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On the rage of angels

The widespread protests seen after the the brutal gangrape of a young physiotherapist in Delhi have surely been an eye-opener for many in government. But, equally, just how much has this massive outpouring of moral outrage helped us look within? And make us recognise that this crime cannot be seen in isolation - as the work of just a few 'psychopaths'. Our attitudes and fundamental psychological notions of self and society are also to blame. We need to first acknowledge these before looking to bring about some change. 

Besides, effectively translating this outpouring of moral outrage means taking a long hard look at inter-connections between a few vital things: the devaluation of the girl child, the state of relations between the sexes in society, the psychological processes at play, and also the law.

For instance, consider how marital rape is not an offence in India and is not even counted as physical and/or mental cruelty for getting a divorce. Encoded into the social matrix, this seems to reflect prevailing attitudes towards women.

Why, even our language betrays us, especially our choicest abuses. Nishtha Gautam, a protester at Delhi's Raisina Hill, wrote in her blog, "Many young boys were shouting expletives, the usual maa-behen. Police ki maa ..., Sarkar ki behen ...- a bizarre sense of support". In the words of another protester, Tanya Sharma, a student, "What was most shocking was that the police were abusing us in horrid language even as they were beating us. It wasn't just about clearing us out, it was almost like revenge". In fact, most interventions in incidents of harassment of women in public spaces often takes the shape of abusing the perpetrator as "Sister *** ", "Mother *** " while simultaneously trying to make him feel ashamed by enquiring whether he has (or doesn't ) mothers and sisters.

In a way, this encapsulates the contradictory feelings of Indian males towards women in their family. The rigid incest taboo is indicative of the need to prohibit sexual feelings towards family members. These feelings for the "pure" mother and "virgin" sister evoke strong feelings of guilt and remorse in the boy/ man. Sexual fantasies involving close family members' fuels further frustration accompanied by feelings of guilt and perversion.

These distressful feelings get suppressed and emerge as projections on a "dirty other", making us feel moral and righteous once again. Yet, acknowledging feelings we consider to be 'shameful' and 'dirty' is what will give us an opportunity to initiate the process of ultimately owning up to our own 'bad' selves. Melanie Klein, the famous Austrian-born British psychoanalyst, conceptualised the intra-psychic processes of splitting, projection and projective identification at play as defences against anxieties and distress. Indian society needs to begin recognising these if we want to initiate change.

Protesters in Delhi also describe how as demonstrations escalated, the police went "berserk" and "went on a rampage, " hitting out at anyone in sight. The phrases are similar to those used to describe the conduct of the perpetrators of the gangrape, and we find that the police and protesters too can fall prey to feelings from the spectrum of "berserkers". Violence follows easily. Equipping individuals with the ability to deal with anger and rage are crucial, and needs to be part of the training for police and judicial personnel.

How we bring up our kids, especially males, is important too. 'Infantile rage' is a vital psychological process at play here. D W Winnicott has described how a baby cries, and then a breast appears to nourish him, thereby creating feelings of omnipotence. The baby feels the breast has been created by his will and perceives the mother as an extension of himself. Fury is evoked as the baby begins to understand the objective reality of the independent existence of objects, which includes the mother, and that he does not control objects.

Vital to the development of the ability to cope with anger and frustration is giving the baby small doses of "optimal frustration", which is enough to create to create an environment where the child learns the acceptance of limits. The approach of Indian parents not denying the child anything as an expression of love, particularly with the male child, is in sharp contrast to this approach and leaves the child ill-equipped to deal with frustrations in life;with little ability to cope with angers and furies. It is such unprocessed infantile rage which results in volcanic eruptions of fury totally disproportionate to situations. Road rage, for instance, is but just one small manifestation. In the arena of child upbringing and gender parity, the teaching of limits to the over-indulged Indian male child is a crucial area that requires us to take a hard look at ourselves.

In order to translate the moral outrage from the Delhi gang rape into constructive measures it is imperative to examine the links between the crime with unpalatable aspects of the self and society. The perpetrators are not aliens from outer space but very much a product of our society. Rather than externalising the 'evil' onto demons, criminals and psychopaths, the owning up of the 'bad' and the 'dirty' within us is the road to a healthier society.

The writer practises psychotherapy and law.

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