Skip to main content

For several years, India's Ministry of Tourism has had an marketing campaign called "Incredible India," intended to woo foreigners to Indian shores. The ads are evidently pitched towards foreign tourists and non-resident Indians as they are broadcast mostly on international cable channels.

A recent ad, released in November, I found especially striking. It featured an attractive fair-skinned young woman, presumably from North America or Europe, on a voyage of discovery of India. We see her enjoying a cricket game with an Indian flag painted on her face, learning to mediate and practicing yoga, snowboarding and motorcycling in India's far north, swimming with an elephant, and playing carom (a popular Indian board game) with Buddhist monks. She even trusts Ayurvedic medicine to treat her injured elbow and is so enticed by the famous Indian head shake that she does it in her sleep. What makes this ad fascinating is that she's traveling the breadth and depth of India as a single woman. She displays no fear in her travels and bestows her trust in complete strangers. The only thing that scares her is the portrait of a fearsome-looking Indian prince in what looks like a boutique heritage hotel.

This is the image of India that the government would like to project abroad and no doubt there's some truth to it. Unfortunately, the ad was poorly timed, because a month after it first aired the gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi was telegraphed around the world. As if to show that the plight of women in India affected both locals and visitors, the headlines this past week were filled with news of another horrific gang rape, this time of a Swiss tourist, camping with her husband, in the remote forests of Madhya Pradesh. This is definitely not what you would expect to see in Incredible India.

Story continues below advertisement

The situation is evidently severe enough that along with the usual advisories about being careful visiting Kashmir or the regions bordering Pakistan, Britain for one has issued travel warnings pointing to the dangers faced by women travelling alone in India.

Which is true, the Incredible India ad or the British government's warning?

Each is true in its own way. It's certainly possible for a single woman traveling in India to have a wonderful adventure of the type depicted in the ad, elephants and all, but equally it's true that Britain and other governments need to alert their citizens to the possible dangers.

Violence against women in India is an increasingly reported issue in both the domestic and international media, perhaps creating the perception that things are spiraling out of control.

But is it increasingly a problem?

If one goes by the number of crimes reported, either to the police or in the media, you would conclude that the problem must be getting worse. Yet the fact that more crime is being reported, and reported upon, doesn't necessarily mean that its incidence is increasing.

As I've explored in my recent book, scholarly research suggests that at least some part of the increased reporting of violence against women reflects exactly that: more reporting rather than necessarily more crimes. In fact, to the extent that reporting has increased because women feel more empowered and willing to come forward rather than suffer in silence, the increased reporting could represent good rather than bad news.

Story continues below advertisement

But this doesn't mean there isn't a problem. India, like many traditional societies, still has a strong strain of patriarchy and misogyny.

For example, recently during a debate in the the lower house of the Indian parliament over the new anti-rape bill inspired by the Delhi tragedy (it was passed), a few members of parliament spoke sensibly and intelligently about the bill, but several MPs revealed their mindset in their comments to the house. One prominent MP argued against making voyeurism and stalking offenses illegal, opining that doing so would be a disservice to India's youth. After all, he explained, he himself followed women around in his younger days.

But the good news is that despite such attitudes, India's political class and its urban middle classes are talking about sex, and in particular about violence against women – something you'd never have dreamt of hearing in "polite" company even a few years ago in what is still a puritanical country. And the bill, although watered down to win parliamentary support, is at least a step in the right direction.

The reality of contemporary India is still some distance from the carefree and joyous world depicted in Incredible India. But we can hope that the reactions of many Indians – women and men alike – to the scourge of violence against women will help move us closer to that idyllic world.

Rupa Subramanya is co-author of "Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India," published by Random House India. You can follow her on Twitter @RupaSubramanya

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