Charge of the unenlightened brigade

Rape Capital? Rage Capital? Delhi 2011 was completely and overwhelmingly defined by Anna Hazare and the milling, stampeding crowds that rushed after him, raising their fists and shouting “Vande Mataram” even as their messiah promised a “second war of Independence” to liberate the country from its corrupt, venal rulers.

The images return as 2012 fades into another new year: Delhi’s VVIP avenues are choked with protesters who have breached security to reach Raisina Hill, the sanctum-sanctorum of the Republic. The outrage this time is over the unimaginably brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old and the target is the same government. The difference between then and now: Anna has vanished, and having evicted him and his Independence call from public memory, the regime has grown more muscle, more arrogance.


A future historian will surely record the commonalities between the protests. If the two periods could be captured in slide shows they would show anger as the primary emotion — anger directed at a government seen as crooked, self-serving and callous to the point of disbelief towards the ordinary citizen. But the slides would also show fury gone out of control, they would show lynch mobs with their cries of “hang them, kill them” overshadowing genuine, peaceful agitators asking for little besides their own personal safety. As in 2011, the mobs would show up on the streets, and perhaps in even larger numbers on social networking sites and Facebook accounts, seeking immediate, kangaroo court-style justice. In 2011, it was death to the corrupt, and a law (Jan Lokpal) with overriding powers and authoritarian shades. In 2012, it would be death to the rapists and a law that “must be enacted here and now” so offenders can be sent to the gallows with minimal due process.

As in 2011, television channels — and some newspapers — would sensationalise the 2012 “mass anger,” projecting it once again as India’s “Tahrir Square moment” — implying thereby that street protests were enough to topple a shamed and discredited government. Of course, we know and they know that the moment would pass, a new distraction would take the place of the gang rape, and the government would live to fight another battle, if anything with greater confidence and bluster. After all, Team Manmohan’s handling of the gang rape protests suggested the perfection of a formula it had successfully employed against Anna and Ramdev. The government arrested Anna with no reason, and it set upon Ramdev’s rally with equally no reason. A year later, it would go after the crowds at India Gate with a sledgehammer, and earn further wrath by exploiting the death of a police constable. But crucially, none of this would matter because this government has been rude, unresponsive and has survived.

As the Indian Republic heads into its 64th year, we seem to be caught between an illiberal, insensitive government-political class and a rampaging mob demanding instant solutions, with only a thin line separating the two. The gang rape ought to have been understood as a complex socio-political issue, resulting as much from bad policing as from entrenched notions of female purity and honour. For all its veneer of modernity, India is essentially an overgrown patriarchy characterised by its violent intolerance of the liberated woman. Honour killings and rapes are not new but today they are executed with a brutality that suggests a compelling male need to subjugate and overpower women of a particular kind: those that live life on their own terms.

When irate mobs ask to avenge rape through extreme measures, they reinforce the stereotype of the “defiled,” “dishonoured” woman. A reader responding to an article on an online newspaper came up with this ingenious solution for gang rapes: have the rapists raped in full public view by homosexual men. Why homosexual men? Because like women they are deemed to have no rights and can be used as society pleases. But this wild comment is by no means an exception as any visitor to online discussion forums will confirm. Significantly, most feminist groups, which by belief and practice will act in the best interests of rape victims, have emphatically rejected the death penalty as the answer to rape. This is because the death penalty does two things: it invests rape with precisely the kind of power that makes it so fearsome, that engenders the rapist-mindset in the first place. Secondly, the death penalty — which has been abolished in most countries and is applied in India in the rarest of rare cases — will further lower the already abysmal conviction rate in rape cases. Forget the barbarity of the state deciding who must live and who must die, is the death penalty of any use if it cannot be applied?

It is understandable that this logic should escape the shouting brigade on the streets. But what explains the political class’s shrill articulation of the death penalty demand? Worse, post the gang rape, politicians, women included, have furiously bought into archaic notions about the woman’s place: If she speaks out, she must be visiting discos. If she is a rape victim, it is better she dies and so forth.

Responding to a rape incident in Delhi in 2002, then Defence Minister George Fernandes had said he wanted rapists shot dead in the same way the Chinese shoot their corrupt. Yet this was not out of any sympathy for the woman. Because he would also dismiss rape as an everyday incident in the context of the widespread sexual violence reported during the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom. “We have heard these stories for 50 years,” he would tell Parliament.

President Pranab Mukherjee’s son and Congress MP, Abhijit, was truly baffled that he was being asked to apologise for his description of women student protesters at India Gate as “dented and painted” — a slang apparently used for women who apply make-up. To his uncomplicated mind, it was the most obvious thing to say about modern women. Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Botcha Satyanarayana contributed this bit: “Freedom at midnight does not mean women roaming on the streets during late hours.”

The Delhi gang rape expectedly “rocked” both Houses of Parliament. But if anyone thought our MPs would speak with intelligence and sensitivity on the subject, they were surely in for a shock. Because while the MPs undoubtedly spoke with passion, nothing they said made any sense : some speakers were unintendedly funny, most spoke of rape as if it was the end of the world, and all, barring a couple of exceptions, wanted an unfussy law that would swiftly put all rapists to death. One MP said left to himself he would have stoned the rape accused to death.

The leader of the unenlightened pack was Sushma Swaraj whose advocacy of capital punishment was because “a woman victim of this kind can be counted neither among the dead nor the living.” Further, “even if she survives, she will live as a jeevit laash [living dead].”

The Janata Dal (United)’s Shivanand Tiwari diagnosed the “provocative item dance” as the culprit behind the current environment for rape: “Today we have reached a situation where aurat apni izzat nahi bacha sakti [the woman cannot protect her honour].”

The ‘scar’

The Samajwadi Party’s Jaya Bachchan said the rape victim would be forgotten soon but the victim herself would remember the “scar” for the rest of her life. Ms Bachchan was deeply anguished by the incident and protested that Parliament had no time for women’s issues. Ironic because it was the SP that tore up the Women’s Reservation Bill. Ironic too because the SP figured prominently in a recent list of parties that fielded rape accused in elections. Not content with describing rape as “worse than death,” M. Rama Jois, former Chief Justice of the Punjab & Haryana High Court and Bharatiya Janata Party MP, said rape happened because of “cultural degradation,” because “you don’t teach a code of religious conduct.” He quoted Kautilya on rape: “the committer of the offence should be killed on the spot.”

The Nationalist Congress Party’s Yogendra Trivedi said since legal deterrents were ineffective, the “need of the hour” was “a national commission to look into falling moral values.” The Asom Gana Parishad’s Kumar Deepak Das lamented that “the society of human beings had turned into a forest” where wild animals found shelter and sanctuary.

With such words of wisdom, is it any wonder that we can’t tell the politician from the mob? Is it any wonder that the government is uncaring, insensitive and feels free to crush the smallest protest? Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said he saw no reason to meet the protesting students.

We don’t need regressive moral/religious teachings to stop rape. We need to raise boys and girls as equals and we need to enforce the constitutional guarantee of equality at home, at the workplace and on the streets. Most of all, we need to liberate women from the fear of rape, which is treated with horror not because it is violent but because it is thought to be violative; it is thought to shame and dishonour the victim and rob her of her core.

Let us begin the process of destigmatisation and demystification of rape by pledging not to use associative words such as “honour,” “violation,” “defilement” and “disgrace.”

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