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India: Some Thoughts on Rape, Sexual Violence and Protest - Responding to Responses

by Devika Narayan, 8 January 2013

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New Socialist Initiative Delhi Chapter Bog

Rarely does a city experience the sort of upheaval that Delhi is witnessing. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone has an opinion. It is impossible to walk down the street without overhearing snatches of conversation. Issues that usually find brief mention in some obscure corner of the newspaper are now being subject to analysis by every passer-by. A rickshaw driver refuses to take any money when he realises I am on my way to a protest. I remember the old man at a photocopy shop who had looked up and asked to no one in particular: do you think she will die? The receptionist at the doctor’s clinic is distraught, providing waiting patients her explanation for the recent events. Men huddled around tiny fires littered across the foggy city carp on about the state of politics, the police and the government. Everyone is invested in this moment of reckoning.

An opportunity, in the most brutal manner, has been thrust upon us to challenge, critique and reconstruct unjust social relations. This is an opportunity to pledge our commitment to a vision of a gender just society. Unless we assert in powerful ways that women are autonomous beings and equal citizens it will not end. Unless this moment is taken seriously, unless it is used to interrogate normative structures which insist that women are things to be owned, exchanged and damaged either by the individual, community, state or family the violence will not end. And yet at the same time these incidents also offer themselves as an opportunity for the proprietors of Indian Culture to reclaim their ownership of women. These Ambassadors of Tradition declare that it is precisely because women attempt to assert their independent will by walking the streets alone, by choosing their companions, by dressing differently, that they invite violence. Their agenda is to herd women back into the home and purify Indian Society of dangerous ‘external influences’ that might give women the absurd notion that they possess an autonomous agency. However this time given that the raped and murdered woman was not emerging from a pub, alone, or found trespassing the night at an ungodly hour, these voices have been relatively muted. Finally the commander-in-chief of the Embrace-Ancient-Indian-Culture-or-Be-Raped club has spoken up. Mohan Bhagwat the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) recently said:

"A husband and wife are involved in a contract under which the husband has said that you should take care of my house and I will take care of all your needs. I will keep you safe. So, the husband follows the contract terms. Till the time, the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her, if the wife violates the contract, he can disown her. Crimes against women happening in urban India are shameful. But such crimes won’t happen in Bharat or the rural areas of the country. You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gangrape or sex crimes. Besides new legislations, Indian ethos and attitude towards women should be revisited in the context of ancient Indian values. Where Bharat becomes ’India’ with the influence of western culture, these types of incidents happen.”

[Mohan Bhagwat speaking in Silchar, Assam]

[RSS spokesperson defends Bhagwat]

Even if one ignores the chauvinism and the crude misogynistic language, the basic thesis that rape occurs due to the erosion of Indian values and is uniquely an urban phenomenon is terribly easy to reject as pure delusion. Anyone with an iota of insight can demonstrate that rape, violence and discrimination against women far from being extraneous, is the cornerstone of the culture that the RSS claims to preserve. It is a culture that has institutionalised violence against women as a means of communal and casteist retaliation, a method which employs women’s bodies as ammunition in an infinite different battles. The same culture, to which rape according to Bhagwat is foreign, possesses no language to even conceive of marital rape. J.R. Aryan a district judge in Delhi says, “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.” If anything it is the concept of consensual sex that is alien, not rape.

Ashis Nandy, prominent Delhi based sociologist and philosopher, when asked for his response to Bhagwat’s assertion that rape is the result of the ‘westernisation’ says, “I don’t know what he meant by western values but what I can tell you is that there is a connection between modernisation, westernisation and rape not just in India but all over the world.” He goes on to say that “in one sense Mohan Bhagwat in not wrong” as there will be an increase in the instances of rape in cities. Nandy remarks that this kind of ‘anomic’ rape is combined with violence and is characteristic of highly individualised, anonymous locations where kinship and community ties have weakened. It is strange that in his response to Bhagwat’s comments Nandy would choose to provide his intellectual services to this Hindutva leader by conferring upon him the benefits of a respectable sociological theory. He selectively receives and processes Bhagwat’s insights using theories of modernisation, making the views more palatable, and apparently academically accurate. The dubious link between weakening kinship ties and an increase in rape is conveniently left unexplained. What is clear is that Bhagwat did not mean that it is the anonymity of metropolitan areas that causes rape. He was not offering an analysis of urbanization and its links to gender based violence (for that we have another renowned sociologist named Raj Thackeray who has constructed an elaborate theory of migration, identity and violence). The RSS chief was simply implying that ‘western’ values prompted the murdered woman to catch the evening show with a man and therefore invited an attack. Time and time again we have heard of how modern urban India is teeming with slutty, westernised, loose women who actively ask to be raped and murdered. This is not a theory of social change but bigotry of the highest order. Even if Nandy was trying to act as an innocuous translator to Bhagwat’s idiocy he does an awful job. Why he would even attempt to benignly repackage his statements remains a mystery.

[Ashis Nandy speaking to Tehelka in defense of Mohan Bhagwat]

Any effort to suggest that rape is exclusively indigenous to a particular culture, community or region must be discarded. Violence against women is endemic. It is not an exotic ritual that the uncivilized third world practices as some commentators in the developed countries of the North would believe and neither is it unique to the modern, urban, ‘westernised’ India as the marketing department of Indian Tradition proclaims. (To read about the hypocrisy of western commentators, see these two articles here and here).

Other groups also fracture this struggle against sexual violence by drawing boundaries around the issue. A few stray voices of the left have disengaged with this issue by arguing that the turmoil in Delhi is solely a ‘middle class’ issue and therefore unworthy of serious attention. In its misplaced search for authentic struggles fought by authentic victims, these sections undermine efforts to bring together the different experiences of gendered discrimination. We need to think of constructive ways by which to speak about the shared experience of oppression rather than rigidly uphold divisions between ‘types’ of rape: urban rape, rural rape, middle class rape, working class rape, modern rape, traditional rape, marital rape, live-in rape...where does this classificatory scheme end? Rape is rape. Everywhere it is an assertion of power and a violent attempt to subjugate. Most often rape is a means to an end, a means to put someone or some community ‘in their place’. The perpetrators this time too are quoted to have said that they were teaching the victim a lesson for daring to resist them. Even if it was the middle classes that took to the streets, how does this mere fact undercut the larger battle against misogyny? Thousands of women are taking a stand. People are rethinking their friendships because of sexist comments made by male friends, comments that one is usually inured to. An online comment reads, “It’s like people who are our friends for the longest time have no respect for anyone but their own mothers and sisters. One of my friends made a joke about Sania Mirza being gangraped by the whole Pakistani team. When I made him aware of how derogatory the joke was he said I was overreacting and asked if I was on my period. How on earth can we blame politicians and rural citizens when these idiots are our own friends? I am so ashamed to call them friends.” These subtle intangible shifts in the way individuals appraise their own lives and immediate environments might seem like insignificant inflections but they do count. They expose hypocrisy and they help create bridges between the limiting parameters of individual experience. They create at least the possibility of a solidarity that cuts across caste, class and region, a solidarity that can protest violence against women in an up-market bar, in police states like Manipur and in the homes of a million families. Of course there are differences and one cannot ignore the interpenetrated axes of marginality that force some women to carry the burden of not just gender but caste, class and race based oppression, but one can also affirm the need for a collective struggle.

Devika Narayan is a New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist and a Research Scholar at Department of Sociology, University of Delhi


The above is reproduced from New Socialist Initiative for educational and non commercial use