A mass mobilisation on the issue of sexual violence looks like a feminist dream. Especially, if you recall that only a handful of activists stood shouting slogans in this very capital city, at the Chhattisgarh Bhavan, demanding action against the police officer who had pushed stones in the vagina of Soni Sori. Or, does it offset our reprehension at the re-election of a man who presided over mass rapes of women from a minority community?
Surely, the large number of people at India Gate should be solace to the mothers of Manipur who had to strip in front of the Kangla Fort, home to Assam Rifles, to protest the gang rape and murder of Th. Manorama by its personnel. And to the people of Shopian who shut down their town for weeks after the bodies of Asiya and Neelofar were fished out of the nullah from across a CRPF camp. Will this mass anger scare the doctor at AIIMS, who, months after the women had been found dead and violated, discovered their intact hymens on their exhumed bodies so that the charge of rape against the army men would not hold?
But, should we burden those congregating at India Gate with the memories of Manorama, Soni Sori, Asiya, Neelofar or Bhanwri Devi? Perhaps it’s unfair to expect this young crowd to articulate anything beyond their own anxieties of safety in urban public spaces of a metropolis. Is it not churlish, some would say, to ask these questions instead of celebrating the fact that at least now men and women are coming out and demanding action against rapists? Is it not divisive, some ask?
However, given that it is being seen as a harbinger of epochal change – both, by the media and the participants, both incidentally refusing to be fatigued, discovering the joys of street fighting — it is only in order that we examine what this moment might mean for the politics of gender justice.
But, should we burden those congregating at India Gate with the memories of Manorama, Soni Sori, Asiya, Neelofar or Bhanwri Devi? Perhaps it’s unfair to expect this young crowd to articulate anything beyond their own anxieties of safety in urban public spaces of a metropolis
Ideally, a movement’s energy forces the opening of uncomfortable questions, challenging commonsense understanding and expanding our ideas of justice. One sees that the mass protests at Raisina Hill and India Gate are flattening out complexities: reducing sexual violence to rape alone, and the need for legal reform to simply an inclusion of capital punishment, castration and immediate punishment for rapists.
Feminists have been arguing for reforms in the sexual assault bill on grounds that the definition of rape itself is too narrow. Rape is defined exclusively as penile penetration of the vagina in Section 375 IPC ignoring penetration through several other objects routinely used, especially in mass sexual violence. Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat has documented the use of iron rods, sticks, swords to penetrate women as well as the systematic torture and mutilation of women’s bodies.
A whole range of sexualised violence such as molestation, parading, stalking, stripping, are not recognised as serious violations by our legal system. While stalking and molestation are laughed off as ‘eve teasing’ (indeed trespassing is deemed a more serious crime), stripping and parading women naked are often tools of punishment by the powerful. Remember Khairlanji where Priyanka and Surekha Bhootmange were paraded naked before being murdered by the politically dominant caste? Or the young Laxmi Orang, stripped by a group of hooligans, not very different from the stone pelters of India Gate, when she was marching on the streets of Guwahati seeking ‘ST’ status for the tea tribes of Assam?
As the protests take an ugly turn being overrun by lumpens bent on extracting their money’s worth from this reality TV spectacle, we are being told that there is a real fear of genuine protestors being pushed out by these hooligans. The genuine protestor is being defined as spontaneous, unorganised and politically unaffiliated. It is this genuine protestor that sends a chill down my spine, for the hoodlums out there for a weekend of cheap thrills will be easily identified and condemned. The chorus for castration (surgical or chemical — take your pick) and capital punishment is rising not only from these hordes of roughnecks (though, to be sure, they are seeking blood too), but from the college students, the housewives, the white collar salaried professional, the nice middle class, who many of us were accusing of being apathetic till the other day.
It is frightening that their political baptism comes with demands for instant justice: we want not only capital punishment but a public hanging, preferably following continuous torture. The frenzied and stubborn cries for public hangings, and for the accused to be brought to India Gate, also showed how utterly divorced this class is from the processes of law, governance and even democracy. Feudal ideas of macho justice, to be delivered immediately by the public, coexist with notions of individual choice and freedom to dress and go out.
The latter were deeply political issues foregrounded by the women’s movement but adopted presciently and swiftly by the market too. So we see posters declaring, ‘meri skirt se uunchi meri awaaz hai’ (my voice is higher than then my skirt) sitting comfortably with boisterous demands for death and maiming of the rapist. Castration and shaving of moustache have been seen as apt punishments for rapists in feudal cultures because they hit at the very symbols of male virility. But, ultimately, they remain within the bounds of a phallocentric worldview, which breeds the culture of rape.
Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat has documented the use of iron rods, sticks, swords to penetrate women as well as the systematic torture and mutilation of women’s bodies
The ‘genuine’ protestors have embraced this masculinist violence to counter the violence of rape. By showing bangles to cops, and screaming slogans, “Kya Manmohan ne choodiyan pehen rakhi hai?” (Is Manmohan wearing bangles?) they are not even attempting to transcend the patriarchal language which associates the feminine with weakness, and femininity as an object as well as medium of taunt and ridicule.
We have seen this sort of clamour after every terror attack: the demand for a safer city through tough laws, instant dispensation of justice and quicker hangings, fuelled again by a cheering media. This has created an atmosphere where it has become possible to bypass the due process of law. The path to justice is often rough and hewn with roadblocks, especially in cases of gender violence. Prejudiced investigations, prosecution and judiciary and humiliation of the courtroom ensure that conviction rates remain despairingly low.
Fast track courts, not lasting more than three months would be reduced to a farce, with little time to examine and contemplate evidence. And if combined with tough laws and death penalty, this would lead to gross miscarriage of justice. Certainly, we need new laws and swifter conclusion of trials, but it cannot be substituted by ready retribution.
Women’s safety in public spaces is an issue (as is the safety and dignity of domestic helps in middle class homes) but do we want to hand our safety to the police?
In effect, what this will result in is moral policing by men like Mumbai’s cop Dhoble who will go around with hockey sticks breaking up pubs and bars, enforcing their ideas of a safe city. Young couples in parks and public spaces will be hounded — Operation Majnu style — because controlling women’s sexual behaviour is the key to women’s safety.
Gender violence is too complex to be reduced to a binary of police and government versus an amorphous ‘people’, ever pure. By venting anger at Raisina Hill alone, we are displacing our own culpability in violence: what about those men who videographed Laxmi Oraon as she ran naked on the streets of Guwahati fleeing her tormentors; the crowd which collected around the dumped bodies of the young paramedic and her friend in Delhi, including women inside cars, not even covering them up, and all of us who celebrate the narrative of national security and look the other way when our armed forces indulge in rape and violence in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and Manipur?
Collectives need not always be celebrated; lynch mobs are collectives too, and there was ample evidence of this lynch mob mentality on display in the past few days: baying for blood, here and now. As we see hoardings across the city screaming ‘Rape is worse than murder’ and a leading English newspaper runs an opinion poll asking its readers what the best punishment is for ‘a crime worse than murder’, we can see the contours of a new kind of movement emerging in the coagulation of an articulate and assertive middle class and the television media, its spokesperson and cheerleader.
While we applaud the sudden centrality of sexual violence in our public discourse, the outpouring of rage and anger has in fact reinforced and reiterated many of the things that democratic movements have been struggling hard against: tough laws, jettisoning of due process, securitisation of our spaces and lives, and stigmatisation of the rape victim (fate worse than death). But most of all, the very dangerous idea that revenge is an alternative to justice.
The writer teaches at the Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilisations, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. The article was published in The Hardnews.