In Delhi’s defence

Reuters photo
Reuters photo

By SHIVAM VIJ: The census counts ’urban agglomerations’, and the Census of India says that Mumbai is India’s largest urban agglomeration. This includes Mumbai’s suburbs. In counting Delhi, the suburbs are not added because They are separated by state boundaries. If you were to add suburbs of the ’National Capital Region’, Delhi’s population would be not 16 million but over 22 million, making it the world’s largest urban agglomeration after Tokyo. This bustling urban centre is made of its people. Today’s Delhi cannot be stereotyped as just the seat of power. There is more to Delhi than the endless roundabouts of Lutyens’ capital.

Delhi’s core – the Partition refugee Punjabi – is not xenophobic like the Marathi ’manoos’ of Mumbai. In fact Delhi today is what Bombay once was, India’s foremost cosmopolitan metropolis. It is the city of choice for people from across India to migrate to with dreams of riches.

A lot has been written about “the Delhi gang-rape”. 16 December 2012 started a conversation that doesn’t seem to end. This conversation has largely been about rape, not about Delhi.

The city hasn’t been given its due. Rape is a global issue. It is not as if there women are not brutalised anywhere outside Delhi. But the protests that Delhi saw non-stop for thirty days after 16 December were so inspiring that it is hard to explain what it felt like. We were out there, in morning and at night, without police permission to protest, and not limiting ourselves to the designated protest areas. We, the people of Delhi, deserve our due for making that moment historic. Not that we were doing anyone a favour: we were only reclaiming our city for ourselves.

The only person who seems to have paid a tribute to Delhi is the feminist writer Eve Ensler, famous for her 1996 play, ’Vagina Monologues’. “This is mind blowing,” she said of the protests on a visit to Delhi in early January, “There is an incredible spirit at work right now. To see men and women coming to the streets to demonstrate against rape is a breakthrough in terms of human consciousness. I cannot think of a country in my lifetime where thus has ever happened including the United States… We have a rape problem in the US. Why are we not doing what the people in Delhi have done?”

When the story first broke, a friend who works in the city pages of a local daily told me the papers had played up the story because it had happened in elite south Delhi. “Rape cases with as much brutality happen rather often, but they happen in places like a slum in east Delhi. Our editors confine such news to a single column in the inside pages,” she said.

Even so, as the protests gathered momentum, my friend gave up that cynicism. The 16 December girl became a symbol of the fear women face to do something as simple as go out for a movie with or without a boyfriend.

But some Indian radicals weren’t happy. How would they be radical left if they approved of a popular movement? To be radical you must ’take a position’ that is unpopular and marginal. You don’t need to do anything substantial such as face water canons or march in the cold. Facebook is good enough for position-taking.

The cast of such characters is as predictable as their positions. There is the homesick PhD student in the US, the Bengali bhadralok still mourning the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, the Brahmin publisher of expensive books in English about Dalits, the academic in a small town, and the Kashmiri azadiwallah. All of these people are elites in their societies and locations, but their claim to fame is that either they don’t live in the national capital, or even while circling the inner Ring Road they pretend to live in some subaltern marginal place of their imagination.

They think that the 22 million people in Delhi NCR are the power elite who run India. They all complained that Delhi was protesting only because the girl was a south Delhite, urban, upper caste, Hindu, middle class and so on.

All of these people ended up with egg on their faces when it turned out the girl was working class, daughter of rural migrant labourer, lived on a far edge of Delhi and belonged to a peasant caste.

Identity politics is a powerful tool for the marginalised and the oppressed but its appropriation by the radicalitis-stricken is worrying. Identity politics us the new last refuge of the scoundrel. It needs to be saved from the Facebook radical who, sitting in an Ivy League university in the US, lectures us that we should worry about rape in Jharkhand, not Delhi. Are we the denizens of Delhi allowed to have a city identity? Are we allowed to care about our neighbourhood? How is it that adivasis are allowed to take to arms for their rights but if the people of Delhi shout a few slogans for their city their protest is illegitimate?

The armchair critic whined that the protests in Delhi were by elite upper class people. While this is not true, does it mean we should not do something about violence against women until we can politically unite the migrant labour with the bank officer?

