A colonial view of rape
THERE was another rape in Delhi this week after which the 23-year-old victim, a paramedic apprentice from Uttar Pradesh, was mutilated with an iron rod. Her condition is described as critical and she is breathing perilously with the help of a ventilator.
What the five or six brutes did to her in a moving bus in the heart of India’s capital city would make anyone’s blood boil with rage. They beat her male companion unconscious before targeting her. Then they threw out both under a flyover that links the city to the airport. Four of the men have been arrested; two or three are on the run. They will be caught, that’s certain.
What next? Helplessness is writ large amidst police bravado. A newspaper headline helpfully added that the passenger bus was impounded and its licence cancelled as though we are discussing a traffic offence.
Movie actress-turned-MP Jaya Bhaduri was honest in her admission saying she was ashamed she couldn’t do anything for the girl or for future victims. She captured the sense of everyone’s insecurity in Delhi, which now carries the sobriquet of being the rape capital of India.
The social media called for the hanging of the culprits. That’s the only solution they seem to know. Some newspapers described the squalor the alleged rapists lived in cheek by jowl with the India Shining narrative of a posh district of Delhi.
Their shanties were the “fertile breeding grounds of crime” in the city, claimed a newspaper whose proprietor runs an upper-class school in the vicinity. He could do without the slums. There is a familiar real estate angle in the social slander.
Turning crime like the brutal multiple assault on the hapless woman into a class jostling is typical of many an upper-caste journalist. Had there been even one per cent Dalit journalists in the so-called mainstream media, we would have perhaps known more about the pervasive reality of rape in its widespread rural manifestation.
For what happened in the moving bus in Delhi is a feature of daily life in rural India, and the perpetrators are not slum-dwellers but scions of powerful powerbrokers, for the most part coming from upper-caste backgrounds.
And what is the social ranking of the military and paramilitary trooper whose criminal exploitation of vulnerable women in Kashmir or Manipur are seldom the source of the outrage we are seeing in Delhi this week? Rape was a feature of the partition riots on an exceptionally rampant scale. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus participated equally in the predatory carnage in which women of all the involved communities were the eventual victims.
I don’t like to believe reports that women in Gujarat egged on their men folk to target helpless women of a different community in 2002. However, I don’t know if it is foolish or wise to believe the stories.
There was a high-ranking army officer I knew who was being cashiered for soliciting women under his watch in Jaffna. He was given an honourable exit with political help.
Hear from the UN about the way several Indian and Pakistani troops have behaved with women during foreign assignments. The world knows what American soldiers did in Iraq and Afghanistan. It had little to do with anyone’s social backgrounds much less their origins from any slum. Rape is an instrument of power. It is preposterous to believe that Dalit men are more respecting of women.
Contrary to the claim that slums are responsible for breeding crime in Delhi, much of the violence witnessed in Delhi’s neighbourhood has to do with affluence. Newly rich men having sold bits of their land for the price of gold want a share in the power perks, by hook or by crook. ‘Feudal lords’ flaunting money and powerful new cars make a heady mix.
Writer activist Mahashweta Devi has spent much of her life rallying support for socially stigmatised communities, known quaintly under British rule as “criminal tribes”.
In free India they became denotified tribes.
The Lodhas of Medinipur were often engaged in theft and robbery at the behest of the rural middle class, says Devi. Often the target of beatings, eviction and lynching, they were known as “born criminals” — a label which gained legal sanction during colonial rule when the British passed the abominable Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.
Under it, many nomadic communities ended up being branded as criminals.
“I have fought against the stigma that was attached to these people for years now, but to little avail. West Bengal (was) under CPM-dominated Left Front rule for the last 30 years, but neither it nor the central government did anything to redress the grievances of these so-called ‘criminal tribes’, except to announce in 1952 that by no longer being notified as criminal tribes, they had become denotified.”
However, many of these denotified tribes continued to carry considerable social stigma of the act and come under the purview of the Prevention of Anti-Social Activity Act (PASA). India’s National Human Rights Commission recommended repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act in 2000.
That may not help much since the legacy of harbouring and flaunting social biases is an integral part of resurgent India. Sonia Gandhi visited the hospital where this week’s rape victim is fighting for her life. She may need to walk across the four corners of the country to know the true enormity of the practice of rape.
She will find it as a feature of India’s power pyramid of which the hoi polloi are a negligible part. Very often she will discover the state’s complicity in the crime, not so much the so-called criminal tribes or even the urban slum-dwellers.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.