The brutal attack and gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern in Delhi on 16 December 2012 provoked countrywide angry reactions and foregrounded the issue of increasing incidents of sexual assaults on women in general and rapes in particular. It compelled the otherwise apathetic administration to take several exceptional measures such as flying the woman to a super-specialty hospital in Singapore and fast-tracking the trial of the perpetrators. Unfortunately the victim could not be saved. Now that she is gone and the issue has faded from the television screens one can think dispassionately and raise some questions that remained suppressed in the heat of agitation. For instance, dalits who suffer alone when their daughters are raped and murdered with impunity are annoyed by this sudden burst of concern for rape as though it was some strange occurrence in the country. They poured out their anger in their blogs and e-mail groups asking why all those candle bearers did not shed a single tear over the rape and murder of Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange that was committed in a festive mode by Khairlanji villagers. What indeed is the character of these television-induced agitations? Do they really serve the purpose of diminishing social evils or trivialise them? What, for instance, did this agitation do for the cause of women’s honour?
Why Only Nirbhaya?
Rapes are a part of our environment. Only a small fraction of their actual incidence comes to light because of the social stigma associated with them; mostly, such occurrences are deliberately suppressed by the victims and their families. To a varying degree, this is a world phenomenon. For instance, the American Medical Association (1995) considers sexual violence and rape, in particular, as the most under-reported crime. As such, only a few of these incidents get into police records and get counted. And still, on the basis of this count by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), rapes currently take place in India at the rate of one every 22 minutes. The total number of rape cases reported in 2011 was 24,206. From 2,487 in 1971, when the NCRB started to record cases of rape, this spells a rise of 873%! One may be reasonably sceptical about this distant benchmark as there have been signifi cant changes in the country, particularly in people’s attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviour as a result of the free market reforms instituted in 1991. But even if one considers the recent period, say 1991 onwards, the incidence of rape is seen rising at an accelerated pace. From 10,410 cases of rape in 1991, the figure rose to 24,206 in 2011, an increase of over 230%. Delhi, where this heinous rape took place, has been the rape capital of India. The corresponding figures for Delhi were 214 and 572, recording a 267% rise over two decades. Never before did any of these incidents evoke even the slightest of public reaction. The question arises, why did only this incident create such a public uproar?
The brutalities inflicted on the poor girl by the rapists may be said to be the cause. But brutality is an integral attribute of rape and most rapes are accompanied by a comparable degree of brutality. In most cases, the victim is killed so as to destroy the evidence of crime. If we do not know many such cases it is not because they were less brutal but simply because they were never highlighted in the media. If one thinks of the build-up of public anger against the increasing rape cases peaking naturally at that point, the question remains as to why even the rapes thereafter (and there have been a spate of them) were ignored as business as usual. The fact remains that like in any other issue that flared up in public in recent times, the media played a big role in making an exception of the case.
Alienation Stemming from Caste
While media’s role cannot be denied, the public response to the news is discriminatory, that is, if we take the cases of rapes of dalit women. Not many days ago and not far away from Delhi, the media had highlighted alarming incidents of rapes of dalit women in neighbouring Haryana. The media did take a note of this worrisome phenomenon of over 19 rapes in a single month and catalysed some amount of discussion. But it failed to provoke any response from public except from dalits themselves. The media may be accused of discrimination against dalits but this can be explained in terms of its business interests. Fundamentally, media today is a business and the business logic would not favour dalit news as they neither constitute its readership/viewership nor have a sensational value to attract the attention of the larger society. However, the apathy of the society towards dalit woes can be clearly attributed to the casteist prejudice it still bears against dalits. Rape as the universally underreported crime becomes more so in the case of India and far more so when it comes to dalits because they would not dare to antagonise the perpetrators belonging to the dominant caste for fear of reprisals and even if they mustered courage to do it, the police would dissuade them not to. Nonetheless, the rate of incidence of rapes of dalit women shows steeper rise than that for the general public.
Atrocities on dalits have been consistently rising since 1991 and currently take place every one and half minute (33,719 in 2011) but they have never been able to evoke any reaction in public. Even a major atrocity like Jajjhar in which five dalits were lynched to death in broad daylight by a caste Hindu mob in the presence of police officials, or Gohana in which 60 houses of dalits were looted and torched in a planned manner with the police overseeing it. Then there was Paramkudi where police unjustifiably opened fire on a dalit mob and thereafter went on a beating spree killing six dalit youth. Or recall Dharmapuri wherein 268 houses of dalits were looted and burnt down, and Khairlanji, where four members of a family were tortured and done to death with two women among them – mother and daughter, possibly gang-raped before their brutal killing. All these incidents failed to provoke anger among the larger public. Were they any less gruesome than the Delhi rape? For instance, in the case of Khairlanji, despite the spontaneous dalit protests lasting for over a month in Maharashtra and beyond, not even the so-called progressives had joined them. It was natural therefore that dalits felt alienated from the upmarket uproar against the Delhi gang rape. As the identity of the woman was withheld, there was no clue to decipher the key factor behind this schism until her father revealed her name to Britain’s Daily Mirror on 7 January, which gave a clue to her caste identity. There were some rumours too that at least one of the rapists was a dalit. With such information about caste identities, the entire episode suddenly got fully contextualised. What a shame that even in the wake of such heinous crimes we cannot rise above our caste identities!
Stemming the Menace
The agitation could catalyse introspectionn in the society regarding the high incidence of rapes and its rising tendency in recent years but it came with an offensive quick-fi x in the form of the proposal of chemical castration of or death penalty to the rapists as deterrent punishments, feeding into right-wing politics. There is no doubt that the abysmally low rate of conviction in rape cases warranted tightening of the justice delivery system, but to assume that crude penalties like death or severance of limbs deter criminals from committing such crimes was utterly superficial. Had it been so, the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee for the rape and murder of a minor would have reduced the incidence of rape, at least, in West Bengal. The fact is that it has instead risen. The message from the justice delivery system should be that there is certainty about the correlation between crime and punishment, which itself becomes a deterrent to criminals. Today, criminals feel assured that they can escape punishment, whatever is the quantum. Inhuman punishments in law will only spell further injustice to the lower strata while the upper strata would anyway escape conviction. Rapes are intimately connected with the ideology of patriarchy prevalent all over the world, which surely needs to be debunked. And patriarchal instincts are variously aggravated within the cultural specificities of various societies. For instance, incest is rampant in India because even the gods are said to have practised it. Indeed, the devadasi tradition, still prevalent, sanctified the practice of rape. Dalit women are raped with impunity as if dalits were meant to be abused; the custom of offering newlywed brides to feudal lords is still practised in certain pockets. If the dominant culture has such tacit sanction for rapes, if it considers women subordinate to men, and if the judicial system can be subverted with money power, rapes will continue to happen, and with impunity. Nevertheless, what is it that explains the rising tendency of the incidence of rape in recent years when India is supposed to be modernising? Is the spread of neo-liberal ideology responsible for this? Neo-liberalism conceives everything as a marketable commodity and valorises competitive individuals with a consumerist ethos. For the powerful, women are perceived as commodities for their gratifi cation. For the vast majority, the competitive dictum of neo-liberalism creates insecurity and consequently an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The rape of a woman symbolises overcoming that sense of powerlessness. The attackers and rapists of the young physiotherapy intern in Delhi must be seen in that light. They must be punished as per the law but at the same time it should not be forgotten that this would not cure the disease.
[Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly, February 9, 2013]