How can the self-appointed Brahmin messiah of Dalits say that people are protesting because the victim was upper caste, when the protesters didn’t even know her caste? How can the Kashmiri azadiwallah simply choose to ignore that the ’Indian’ protesters were invoking Shopian and Kunanposhpora in their slogans and posters, and keep saying that they don’t care about rape in Kashmir? And when a girls’ rock band is forced to disband in Srinagar because of rape threats, the same azadi radicals tell Indians to shut up?

how are the people of Delhi responsible if the people of Ranchi or Allahabad or Ohio do not rise up and raise a voice against rape in their city? Why must Delhi bear their burden?

Why do those who live in Delhi – repeat, migrants all – need to carry the burden of the nation on their shoulders? By asking that of them, aren’t you seeing them in the very framework of nationalism you claim to question? Why, for instance, do you even expect the Delhi media to be ’Indian media’ when you don’t buy the Indian national project?

One may be dismayed by the death penalty granted to the 16 December perpetrators, but if the 16 December case has become a turning point for the struggle against gender-based violence, then some credit must go to the people of Delhi.

42 thoughts on “In Delhi’s defence”

  1. Nah.. Delhi is too far away for me to migrate to from Bangalore. Probably Chennai or Hyderabad.


  2. Wonderfully put! Nowhere else in India have we seen such an uprising for this cause. I’m sure the people of India will be taking a page out of the courage that Delhi demonstrated. These are the kinds of things that tend to go viral in the real world. Irrespective of the judgement meted out against the city I think the rest of the country HAS to come your way to learn how to fight back!


  3. In terms of the sheer spirit of the protests, it has been heartening to see the people come together and demand a change. For those armchair critics, all I have to say is that while you may whine all you want, the truth remains that people, the walking, talking teeming millions that crowd the metro, throng the markets of Saket and Sarojini Nagar with equal aplomb stood together, faced lathi charge and water cannons to say that WE WILL NOT BE SILENT ANYMORE.The protests were not about the demographic profile of the victim but the crime. And while this was not the first case of rape in the country nor was it the last, it did wake up a generation to the power of a people to demand action and better laws from its government.


  4. “Delhi’s core – the Partition refugee Punjabi – is not xenophobic like the Marathi ’manoos’ of Mumbai.”

    Sorry Shivam, this is just incorrect. Sorry for throwing these stats at you, but a look at the census breakdown of languages 2001 will reveal that 81 % of Dilliwallahs speak Hindi, 7 % speak Punjabi and 6 % speak Urdu, thus 95 % of Dilliwallahs are basically North Indian. Also Delhi is 82 % Hindu, 12 % Muslim and 5 % Sikh, so it is religiously reasonably diverse. But Mumbai is much more diverse on both counts. 42 % of Mumbaikars are Marathi, 20 % Gujarati, and the remaining 40 % consist of North Indians, South Indians, Bengalis etc. Mumbai is 67 % Hindu, 20 % Muslim, 5 % Buddhist and 4 % Christian. Thus Mumbai is far more diverse than Delhi is, and the Marathi manus cannot be said to be ‘xenophobic’.

    We will see how nicely Dillwallahs retain their non xenophobicness if a totally different language is forced down their throats. In my interactions with folks from North India, I have seen far, far more xenophobia and downright contempt of other cultures. Check the number of Marathis who speak and can even sing well in Hindi. In fact, most of the great singers and music directors of Bollywood have not been North Indian.

    The reason you see these protests in Delhi is mainly because the Central Government ruthlessly extracts money from the states to fund universities, and thus Delhi has obtained a decent student culture. Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai would also be able to provide such an environment, if only their revenues were not sucked away by Delhi.


      1. Well, historically Delhi has been a Urdu speaking city. So no surprise there really.

        Why is the Delhi Punjabi represented by the affable Punjabi aunty and Mumbai Marathi manus by the MNS ?


