this,” Butalia told me. Though she has worked for decades to raise awareness about violence against women in India, she found herself bridling at Chinese reporters’ loaded questions, “as if you can’t even walk out of the house” in India. “China does not release reliable statistics about rape,” she noted.

There’s another difference, too. In India (as in post-Newtown America), advocates worry whether they can sustain the outrage long enough to bring about reform. In China, a national online conversation would last only as long as the Communist Party deemed useful.

Both China and India have grown astoundingly over the past 20 years, hoisting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. For each, success has opened huge new opportunities and huge new challenges, with different political systems representing only one variable.

For India, one such opportunity may be the political space that allows people the chance to change things for the better, and their emerging suspicion that they just might have the strength to do so.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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