The gang rape and murder of a young woman last month has sparked furious protests in India — and given voice to an emerging political class. It has also highlighted the urban sprawl and violence that lie behind the country’s booming economy.
Mahipalpur is not a place you will find in many tourist guides to India. Once a village, now a cluster of cheap hotels, roadside restaurants and bus stops around a major road junction on the outskirts of Delhi, it is a place many pass by but few seek out.
The huge, new billion-dollar international airport terminal lies 1.6km or so away, across construction sites, wasteland and garbage dumps, obscured now by a thick winter fog, a mixture of smoke from wood fires and pollution. Concrete pillars of a recently constructed metro link, which worked for a few months but has been out of commission for many more, loom. Tens of thousands of people pass Mahipalpur every day. Few stop.
It was here, in the dirt beside a ramp leading to the flyover carrying an eight-lane highway, at 10:20pm on Dec. 16, that a bus briefly stopped and a semi-conscious woman and her male companion were dumped, naked and badly injured, on the ground. This being India, a crowd quickly gathered. Passing cars slowed. After 40 minutes, someone called the police, who fetched sheets from one of the nearby hotels to cover the couple and took them to hospital.
Arrive at almost any of the new airports being built across India outside its major cities, and head to the heritage sites or the better, long-established hotels, and you will pass through a Mahipalpur. These are the grey zones around India’s rapidly expanding urban centers. Little happens here that makes it into the local newspapers, let alone the Western press. Yet India’s myriad Mahipalpurs may hold the key to the country’s future.
In the three weeks since the gang rape and murder of the as-yet-unnamed 23-year-old woman by six men on a moving bus in south Delhi, there has been a great deal of comment in the Western media about the nature of modern India. Many appear surprised to have suddenly discovered something that appears to contradict the “booming India” story. When London Major Boris Johnson visited India last year, he described two sights on his journey into Delhi from the airport that, for him, encapsulated the country. One was a Jaguar car, symbol of India’s economic success, overseas clout and potential as a market. The second was an elephant being washed by its mahout, representing traditional, exotic India, unchanged and, happily, unchangeable. This week it is difficult to imagine anyone being quite so blithely inattentive to the complex realities of this vast and varied nation.
One of the first stories I covered on my return to India three years ago was the violence between Maoist guerrillas, Communist party thugs and other factions in the desperately poor district of West Midnapore, in the vast state of West Bengal. This appeared to be old India at its worst, a combination of grinding poverty and brutal killings. I interviewed a woman whose husband had just been executed by Maoist guerrillas who accused him of being a spy for the police. Nearby, other villagers complained of militia, run by the local government, who burned homes down and raped, apparently at will.
Although the catalyst for the wave of violence in West Midnapore was imminent state elections, the killings had started years earlier, when a major steel project was announced in the area. Such a project would have created jobs, wealth — and much opportunity for whoever controlled the area to indulge in immensely profitable racketeering. It was rooted not in the lack of change — but in the coming of change.