The antiquity of the battle of the Mahabharata is a debatable issue. Modern historians do not accept the historicity of the epics whereas a large number of Puranic scholars, and staunch believers in the Sanatana Dharma, not only accept the epics as historical documents but also take everything written in them as absolute truth. That, however, is not the topic of our discussion.

Whether the Mahabharata falls under the category of history or mythology, none can deny that the various episodes and anecdotes that comprise the epic not only make an interesting reading, but many of them also are wonderfully relevant even today.

One such incident, described in great detail by the poet Vyasa, which many believe was the most proximate cause for the devastating battle, that saw the whole of Bharat virtually split between the two warring sides, was the episode of disrobing of Draupadi, the wife of the Crown Prince Yudhisthir and his four brothers, at the open court of Dhritarashtra, the blind king of the Kuru clan. In today’s parlance, this could be described as outraging the modesty of a woman in full public view.

At the time when a son of King Dhritarashtra was busy pulling at and taking off Draupadi’s Saree, the greatest warriors and heroes of the day were present at the court. There was the old patriarch Bhishma, who even at that advanced age was capable of defeating anyone.

There was the great teacher Drona, another person with no parallel as a warrior. And there were the five husbands of Draupadi, each of whom was the best in the ‘world’ at using different weapons.

To her utter disbelief and resentment, while her tormentors laughed and jeered at her none of these powerful warriors did so much as raise their little fingers to stop the reprehensible act. Later, they gave different lame excuses for their shameful inaction and in support of their pusillanimous silence.

The only person in the Royal household who protested against this most heinous insult to womanhood was another woman. Gandhari, the Queen, admonished Dhritarashtra in strong words that rang loud and clear and held him entirely responsible for the act which was such a disgrace to the entire Kuru clan. Raising her voice literally against all the menfolk and so-called great and brave heroes of Bharat, Gandhari lamented aloud that it seemed that Bharat had no “men” around at that time!

Is the plight of the minor girl, sexually abused and bloodied, who ran half-naked along a street in Ujjain a week ago, and was shooed away from all the houses she asked for help, too different from that of Draupadi on that fateful day at the court of the Kurus? Not much, we would normally think. There is one very big difference, though.

Draupadi of the Mahabharata was saved by Lord Krishna from the ultimate disgrace. Queen Gandhari lashed out against the collective inaction of all those present there. But no Krishna, no Gandhari came forward to help the hapless, brutalised girl on that shameful day in Ujjain.

Whether on city roads in broad daylight, on the dirt tracks in our villages or anywhere else incidents of rape are happening without end. Further, even in this age of media revolution, quite a few such cases remain unknown to the public.

Many victims do not come forward and expose the perpetrators for fear of reprisal, family pressure or lack of awareness of their legal rights. The newer laws providing for exemplary punishment to the guilty and the assurances given by the government have done little to change the scenario. The criminals also do not seem too perturbed.

The victims’ fear is not without any reason. Notwithstanding all the directives of the Supreme Court to the central and state governments, it is an regular occurrence in the country, as is seen in newspaper reports, that a victim of sexual assault or her guardians cannot easily complain to a police station.

In most regions of the country, the local police inspector is more powerful than the highest court, which is not only far away but is beyond the reach of the helpless, mostly poor, and uneducated victims.

In rare cases, where some public-spirited person files a contempt petition for action against officials flouting the top court’s directives, the court in its magnanimity generally accepts an apology tendered in an equivocal language, which sends the message that they can get away with even the most brazen act of contempt.

A little rap on the wrist is way too mild a jolt for the male-dominated officialdom whose bloodstream has been vitiated by centuries of hatred and subhuman treatment of women. If one senior police officer was seen to have been effectively punished for contempt of court, the scenario would have changed.

The other cause for the victims’ reluctance to register a complaint is the heartless, insulting comments in the guise of investigation that they face at the police stations. The hapless woman is subjected to humiliation at every stage – during her medical examination, at the so-called enquiry by the police and the trial before courts of law. It is a brave heart and one that gets the full support of her family, who alone can go through this ordeal of repeated assault on her womanhood. Getting justice is not easy.

In many parts of the country, there is no proper arrangement for medical examination of the assaulted women. The law may have prescribed a time limit for conducting such examinations, and that too by only women doctors.

However, on the one hand, the examination is delayed as much as possible either due to apathy or in exchange for some inducement. Then, in the absence of a female doctor, the victim has to undergo a medical examination by a male specialist. The most recent such report has come in from Uttarakhand, which surely is not a unique case.

The great hypocrites that they are, our politicians may reserve parliamentary seats for women – after delaying it for ages and then keeping it in abeyance till the next census and delimitation, may repeat ad nauseam Yatra Naryastu Pujyante Ramante Tatra Devata, meaning – gods are pleased where women are worshipped, may write catchy slogans like Educate and Save the Girl Child, but at the hour of the worst possible insult and assault on womanhood, will act like the spineless heroes of the Mahabharata.

They are not bothered about enforcing the rule of law or protecting the honour of our womenfolk but about what would give them more political dividends – standing by the victim of rape or shielding the criminal who could be of help at an election! The police are trained to act only on orders, therefore, not much could be expected from them under the current situation.

Draupadi of the Mahabharat was fortunate that she was saved by Lord Krishna from the ultimate ignominy of being fully disrobed and got some consolation when the blind Dhritarashtra, as a result of the terrible verbal lashing by Queen Gandhari, realised his fault, sought Draupadi’s forgiveness and restored the rights of the Pandavas.

But in today’s “developed” India there is hardly anyone to stand by the abused child of Ujjain, or the women victims of Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and elsewhere. No sane voice will dare ask: “Has manliness left Bharat?”

However, much we may shout that ours is the largest democratic country in the world where the rule of law prevails, how will we hide this ultimate national shame that not only are women not safe in this land, but as men we have become so heartless and emasculated that even the most heinous assault on them do not move us anymore to rise in protest!

Sandip Mitra retired from the Indian Foreign Service.Views expressed are the writer’s own.