“Boys will make mistakes,” Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav said of rape, on Thursday. His remarks making light of such a heinous crime illustrate just why the feminist battle in India has barely begun. Mr. Yadav believes new rape laws, introduced after the 2012 rape-and-murder of a Delhi woman, are being misused by women to punish their boyfriends. “When their friendship ends,” Mr. Yadav asserted, “the girl complains she has been raped.” Mr. Yadav’s lieutenant, Abu Asim Azmi, meanwhile invoked shari’a law to call for the death penalty — but, for the victim. “Even the woman is guilty,” he told a Mumbai newspaper. Mr. Azmi believes that if “any woman, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without her consent, she should be hanged.” The sad truth, though, is that these kinds of attitudes aren’t exclusive to the Samajwadi Party. From the Rajasthan legislator who thinks rape happens because schoolgirls wear skirts to the Puducherry Minister who wants them covered up in overcoats; from Shiv Sena leaders who blame migrants to Delhi community leaders who scapegoat Africans; from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat who thinks “western values” provoke rape to the Haryana khap panchayat leader who says it happens because of hormonal excesses he attributed to chowmein — there is no shortage of Indians willing to blame rape on anything and everyone other than the rapist.
Mr. Yadav’s words, we can be reasonably certain, were no mistake. In the midst of a bruising election campaign, he spoke as he did because he knew there is political gain to be had from this stand. The hideous truth is that in India, as in many other countries, there is something that can only be described as a pro-rapist lobby that extends beyond political pulpits into streets and homes. The renewed feminist activism of the last year has left patriarchy scrambling for new bogeys and new ways to protect itself. Ill-informed scaremongering about the “draconian” provisions of the new amendment to sexual assault laws has been a handy tool. For India’s women, rape is part of a continuum of violence that begins in the womb. Also, contrary to the myth that rural “Bharat” is safer than westernised India, of the 24,923 cases registered in 2012 by police, 3,035 took place in major cities. The data also tell us the typical rapist isn’t a feral juvenile, crazed by raging hormones or bad upbringing. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim. Mr. Yadav’s words have rightly caused outrage. They should also lead to some hard introspection into how many of us believe an only slightly more benign version of those very words to be true.