When historians of the future studying the Indian subcontinent look back at these last two years they may find themselves examining the records of an inordinate number of rape cases. They also might find themselves searching for terms other than ‘rape’ or a larger or very different definition of the word when looking at, a) the fact that attacks on women came to the fore of public discourse in a way that hadn’t previously happened, and b) how this influenced the wider politics of the largest South Asian national construct, the Republic of India.
It’s not that India currently has more rapes reported than in other places. As economist Amartya Sen pointed out in a recent talk: “The reported rate of rapes in India is low (it is 1.8 per 100,000 in India compared with 27 per 100,000 in the USA and 29 in the UK). There is surely a huge underestimation in India, but even after raising the Indian number tenfold, the rate of rape in India would still be lower than UK, USA and most countries in the world.” The problem in India is what happens to rape victims after the crime is reported and how various authorities use the business of sexual assaults on women for their own cynical purposes.
In this regard, it’s tempting to look at the attack of December 2012, now commonly called the “Delhi Gang Rape,” as a ‘hinge moment’ when public consciousness about gender-based violence began to cut across class, caste, and geography in ways that were previously unseen. However, in many ways, the sequence had already begun, well before the Delhi case.
Earlier in 2012, before the Delhi attack, another gang rape made the front-page news in Calcutta. A woman leaving a nightclub late at night accepted a lift home from a group of men. The men raped the woman in the car while driving around the city and then dumped her on the road. The distraught woman got in touch with a friend who helped her get to a police station and lodge a report. This friend happened to be the son of a high-ranking member of the Communist Party that lost power in 2011. As the news spread the next morning, several things happened. The woman had heard the men calling each other by name. When the police pursued these names they found that the main accused—the man who had supposedly offered the ride and began the assault—was in Canada and had been there for three months. In the minds of some people this threw doubt on the whole story. The chief minister of West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee, whose hatred for the Communists she had just defeated was legendary and unabated, immediately made a statement saying that the whole gang rape story was concocted to bring a bad name to her still new government. No doubt, the involvement of the Communist leader’s son led her to make this accusation. A senior minister in Banerjee’s cabinet followed this with a statement asking what this woman, a mother of two children, was doing alone in a nightclub so late at night. The repeated implication was that the woman was an upper-class sex worker who had been convinced by the out of power Communists to make up the whole story.
It took a senior woman officer of the Calcutta police a few days to solve the mystery: it was common knowledge to a group of people at the nightclub that x and y were out of the country at that moment; other people remembered who the woman had actually left with; when some of these men were brought to a police line-up, the woman identified them positively; clearly the rapists had used the others’ names while carrying out their crime. While one of the main accused is still absconding the other three men confessed and went to trial. The difference between the woman officer and others in authority was that the officer chose to believe the complainant.
The fallout of this meant that the chief minister and her cohorts ended up with a major humiliation. Many commenting in the media asked why the only thing a chief minister could see—in a case still under investigation—was a conspiracy to besmirch herself and her government? This was a good question, especially to a woman chief minister who’d come to power partly through challenging the previous Communist-led government on the murderers and rapists they had let loose in an area called Nadigram in the western part of the state, where peasants had resisted the takeover of their land for industry. Others raised the point of the senior minister’s clear misogyny: why couldn’t a woman—whether she was a mother or not—be alone in a nightclub at a late hour without being accused of being a prostitute? The chief minster’s first response was to bring forward the closing hours of all restaurants, bars, and clubs to 11 p.m. Her second response was to transfer the woman officer who’d cracked the case to a marginal post outside the city.
Two weeks after the first incident, when another woman was attacked, in a village in central Bengal this time, chief minister Banerjee also made the same accusation—this was a conspiracy against her government. Her trigger for making this claim again came from the fact that the raped woman was the widow of a Communist Party worker. Even after both the rape cases were proven to be true, there was never an apology or a retraction from the chief minister or her spokesperson. If there was a humiliation, it was only in the eyes of the public and the press—there was no question of Banerjee or anybody in her government admitting to a lapse of judgment.
Similarly, after the Delhi gang rape, when the crowds of protesting young people gathered at the presidential complex in New Delhi, not a single central government official or minister came out to speak to them. It was almost as if they were governing one India and one Delhi while the rapes were happening in a parallel country, in a doppelgänger city.
In Calcutta, instead of apologizing for her crazy remarks and working toward increasing awareness of gender-based crime, Mamata Banerjee’s mea culpa had come in the form of a sudden raising of the government’s figure of compensation for rape victims. In Delhi, a commission of enquiry was instituted after the December 2012 rape and murder, but the government chose to ignore several of its recommendations, including a crucial one that said the death penalty was not an effective deterrent for rape, and that it might even force people not to report a rape they would otherwise have reported. Again, instead of looking at more difficult options to counter the culture of violence against women, the politicians in the ruling coalition went for less effective and more damaging populist measures. None of these ‘measures’ seemed to affect the frequency and brutality of attacks against women and young girls.