    1. Thank you, Vikram. You have precisely spelt out the discomfort I had with this article. There is no point denying that majority of Delhi’s protesters were students or atleast it was a largely student-motivated if not a student-led protest. In the wake of the 16th Dec gang rape, there was an excellent article on Delhi’s unearned privileges which makes for interesting reading:

      “Why is the Delhi Punjabi represented by the affable Punjabi aunty and Mumbai Marathi manus by the MNS?” You have captured it perfectly, in all its sneering complacency and unfairness.

      As a Mumbaikar who has spent a couple of years in Delhi, I am more than familiar with the not-so-subtle xenophobia that its people exude. Don’t take my word for it, just ask any woman from one of the North-Eastern states living in Delhi. And as for all that clap-trap about people from all states flocking to Delhi, the most visible majority of them are students. Migrant students are not the same as migrant labourers. Besides it is yet another indictment on delhi’s shameless hogging of resources that students from remote parts of the country have to flock to delhi in the first place.


      1. But I must say, that the unnecessary Mumbai-bashing apart, this article was a well-argued tackling of the holier-than-thou elite radical set.


        1. Yes, I agree. I am all for criticism of Mumbai’s inequalities and politics, but the comparisons made here are just way off.

          Delhi with a population of 15 million has 4 Central Universities in addition to the IIT and AIIMS. The whole of Maharashtra, with a population of 105 million, has just one central university (a ‘Hindi university’, just to rub it in I guess).


          1. Delhi has 4 central universities because it used to be a UT and is still not like a full state. Has anyone stopped the Maharashtra government from setting up great universities? And what does this have to do with the anti-migrant intolerance of Mumbai anyway?


            1. What does the anti-migrant attitude of a certain section of Mumbai’s population have to do at all with an article about protests in Delhi to begin with? And yes, as Vikram has already pointed out, the student-political culture in Delhi (from its lavishly state-funded universities) was a critical factor for the protests to pick up steam.


              1. So it is because the universities in Delhi are well funded that Delhi has a rich student political culture? All that Bombay needs is more money for its universities? And were all the protesters in Delhi students? Looks like my article hit where it hurts. Too bad.


                1. Too bad your argument in support of delhi’s protests could not be propped up without irrelevant, denigrating and erroneous generalizations about other Indian cities. Sad that a city which is apparently India’s ‘foremost cosmopolitan metropolis’ cannot stand in its defence without stooping so low.


    2. Vikram,

      Yes 81% speak Hindi. That’s because they live in Delhi. I studied in a Christian school with classmates whose states of origin were Kerala, Tamil Nadu and to some extent West Bengal, apart from the North Indian states and the second generation Dilliwallas. Everyone leant Hindi and everyone spoke in Hindi fluently (identifying it as a native language, apart from their own mother tongue and English). So the 81% Hindi speakers do not reflect only a Punjabi/UP wala speaking the language. Thus your argument is flawed.


  5. “Delhi today is what Bombay once was, India’s foremost cosmopolitan metropolis”

    This is a naive idea that mistakes what cosmopolitanism has ever meant for Bombay, historically. Around the world, it was the Left that was the true partisan of cosmopolitanism in the twentieth century. The greatest years of Bombay’s cosmopolitanism ended with the death of its Left in the mid-late 1950s, when the Left joined hands with the Hindu Mahasabha to create a united Maharashtra. The end of Bombay’s cosmopolitanism was a direct function of the atrophy of the Left in Bombay (in spite of all its faults), and not simply a direct reflection of the actions of one Bal Thackeray.

    Delhi, on the other hand, has never really had a left movement. On the one hand, you have had (and still have) the Stalinist jhollawallas of JNU whose prospects rise and fall with the AISF elections. On the other hand, there are the post-marxist closet liberals who are so terrified of any idea of political violence that they would rather spend months celebrating the caste-diversity of Anna Hazare’s followers. Every time a dalit worker farts, it is wind under the wings of the academic left-liberals of Delhi. Both these groups were perhaps secretly glad that the victim was a daughter of a lower-caste migrant worker, for it vindicated their anguish.


