Sunday, 10 February 2013

Delhi, December 2012.

The gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December elicited some very regressive views. Most of the reactions of bureaucrats, politicians and socio-religious leaders were insensitive or plain inane, such as the suggestion that the perpetrators of the gangrape in Delhi would have stopped had the victim only addressed them as bhaiyaa. In such a mindless climate, the media had a field day; all they needed to do was ask a suitably prominent public figure to react to the case, and then step back and berate them from a morally high standpoint as the person in question proceeded to make a fool of himself or herself.

This also allowed the media to escape any sort of soul searching. Most news reports sensationalise sexual crime, and extensively cover Bollywood violence and sexual innuendo. I don't want to single out any one media outlet, but newspaper websites that regularly carry content like "5 signs she wants sex tonight", "B town babes this week - hot or not?" contribute to the sexualisation of a culture. Arguments about responsibility tend to run thus "we all grow up in the same media environment, and not everyone of us is a rapist or a killer." This is true, and that is why there is a difference between culpability and responsibility. While those who perpetrate the crime are the ones deserving of punishment, none of us lives in a vacuum. And this is not only about the media or about Bollywood, sexist though they both are. It is also about power, and what is possible in what context. When people see other people get away with rape, murder and whatnot, it emboldens them to act on their worst impulses.

I have been following Tehelka's coverage of Delhi's rape case(s), though at times I read the headlines and skip the article. I avoid them only to lessen my nightmares. I do agree with Ajaz Ashraf's piece that this particular incident resonated strongly with people because of the familiarity of its social and geographical markers. As a student in Delhi, watching a movie at a PVR complex and catching a bus home is routine. Most of us would heave a sigh of relief if we got a private, air conditioned bus "aaj baithke jaane milega", "aaj dhakke nahi khane padenge".

Another searing piece was an interview with a woman who had been raped, an article that I could not read in its entirety. What I will not forget, however, is how she went to AIIMS for the physical checkup, and as they were waiting to see the doctor, the nurse shouted "Kiska rape hua hai? Andar chalo". I can picture the nurse, who is probably a good woman, ordinary, overworked and underpaid, who has become desensitised and utterly unthinking in the routine course. It requires sensitivity and thought to figure out who could be the victim, walk up to them, talk to them in a low voice, and spare them the gawking glances of the entire corridor. If such behaviour is not innate, it could perhaps be enforced through training. What I want to highlight is that it is not only "men", condemned in blanket terms, who need to be sensitised and their mindset changed, but society as a whole. There is nothing wrong with people wanting the government to make public space safe, but they have to be equally willing to introspect, and think of the variety of ways in which women are made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe, day to day, in familial spaces and outside.

An aspect that struck me strongly - perhaps because I currently live abroad - is the way in which the international coverage of the case has cast it as a conflict between modernity and tradition in India, such as this story in the Wall Street Journal, an informal survey of Delhi men on what causes rape, which insists on the 'Western influence' narrative. As an explanation for the event, it is simplistic at best and downright insidious at worst. The point is not the argument "rape happens because Indian men cannot deal with 'their' women who have become too 'bold' because of Western influence" itself, but the purpose that the argument serves in this setting. It allows for the perpetuation of the idea that the rest of the world, or the non- west, is traditional, and that Western influence is a liberating force that meets conflict at every turn, but will, like the true hero, emerge victorious in the end. There is no place in such a narrative for plurality or difference. What about rapes that happen in New York? They will be castigated in many different ways, but the narrative of 'modernity v/s tradition' will never make an appearance. All of Amercia is modern, you see, each and every inch of it. In such a vision of the world, any violence, sexual or otherwise, in the Western world, is just itself, whereas in the non-western world it is a reaction to Western influence, to modernity and what not. If we accept that human beings are complex creatures, let us also accept that there are many reasons for rape - misogyny, abuse, power, lack of power, sadism, opportunity and so on and so forth - and resistance to modernity may be one of them, but cannot be the single most important factor.

There may be multiple reasons to rape, but the reason not to rape is perhaps simpler - respect for another human being as a human being. It is very difficult to not despair in the wake of such events, but as someone who has depended on the kindness of strangers, I want to end with the blog post 'this is also India'. Hopefully, there is still hope for us.