Journalist Bhaswati Chakravorty, writing in The Telegraph newspaper about ‘rape culture’, says: “Has rape become an inspiring act? Protest, debate, anger, mutual blame, marches, mob violence are spilling out of streets and screens, yet the rape count continues to rise relentlessly, almost as if the outrage over one incident is inciting the next one.” 1Bhaswati Chakravorty, “Bonding and Fantasy: Thinking through rape now,” The Telegraph, 11 July 2013. See: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1130711/jsp/opinion/story_17101976.jsp (accessed 7 February 2014). Among other things, Chakravorty’s nuanced argument examines the titillation provided by the media in its coverage of rape cases—where future rapists ‘consume’ the reports that, instead of discouraging them, seem to invite them to emulate or exceed the violence of the rapes being reported. As Chakravorty writes: “Instead of deterrence, the increased attention appears to be acting at best as irrelevant and at worst as stimulus.” While the rapists in the Calcutta case were upper-middle-class men driving their own private car, the murderous rapists in Delhi, working-class driver, conductor, mechanic, had temporary control of the bus in which they made their daily livelihoods. Despite being vastly far apart in class (and it’s unlikely the Delhi rapists had heard about the Calcutta case) the fantasy both gangs of men acted out was similar.
Though the woman officer in Calcutta came through when it mattered, also mirrored were the two police forces’ initial lack of reaction to the attacks. As Chakravorty points out, across the country, various police forces seem to be pushed to act only to save face when pilloried by the media, but usually without any real conviction or ethics driving their responses.
The issue of rape and other violence against women ties in, of course, with the whole mess of class, caste, quasi-religious notions of damaged honor, and the economic ‘liberalization’ of the last twenty years. Money may not have trickled down from the rich to the poor, but certainly mobile phones and the Internet have cut across class and the divide between city, hinterland, and village. A huge population under the age of twenty-five now has unprecedented access to ‘the world’ via their computer screens. Depictions of lives, ones that these young people cannot touch, dance daily on their screens. There is a pornography of aspiration that arrays before a hungry young public a multitude of expensive objects, and exotic lifestyles that are precariously perched on the pillars of those objects. Sex-based porn is only one of the pornographies among many and the unreachable women, whether in porn, soap-operas, or catwalk shows, also become objects to be coveted. At the same time, the spread of mobile networks means that while a cell phone can be used by a woman to call for help, it can also be used as a tool for humiliation, whereby men now often film their crimes and boast about them visually. It’s perhaps wrong to over-simplify connections, for instance between the spread of images of white women on the Internet in India and the increased number of attacks on women tourists, as a more straightforward explanation might be that there are more tourists than ever before, more foreign women traveling on their own, and into previously unvisited areas of the country. But there is no doubt that the Net and the cell phone have changed the situation in a way that has not happened before, say when the TV network was opened up to international channels in the early 1990s.
What is interesting, of course, is that all the different political parties, save one or two, are completely for this process of economic ‘liberalization’, with almost every politician wanting to be seen as being pro-business and eager to score foreign investments for their area, state, or country. Often this lust for industrialization goes hand in hand with a completely conservative idea of society whereby the centrality of organized religion, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, and the equating of women as tokens of men’s ‘honor’ are enthusiastically touted as crucial components of the desired model. In this atmosphere, the political parties and their administrations often have a strangely schizophrenic reaction when a sexual attack makes the headlines. On the one hand, several politicians rush forward, each more gung-ho than the next in wanting to torture and hang the perpetrators. On the other hand, you always hear some statement or remark of the kind made by Mamata Banerjee’s senior minister in Calcutta: why was the ‘girl’ out so late, why were the women wearing such ‘revealing’ clothes, why don’t these women understand that, after dark, their place is at home? Listening to these guardians of morality you get the distinct feeling that, if they could, they would hang not only all the rapists but the victims as well.
As several commentators have pointed out, there are two things we need to remember in all this. Firstly, women have always been under attack in subcontinental society and the majority of assaults take place neither outside the home nor necessarily at night, and they are usually perpetrated by a relative or someone close to the victim. Secondly, while instances of rape do seem to be going up, so is the awareness of widespread violence; women are now more willing to ‘come out’ and report a rape despite the ‘dishonor’ and ‘humiliation’ that invariably become attached to rape victims in Indian society.
There are many on the Indian Left who see liberalization as an ‘economic rape’ being conducted by the nexus of corporations and governments. Their argument—difficult to deny in many cases—is that this economic liberalization is anything but ‘liberal’, that it is, in fact, a corporatist plutocracy firming up its power under the guise of a so-called ‘liberalism’. There are some who would then see the increase in violence against women as a phenomenon occurring within the wider violation of people’s economic and political rights by corporation and state; that an important factor contributing to the spate of sexual violence is the anger and frustration caused by the smoke and mirrors constantly being put up by the moneymen, their tame politicians, and their captive media.
While this is not an argument one can at all dismiss, as ever, in India, or the several parallel Indias, things twist and turn in ways that seemed specifically designed to confound straightfoward Marxist analyses, as we shall see in the next dispatch.