  6. About the Partition refugee Punjabi not being xenophobic, it’s difficult to buy this as someone refused housing in Jangpura by the very same Punjabis for being a meat eating Christian. Something your North East Indian and Muslim friends would also tell you happens all over Delhi. But then again, my eventual landlady did come upstairs to congratulate me on the 377 High Court victory. As the topic of my sexuality until then was the usual unspoken obviousness, I was quite embarrassed and awkward while she was all “balle balle ho gaya, ji”. But perhaps your sources on the world view of the Marathi manoos should go beyond The Collected Utterances of Raj Thackeray. Just saying.

    As for Delhi getting it’s due, we already got it when the government cowering in fear in the face of the powerful protests barricaded themselves, when many, many people in other cities in India joined the protests in solidarity, through (limited but) lasting change in rape laws brought by Justice Verma. And I think one of the biggest victories of that month is that those famous words ‘bol ke lab azaad hai teri’ is something people of Delhi who were never part of movements and had never protested before, now own. Personally I think Delhi got its due in the knowledge that so many of its people found their voice and use it. Who needs any more certificates?


  7. The students and youth who participated in the week long protest were badly in need of this kind of a piece. The students and the youth who bravely faced the brutal Delhi police, may failed to theorize, what is the social location of their protest, but they never failed to protest. How these self styled academic Dons dare to generalize the Delhi protesters as elite?? They were from all classes, from all back grounds,with different ideologies. Completely agreeing with you regarding the analysis of the approach of identity politics intellectuals towards the protest. Yes we admit that there were shortcomings in the movement and the result we reached in form of death penalty is not at all acceptable. But we deserve our ‘due’ and nobody can deny it..


  8. The homesick PhD candidate came and lectured in my university in New York. Wasnt as inspiring as this:)


  9. I knew I will love it when I read the heading. It is awesome and many thanks for writing this Shivam Vij.


  10. Very good points though don’t expect people to give up their respective schticks which actually define their respective identities(perversely). From a non-identity place:for the short year and a half I lived in Delhi decades ago, even my infrequent trips on DTC filled me with deep anger at all men. I stopped being angry only after I left Delhi and moved elsewhere in India. These protestors never left, so I fully understand their volcanic anger. Delhi should be admired for the inspiring protests but it is difficult to laud the environment that caused the protests to happen


  11. Shivam,
    How many “radicals’, as you call them, are there in all — counting only Indian radicals for this purpose? The Dec-Jan protests in the aftermath of the rape in delhi were truly breathtaking — and something to be proud of. It’s a side of Delhi to be cherished. But can’t that be done without running down some other group? You write, “But some Indian radicals weren’t happy. How would they be radical left if they approved of a popular movement? To be radical you must ’take a position’ that is unpopular and marginal.” Do you really believe that is all there is to any radical thought, or are you being sarcastic here? I hope it is the latter — because not too long ago — abolition of untouchability and inter-caste marriage were radical ideas in this country. I agree that identity politics has its limitations — but not all radicalism is identity-driven. Your tirade against radicalism seems rather poorly timed when considering that a number of individuals who are deemed radical — a DU professor, or a journalist from uttarakhans — are being hounded by the state precisely for their radicalism. A rant makes for good copy, but a little more careful commentary is expected from kafila.


  12. Loved the article…. despite of all the debates and discussions one is bound to get involved in an “internet democracy” – we must not forget the simple fact that something happened to bring about a change …. without any political patriarch to flare it up …. some may argue that it lost direction midway but in my opinion, a failure backed by a great effort, is actually a dress rehearsal for the next showdown….. Anything noble happening in any nook or corner of this world is always welcome….. be it calcutta or california …. lets get inspired without too much of an analysis


  13. @Shivam … Do not have stats to prove what i am saying … I presently live neither in Delhi nor Mumbai … my longest stay in Delhi was 15 days and Mumbai was 2 years … In those 15 days in Delhi , the times that i was not in a safe location with my wife (in a house , hotel, company car, etc) I was jittery all through out … being extra careful … constantly looking out … mentally noting numbers of public vehicles i was boarding … which was never the case in Mumbai … have walked home from Jogeshwari station at 1 am in the night … eaten at sidey restaurants next to dance bars … its very difficult to put a finger on what it is … its a feeling … yes … the recent case in Mumbai is shocking to say the least … but somehow have never felt unsafe in mumbai with my wife … (and i have stayed in a hotel in saki naka in the midst of police raid which itself is another story) … I may be wrong … I may be biased … Its a feeling that i just cant shake off !!!


