The endless discourses of the elite point fingers everywhere: except at the real cause, which is the cultural sanction of rape in India. Arundhati Roy was brave to label it India’s rape culture. Rapes are not just numbers (24,206 in 2011), but categories: first, there is the not-a-rape marital rape. Then, the easily dismissible she-asked-for-it rape to be applied to urban women. There is patriotic rape: singular nights of horror courtesy the Indian army as in Kunan-Pushpora and Shopian in Kashmir; its second cousin, the long-lasting disciplinary rape to teach a lesson to a population seeking self-determination such as by the IPKF in Eelam, or the AFSPA-empowered army in Manipur; the minority rape as in the rape of Muslim women in Gujarat, custodial rape as in what happened to Chidambaram Padmini and, above all, the commonplace, everyday caste-Hindu rape of Dalit women, as in the rape of Surekha Bhotmange and her daughter in Khairlanji, and a thousand other instances. Please add the word ‘alleged’ in front of every mention of rape, so that we carry this pretence of political correctness.
Talk of crime is followed by talk of punishment. The 23-year-old paramedic’s gangrape in Delhi shakes the nation. Seizing the opportunity, violence drapes itself in the clothes of justice, and from the comfort of its kangaroo court, calls for chemical castration and the imposition of a death penalty. Behind this bloodthirsty demand is the propaganda machinery of big media. Out of a hundred questions that come to mind, here’s the obvious one: I do not believe in a hierarchy of victimhood, but why was such a campaign absent when the rapists were not the easily criminalised working classes, but feudal caste-Hindus, army, paramilitary or police personnel, or the rich and powerful? Does caste status, army uniforms, political clout and money grant immunity from media outrage?
These phenomenal protests draw the veils over our passive acceptance when we resign our fates to rapes in the private realm. Bleeding from a night of forced sex, when you go to the hospital, brace yourself for disappointment when doctors flash a congratulatory smile at your husband for proving his manhood yet again. You cannot go to the courts afterwards; there is no provision in the Indian Penal/Penile Code to deal with marital rape. In a judgement delivered this December, Delhi district judge J.R. Aryan said, “IPC does not recognise any such concept of marital rape. If complainant was a legally wedded wife of accused, the sexual intercourse with her by accused would not constitute offence of rape even if it was by force or against her wishes.” Translation from the legalese: your husband owns your body. Postscript: marriage is a licence for a man to get free sex and get away with repeated rape. Let us begin by exposing the sexual violence in our homes, tackling the rapists, child abusers and wife-beaters whom we shelter with our silences.
Should we buy into this rhetoric of quick justice and fast-track courts, oblivious to the implications of what awaits us and lacking the wherewithal to initiate reforms in the judiciary? In handling rape cases, several judges have proved themselves to be incarnations of khap panchayat chiefs. Two years ago, in dealing with the case of a gangrape of a minor girl, Justices H.S. Bedi and J.M. Panchal of the Supreme Court of India held that “there can be no presumption that a prosecutrix would always tell the entire story truthfully”. Remember, rape trials are tests of true storytelling. Let us devote time to work on that skill so that when we are eventually raped, we increase our chances at getting justice. The above bench also shamelessly said, “In rape cases, the testimony of the victim cannot be considered to be the gospel truth.” This inherent suspicion by the judiciary is another act of silencing. The system tells you, speaking out will be a disgrace since you have to be disbelieved. Understand my contempt, it is equal and directly proportional to the Supreme Court’s misogyny and mistrust of women.Beyond the false pride vested in virginity and the glorified burden of chastity, Indian women suffer because they are seen as sexual objects instead of sexual beings. Just as the Indian male imagination cannot include the possibility of a woman wanting to have sex, he cannot imagine a woman wanting to refuse sex. Their consent is taken for granted, this gives a free run to rape culture. In its most bloody avatar, this denial of a woman’s sexuality can lead to mindless violence and an indefinite moratorium on intercaste marriages. Last month, the Ramadoss-led PMK burnt 300 homes in three Dalit colonies in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, to warn caste-Hindu women off from marrying Dalit men. Love, he claims, is an immature act. The scope of anti-caste rebellion arising out of women’s sexual autonomy singes this disturbed man.We fight for ourselves and spontaneously find our strength. Sorry to disappoint you, Sushma Swaraj. We refuse to be frozen into frigidity merely to fit into your depiction of rape survivors as zinda laash, the living corpses. We are not the walking dead; every day comes alive because of us. We even own the nights. Patriarchal pride dies between our thighs. Your education in feminism will begin, Ms Swaraj, when you learn to respect us. In your spare time, you can start by questioning Hindutva hyper-masculinity and how it resulted in the rapes of Muslim women in Gujarat.
In a city comatose with its own delusions of power, this was a disaster waiting to happen. The Delhi-NCR police have legitimised rapes in the region earlier too, speaking their mind to hidden cameras, saying “she asked for it” and “it is consensual most of the time”. They blamed young women for not staying within their boundaries, for wearing short skirts, for not wearing stoles, for drinking vodka, for enticing men. A cop declared that no rape would happen without the girl’s provocation. No serious action has been taken against any of these cops. It’s difficult to expect otherwise, in a country that gave a gallantry medal to SP Ankit Garg, who ordered the torture of Soni Sori, the adivasi schoolteacher from Dantewada. She was undressed, given electric shocks, stones were shoved in her vagina and rectum. I will save other stories of custodial rapes for another day.
This is how the state ushers in a semblance of calm in Delhi: using expired teargas, lathicharging protesters, wielding water cannons in the December cold. Unleashing police terror is a surprise tactic with a long-term payoff, it is violence meant to shut the door on further peaceful protests. Justifying this brutality, the Delhi police commissioner spoke of “collateral damage” and the Union home minister compared protesters to Maoists. When such language is routinely employed by the state—not in reference to rebellion in the Red Corridor, but to pretty placards in the capital city—it signifies an all-out offensive on the people. When the state finds an escape hatch by homogenising all protest and labelling everyone a Maoist, it creates a sense of helplessness and isolation among the young people. Since the ruling order will not meet protesters on the roads or in Raisina Hill, are they suggesting that all of us schedule a rendezvous in Bastar? Assuming politics is an antidote to violence, the protesters at India Gate merely had a defanged demand: “Talk to us.” What they heard was the silence of the political elites and the deathly drone of the state machinery that sought to quell their protests.
The middle classes who got a taste of police violence will now, hopefully, wake up to the reality of police, paramilitary and army excesses in Kashmir, the Northeast and in adivasi villages in central India. Out of their slumbering state, they will perhaps realise the sham of the present democracy and the zero accountability that elected representatives enjoy. The prime minister robotically reading out empty words and the strategic absence of legitimate mediation from the state will not quell protests. On the contrary, it will have the unintended consequence of detonating similar struggles everywhere. The state will have to speak then. If it doesn’t, and the government succeeds in driving all anger and dissent underground, it will have to take the blame for creating guerrillas en masse.
(This piece first appeared in Outlook magazine, and was written in the immediate aftermath of the December 2012 gang-rape that shook India)