THE SURGING outrage at the gangrape of a paramedic in New Delhi this week is welcome and cathartic. But it is also terrifying. There’s a fear that this too shall fade without correctives. But there is also a question we must all face: why did it need an incident so unspeakably brutal to trigger our outrage? What does that say about our collective threshold as a society? Why did hundreds of other stories of rape not suffice to prick our conscience?

The harsh truth is, rape is not deviant in India: it is rampant. The attitude that enables it sits embedded in our brain. Rape is almost culturally sanctioned in India, made possible by crude, unthinking conversations in every strata of society. Conversations that look at crime against women through the prism of women’s responsibility: were they adequately dressed, were they accompanied by a male protector, were they of sterling ‘character’, were they cautious enough.

It’s not just the extreme savagery the young girl suffered that has jolted everyone therefore. Running beneath that is the affront that it could happen at 9.30 pm, while a decently dressed woman was with a male friend, in a well-lit tony south Delhi neighbourhood. This certainly accentuates the impunity that’s set in. But it also lays bare the maddening subtext that blunts our responses at other times. The assumption that rapes later at night, in places more secluded or less privileged, and of women who may be alone or sexily dressed is less worthy of outrage because they feed into two pet ideas India holds: that a woman asks for rape either through her foolishness or promiscuity. In some way or the other, she is fair game.

There are other deep examinations this rape forces on us: what do we consider violence? Does it really need a woman to be tossed out naked on a road with her genitals and intestines ripped up for us to register violence? Why does gangrape horrify us more than mere rape? Why do rapes of Dalit or tribal or Northeastern women not shock the nation into saying “enough is enough”? We do not distinguish between bearable murders and unbearable murders; why does rape come graded in such debasing shade sheets?

Rape is already the most under-reported crime in India. But beneath that courses a whole other universe of violence that is not even acknowledged. It’s not just psychopathic men in a rogue white bus who can be rapists: it’s fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, friends. Almost one in every two women would have a story — perhaps told, perhaps untold — of being groped, molested or raped in the confines of their own homes. If they dare speak of it at all, they are told to bury and bear it. Take it as a part of life. To name an uncle who has been molesting a minor niece would be to shame the family. And marital rape — that stretches the very imagination. It’s a mark of our bestial ideas about women that even judges often suggest that rape survivors marry their rapists to avoid the hell of life as a single woman rejected by society.

There are, therefore, three reckonings this horrific rape forces upon us now. How can India change its endemically diseased mindset about women? How can strong deterrences be built against rape? And how can contact with the police and justice process not be made to feel like a double rape?

Harsher, swifter punitive measures are definitely needed to puncture the idea of immunity that’s built up around rape. Fear of consequence is a powerful tool. But that can be only one aspect of the correctives. What is equally needed is a government-led gender sensitisation blitzkrieg at every level of Indian society: in schools; in anganwadis; in pop culture; in village shows; in the police, legal and judicial fraternity. Even ‘sensitisation’ is too patriarchal a word: what we need is a determined drive towards modernity. Indians have an inherent impatience for process. We prefer the drama of retributions: demands for lynching and capital punishments. Set aside for a moment the larger argument against death penalties, we forget to ask, who will take these cases to a point where judgments can even be handed out?

Earlier this year, TEHELKA published a sting investigation on how senior cops in the National Capital Region think about rape. It made for bone-chilling insights. But there was absolutely no action from the establishment. The argument went that the cops’ attitudes were merely a reflection of the society they came from. Nothing should make us more fearful than that.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.