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India rape case dominates broader discussion about the country, columnist says

Posted by Your Town  January 11, 2013 10:26 AM

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Life goes on as they say. It is 2013. Malala Yusufzai, the teenager from Pakistan who was shot in the head and sent to UK for treatment was seen waving to her supporters; the families of victims of Sandy Hook school in Newtown, CT grapple with loss and search for reasons and Steubenville, OH has come alive with protests.

Post the brutal rape incident last month, India has also witnessed massive protests and rallies in urban Delhi and some other parts of the country. After the rape victim died in a hospital in Singapore, the widespread grief has eased a bit to opening the path to debates ensuing over issues of gender and sexual violence. In response, albeit delayed, the government and political functionaries are immersing themselves in the dialogue of what can be done and isn’t. A panel has been set up to review legal processes and will make improvements in legal provisions to deal with sexual offences. The judges and police are going about the business of charging the 5 rapists with the crime they committed. The case is being heard in a special fast-track court inaugurated last week to deal with such offences in the capital of India. The Indian media and the world media continue to give prominence to news items that would barely have received attention a month ago.

Latching on to some of the ongoing discussion threads, it seems like “rape” has become the concept of choice – a point of reference for all conversations in India and anything related to India.

While deriding rape a right wing Hindu political party chief stated that rapes occur in urban areas because western influences have a swing over people and that in rural areas of the country there are no such incidents. He espoused the traditional values where women are restricted to doing household chores and stay “within moral limits” and that they “pay the price” if they don’t.

Contrary to the political party chief’s beliefs, facts show that in rural areas and especially among the lower castes, access to legal recourse is limited. To cite an example the “Bhanwari Devi” case shook the local women’s movement in India. In 1992 Bhanwari Devi a rural health worker who belonged to the untouchable caste was gang raped by her supervisors during a state-sponsored training session. Despite rallies organized by her supporters in the western state of Rajasthan, the police declared her mentally unstable and sent her to seek psychiatric assistance. This case is as yet to be presented in the High Court. Even as she clings to the hope that justice will prevail, Bhanwari Devi continues to stand her ground and speak at forums including at the Beijing Conference. Although still situated somewhere in public memory and records, there is a culture of silence that is unleashed which prevents people from responding and presenting their views against people with ostensible power.

In another instance a Hindu spiritual leader provided his solution by saying that had the rape victim addressed her attackers as brothers she would be alive. As preposterous as such statements sound, these men have a large following.

So when there are protests one wonders who is joining the voice of the people. According to the President of India’s son Abhijit Mukherjee, women who are participating in candle-light vigils have no connection with ground reality. They are 'highly dented and painted.’ This comment has invited criticism and he subsequently an apology was issued.

India is not alien to protests, sit-ins and Gandhi influenced “non-violent, peaceful resistance.” Close to two years ago, Indians across the country were protesting another evil: corruption. Social activist and devout Gandhi follower Anna Hazare led the marches and rallies supported by the people - doctors, lawyers, students, housewives, actors, laborers to change the system pervaded by corruption. This movement so to speak has fizzled out somewhat for being incoherent and even displaying an authoritarian impulse. The fact of the matter is that the anti-corruption movement remains as valid as it was when it began just as politicians remain as indifferent and corrupt.

In any case, this particular rape has caught the national imagination. The National Human Rights Commission stated that this recent wave of dissent represents “declining public confidence in the law and order machinery in the city, especially in its capacity to ensure safety of women, as a number of such incidents have been reported in the national capital in the recent past." That being said the police and government can no longer ignore it.

Because it is not connected to any political party, the concerns are - will it be sustainable or effective; is there a unifying agenda; does it reach all castes and classes? While it remains a vibrant social movement, many women’s groups do not support punishment of rape with death penalty. Since most rapes go unreported, death penalties may deter reporting of the crime and may cause the rapist to murder the victim. Notions of “honor” and “shame” primarily define under- reporting and non-reporting. In that context it may be worth the while to explore the political and cultural contexts in which groups of women and men organize to fight for their rights and self-worth. These groups operate in very structured, hierarchical and segmented environments and not in a vacuum.

In this particular case of gang rape the victim’s identity was protected. No name, religion or affiliation was revealed and instead she was called “braveheart”, “Damini,’ (meaning lightning), “Nirbhaya” (fearless), “Amanat” (treasure) and so on. It is now after her death that the victim’s father has revealed her name so people really get to know who she was. Her name is or was Jyoti Singh Pandey. Her story needs to do the talking not, what could have been and what should have been. Incidentally, “jyoti” means light/lamp which/who can perhaps throw light on what is needed and show the way for meaningful and measureable steps so that for other women, life can go on.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.


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