The true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its seven hundred thousand villages. If the villages perish, India will perish too.
- Mahatma Gandhi
That was a rather curious assertion by the Father of the Nation, and I'm increasingly certain he was way off the mark.
Let me explain.
There is a revolution going on in India right now, and it is easy to be distracted by the sound and thunder of the public protests into thinking that the protests are the revolution.
- The anti-corruption protests of August 2011, in the wake of the 2G spectrum auction scam and the Commonwealth Games scam, which mobilised tens of thousands of people;
- The freedom-of-speech protests of November 2012, in the wake of the arrest of two urban, educated, middle-class girls (for the crime of posting their criticism of a politician on Facebook), forcing the police into a humiliating backdown;
- The anti-rape protests of December 2012, in the wake of the gang rape of an urban, educated, middle-class girl by uneducated lower-class men, which is still playing itself out.
The faces of the protesters tell the whole story - they're young, educated and English-speaking. This is a powerful segment of the Indian demographic that has not been seen unsheathed until the last couple of years.
But as we are witnessing, such blind fury is ultimately short-sighted, because when the victim is one of the middle class, she has vastly superior means at her disposal to return such an attack with the ferocity of the state apparatus, hitherto only the weapon of the rich and powerful. The assaulted girl was a physiotherapy student, not an illiterate villager. She is "one of us", and the scale of the turnout at the protest rallies testifies to this. [It is instructive to note that even in the days after the Delhi rape, there have been assaults on poor, uneducated women living in less urban parts of the country. Those reports, although remarked upon, have not provoked a similar reaction in terms of protests, because those women are not of "us".]
It could reasonably be concluded from this that the current protests are just the middle class looking out for its own. While this may well be true, there is a fundamental difference between the "vested interests" of the middle class compared to those of the traditionally powerful or the historically oppressed. The middle class is not flexing its muscle in a bid to either oppress another group or to seek compensatory entitlements. What the middle class has always wanted is a free and meritocratic society. And therefore, in spite of protests like these being about the concerns of one group, their benefits will ultimately flow to all, including the most disadvantaged in the most remote parts of the country.
A fair and egalitarian India that safeguards every citizen's rights will come about only gradually, and through the intermediate tier of smaller towns, where much of tomorrow's educated youth will come from. Urbanisation brings with it the awareness of civil rights, and even if the immediately visible effect of urbanisation is increased strife, such turbulence is inevitably associated with the move to a fairer social order. India's much-romanticised villages are in fact the hotbed of casteism, sexism and every kind of pre-modern prejudice. [Google "khap pachayat ruling" for evidence.] Contrary to what Gandhi believed, India's salvation lies in the speed with which the country urbanises and leaves its village mentality behind.
Returning to the perpetrators of the heinous gang rape, it will not be entirely surprising if the 6 arrested men receive a much harsher punishment than usual. The pressure from the middle class for the death penalty could conceivably harden the law, which currently only specifies 12 years of rigorous imprisonment for rape. This will be an interesting legal development to watch.
Gandhi was wrong, after all. India is urbanising, and it is not perishing as a result. On the contrary, it is becoming more conscious of its rights and hence more civilised. In the words of one of Gandhi's contemporaries,
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
- Rabindranath Tagore
Tagore's dream is coming true as India awakens to a more assertively egalitarian society. And this is not through any purported virtue of Gandhi's villages but through the battles won by India's urban, educated middle class.