It is the time of the year when British holidaymakers return from India after their Christmas break singing praises of its extraordinary “natural” beauty, and the “warmth” of its people. Almost apologetic references to its “massive” poverty are sought to be cushioned with breathless admiration for the “gritty courage” of its poor in the face of so much adversity.

Not this year, though. The Delhi gang rape case has dealt a blow to the romanticised picture-perfect image of a country — at once exotic and modern — and turned the spotlight on its cultural “fault lines,” especially the “misogyny” of its men. In newspaper headlines (“A society in crisis”; “The agony of India’s daughters”; “Indian women need a cultural earthquake”) and British correspondents’ reports from Delhi, there’s a whiff of Naipaul’s infamous description of India as “an area of darkness.”

No more the new India

A woman journalist, just back from a vacation in India, wrote of her disillusionment with a country that, she said, she loved. Writing more in anguish than anger, Rosie Millard said: “To the casual visitor, the unfolding of this scandal in one of the world’s great civilisations — one held up as a modern economic wonder as well as a historic and cultural one — is rather like picking up a beautiful bejewelled quilt, only to find it covers a charnel house. Isn’t India meant to be a muddle, but forward-looking, cultured and above all, loving to all things; with a great train system to boot? It seemed so on previous visits.”

The truth is that the hype over the “new” post-liberalisation India that had become the stuff of celebratory cover stories and Sunday supplements fizzled out long ago amid concerns over “stalled economic reforms” and corruption highlighted by the Anna Hazare campaign. The Delhi outrage has fed into that — the perception that the more India changes the more it remains the same, pulled back by outdated instincts.

A common theme of the commentary here on the rape case has been that India needs a radical cultural makeover for it to be taken seriously as a truly modern 21st century nation — a narrative that some believe seeks to portray violence against women as a particular problem of “uncivilized” nations, and assert western “cultural superiority.”

A letter to The Times

“There’s something uncomfortably neocolonial about the way the Delhi gang-rape and subsequent death of the woman now known as Damini is being handled in the U.K. and U.S. media. While India’s civil and political spheres are alight with protest and demands for changes to the country’s culture of sexual violence, commentators here are using the event to simultaneously demonise Indian society, lionise our own, and minimise the enormity of western rape culture,” wrote Emer O’Toole of Royal Holloway College, University of London, in The Guardian .

More than 100 international academics from India, Britain, America and a host of other countries wrote a joint letter to The Times objecting to the comments of its columnist Libby Purves that India needed a “cultural earthquake” in order for it to “be allowed to hold its head up in the civilised world.” In particular, they took exception to her remark that Indian men have “murderous, hyena-like male contempt” for women.

To use such terms, the academics argued, was to “vilify half the population of a vast, diverse country” and was “unhelpful to what should be a global discussion about patriarchy, misogyny and sexual violence.”

“Such comments imply there is no sexual violence in the present-day West when, in fact, it is widespread. Linking rape to a mythical past implies an equally mythical Western present in which rape has been overcome, and evokes long-standing racist tropes of ‘western’ progress versus ‘eastern’ traditionalism,” they said.

Signatories included Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, University of Cambridge; Dr. Shamira A. Meghani, University of Leeds; Dr. Prerona Prasad, University of Oxford; Professor Prasanta Chakravarty and Professor Brinda Bose, Delhi University; Huma Dar, University of California-Berkeley; Dr. Sirma Bilge, Department of Sociology, Université de Montreal; Dr. Dina Siddiqi, BRAC University, Dhaka; and Jason A. Beckett, American University in Cairo, among others.

Framing the debate

However, to be fair to Ms Purves, a rather blunt old-fashioned feminist, she acknowledged that “murderous, hyena-like male contempt is a norm here too.” Her article echoed the view of a number of Indian commentators on social networking sites and in print that India has a “woman problem.”

To put it in perspective, this is what she wrote: “Britain, in particular, tends to sentimentality about India and it has been easy, despite brave voices from within the country, to ignore the ugly fault line in the world’s biggest democracy. For murderous, hyena-like male contempt is a norm here too. Despite its modernisations, the country has taken little care to promote serious cultural change where women are concerned.”

But it is true that some commentators have tended to frame the debate in terms of “modern” versus “traditional societies” ignoring the scale of sexual violence in the developed world. As The Guardian writer Libby Brooks pointed out, “cultural superiority is not within the purview of countries with a rape conviction rate like Britain’s.”

“The acceptance that sexual violence is a global challenge is not to deny that it may have a local or national character demanding tailored solutions. Understanding rape as a universal also means understanding that rape culture comprises not only unambiguous misogyny of the kind laid bare in India,” she wrote.

Official figures, out last week, revealed how poor Britain’s own record is — on tackling sexual violence with hundreds of convicted sex offenders, including rapists, getting away simply with warnings or community sentences. Campaigners described such sentences as an “insult” to the victims.

“These figures are horrendous and we are disturbed that cases get to court and receive such a low sentence… it trivialises the victim’s experience and the impact the assault has had on them. To endure a rape trial is a further violation of your dignity, and for your rapist to be found guilty and then simply given a community sentence is the final slap in the face,” said Jo Wood of the campaign group Rape Crisis.

Poor though Britain’s record on punishing sex offenders may be, the fact remains that the streets of major British cities are much safer for women than Indian metros. What happened in Delhi on the night of December 16 will not happen in London. And that’s a big deal. Ask any woman.

Some British media coverage of the Delhi outrage tended towards notions of western cultural superiority, enough to provoke a group of academics to make a strong protest