Among the most frightening aspects of power is the ability of its wielder to create a hierarchy of sorrow, influencing people to feel outraged at a tragedy befalling some and blithely ignoring its visitations on others.
Considering Delhi is dubbed the 'rape capital' of India, with 572 cases reported in 2011, it is simultaneously inspiring and bewildering to find thousands of people, particularly the young, take to the streets in protest against the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and the merciless beating of her male friend, a software engineer.
Perhaps Delhi was goaded into action because the tragic, gut-wrenching incident underlined to its denizens their own vulnerability. The couple had seen an evening movie in a spiffy multiplex and taken an auto-rickshaw to the point from where they could take a bus home. On the bus they encountered a nightmare from which Delhi and India have not stopped getting the shivers.
Had Delhi been a city with a conscience, the protests would not have demanded scrutiny and comprehension. As the 23-year-old woman continues to battle for her life, it may seem callous to assert that Delhi's outrage at her plight emanated from the hierarchy of sorrow. In the physiotherapy student and her friend, the young see themselves: they too go on dates, see movies in plush multiplexes, and take buses.
We didn't see ourselves in Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old Manipuri woman, into whose house personnel of 17 Assam Rifles broke on 11 July 2004 and dragged her away. Her body was subsequently found, scantily clad, bearing nail marks and bullet wounds. Her family alleged she had been raped and killed. The spokesman of Assam Rifles said she was a member of the Peoples Liberation Army, and was shot dead as she tried to flee while taking the soldiers to the militant outfit's hideout.
Yet we should have seen ourselves in the hundreds of Manipuri women who stormed the Assam Rifles Headquarters in Imphal, scores of them stark naked and holding placards which read: 'Indian Army takes our flesh'. How many of our mothers or sisters or daughters would walk naked to protest against rape if the allegation had been doubtful?
On 30 May 2009, Nelofar and her sister-in-law Asiya were found drowned in Kashmir. The locals accused the security forces of raping the women and then drowning them. A 1994 United Nations human rights report implicated Indian soldiers in 882 rape cases between 1990 and 1992.
In 2011, the state of Haryana which borders Delhi registered 733 rape cases. Many of the victims were Dalit women, and there were no street protests. Nor are we unduly perturbed at reports of sexual violence indigenous women are subjected to in the districts with Maoist violence.
It is inevitable in a hierarchical society to privilege the grief of some over others. It is also natural for people to empathise with the suffering of those who share our circumstances. Such is the manipulative skill of the powerful that it persuades us into believing that some are deserving of the tragedy we otherwise find despicable.
As for our bustling metros, we do not become furious as long as rape is confined to the slums. This is the reason why the 572 cases of rape last year did not provoke Delhi into besieging the bastions of power. We forget that an increasingly dehumanised society, with its forever widening gulf between rich and poor, can only produce criminals who can't be tamed by laws.
Perhaps there is no reason for us to be perennially pessimistic. It is possible those protesting on the streets of Delhi can understand through their own experience the pain and anger of the marginalised. Hopefully, they'd learn that their redemption lies in smashing the hierarchy of sorrow.