  14. Though one does not want to make it into a Delhi V/S other cities spat but the fact remains that no one has been declared an outsider in Delhi and no political party has ever tried to build a constituency of Dilli Waalaahs. Delhi has always recognized the fact that all those who live are are Dilliwalahs, unlike several cities where people have built their national political careers through xenophobia.

    this is however only an aside, a tangent from the core of Shivam’s piece. What distinguishes Delhi, at least in this instance is the outpouring of the anger of the common residents of Delhi,

    agreed that a whole lot of them were middle class people, but since when has it become a crime to be middle class. it is primarily a city of the white collar and service sector employees and as far as this composition is concerned it is in no way different from any other metropolitan city in India, the working class has been effectively marginalised in all big cities, marginalised and pushed physically into the geographic margins of the city. and so by and large we only get to see the middle class

    We are talking of the middle class of all these major cities and we need to ask why don’t we see these kinds of protests in other cities and it is not only in the case of the 16 Dec rape case. The mobilisation that took place for the Anti Corruption Agitation also points to this distinction, when it was taken to Bombay it did not attract the kind of support it did in Delhi.

    there is a difference, it is difficult to pin point one cause, is it because the Media in Delhi more politically alive, or is it because the people are politically more responsive or is it because the democratic consciousness in Delhi is a couple of notches higher as compared to other cities, perhaps because the central government has its seat in Delhi and there fore responses and counter responses are far quicker here or is there something else that leads to these different responses is difficult to say . But there is a difference.and there is no harm in recognising it


    1. @Sohail … political protests in most cities other than Mumbai are equally large and demonstrative … examples being rallies in Kolkata , Telengana protests in Hyderabad … delhi has an extremely large politically aware student population which forms the nucleus of any large political gathering … i have only seen what the news channels showed of the protests but it did seem primarily a sub 25 age group … which would mean a majority student population … plus when you are protesting against the govt , you will protest where the govt is … so i do not buy the argument that these protests couldnt have happened elsewhere … they happened in delhi because … the incident happened in delhi , the govt is in delhi , the demographics of the people protesting was largely delhi based and in that i do not agree with this “give credit to delhi” argument.


      1. @ Prasun, I don’t think Sohail is saying that “these protests could not have happened elsewhere”; he is simply saying they did not and for all the reasons that you yourself recount…


  15. Bingo,i was also there last dec.To see this kind of big protest and becoming its part.People may crib about Anna agitation but it was due to anna agitation that prompt people to come back on street


  16. I completely agree with Vikram here..I am a filmmaker..and the reluctant ppl from Delhi have in accepting a film in English is mindblowing..also I have been to all the metros..I never have a fun time in Delhi..I always get the feeling that ppl in Delhi are somehow trying to squeeze money out of me.and trying to belittle me or make me look cheap..


  17. Thank you for this article. I was born in Calcutta, not Delhi. But for the last few months, I don’t know how many times I had to take up cudgels on behalf of my adopted hometown. Either people would say “Delhi has a culture which disrespects women, why they are protesting now, all for TRP.” I had to tell them that I was there and seen hundreds of people who were united in their courage and sincerity. There would always be some other type of elements in such protests, but they were only a few. Some others would say “why they don’t protest rapes in Jharkhand or Kashmir.” Of course we should protest all such incidents, but does it make sense to demean the protesters just because the girl was from Delhi? Another thing which I felt is that a large number of people defamed and demeaned the protesters because they “looked upper middle class”. May be time has come to accept that even the upper middle class has a right to protest, Thanks again. You have put in words everything I thought and wanted to say


  18. There was a rape then there was a great protest .The kind of protest we have not seen before.During the protest behavior of police was a big question for me.The picture attached here,a police man hitting a girl which is intolerable .You have to think twice what kind of people driving this country.


  19. “In Defence of Delhi” is about People of Delhi….about the youth of Delhi….those young men and women who showed indomitable courage in facing Police lathis and water canons in biting cold,day and night after 16th Dec 2012…Delhi’s “Middle class”,the “upper middle class”, the “Radicals”,the “Budhijivis”…all have been notoriously impervious to all that has been happening around them…they are not worried as long as they are safe and smug….nothing affects them…… young men, and more so, young women from the SAME CLASSES set an example before the whole country….it was a scene fit for the Gods to see….Isn’t it amazing that Delhi’s young people generally thought to be coming from the affluent classes should commit themselves to demonstrate so steadfastly….sticking to non-violence,braving and tolerating so much of provocation…….the unique part was that it was totally spontaneous….no leaders,no party, no media to instigate or exhort them… was from the heart…only a Gandhi,a Subhash was missing…. and to be fair,it was the whole population supporting the cause….Justice Verma said his nephew/son was there and HE himself would have liked to be there!
    Now, the rape……it could have been anywhere else and I am sure,given the circumstances,the youth of Kolkata or Mumbai or for that matter,Bangaluru…would perhaps had reacted the same way….it might not have been that peaceful… might not have been that quick…..Mr Hashmi has already enumerated the reasons why the protests happened in Delhi….the fact is that Delhi,in spite of its 22 millions,is a small place…its people have come to know of the hollowness of their leaders… are plain tired….After Ramdev and Annaji,they perceived that the only way open was the Gandhian path….alas they met the same fate…..another day perhaps,a more imaginative government would rise to the occasion and channalize this vast energy……….
    It is for the social scientists to research and find reasons why rapes take place so often in Society….but the cruelty,the brutality of this rape and murder is unparalleled….
    Indeed,it is inconceivable why it had to be so barberous… is here that the people of Delhi
    have to think….if they are proud of the protests put up by them,they must also be ashamed of the youth who committed such heinous crimes…..and of course,they are ashamed of their Police,………yes,Delhi is not as safe for women as Kolkata or Mumbai….It is the DELHITES who HAVE to make it safer…..
    As to the “Radicals”…Mr Vij…they are for your entertainment…and you cannot be sure that your people are not as xenophobic as the Mumbaites…..but I grant it to you that people of Delhi have shown the way……..


  20. Hi Shivam, its appalling to read such sweeping generalisations in a forum like this. I am a north indian who has lived in bombay through most of my professional life and i can say with certainty that all marathis are not xenophobic. On the contrary, if generalisations must be made, then i would say that marathis are the most accommodative hosts to migrant population than anyone else. Delhi Vs Bombay debates are fun only when they are driven by biased emotions. But to stake claims that you are writing a piece based on objective stats is a poor exercise in camouflaging your emotional preference for Delhi.


  21. Can we please stop generalizing at all? Delhi people are this Mumbai people are that?!! It doesn’t hold true! None of it holds true. You will always hear a voice that has a had a different experience than yours and that is why stereotyping of any kind – positive or negative – comes with this caveat. Our identities, our attachments to our spaces and our lived experiences are very diverse and fluid. I am a girl from a Punjabi refugee family who has lived 20 yrs of her life in Delhi/ NCR- for me it has always been my home where I feel safe and secure. I spent 5 yrs of my university life in Pune and that was my home too and I felt safe there too. And I have several friends in Mumbai so I end up spending 2-4 weeks a year in Mumbai as well. My lived experiences in all three cities, in fact in other cities as well that I have travelled to for work/vacation has simply been this. Every city has its own rhythm, its own flavor and it’s own safe/unsafe spaces. You learn to move with it.

    I have been eve-teased outside a posh Worli residence, in a DTC bus in Delhi, in my own neighborhood in Noida where I have lived for over 15 years, at a freaking New York Subway station, on a State bus from Pune-Bangalore, outside an auto-stand in Nasik and many more. Go figure what identity stereotype you can draw from this. I think we would benefit a lot if we refrain from generalizations of any type – be that about the Marathi manoos, the Punjabi aunty or the delhi university students whose protests become possible only because, wait, they are in a city which has too many universities set up with State money.


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