Main ek Darwaza thi
Mujhe jitna peeta gaya
Main utna khulti gayi.
I was like a door.
As I was beaten,
I kept opening more.
— Anamika, Darwaza.
A road near Jantar Mantar, not far from the Indian Parliament, has become the de facto Speaker’s Corner of Delhi. It is here that the anti-corruption demonstrations gathered, and it is here that the protests against the gang-rape of last month have now come. There is a stage with a massive sign that reads, “Hang the Rapists.” The general tenor of populist outrage takes that mood. It is not shared by all the protestors, many of whom have worked on issues of women’s rights for decades and are not keen on the strategy of the lynch mob. More sober prescriptions are needed. Rather than seek shelter in a recalcitrant State, there is hope that the mass upsurge might now build an alternative cultural space for women’s rights not only in State institutions, but also in society.
As we walk down the street toward a dharna, a sit-in vigil, held by a group of women’s organizations, a processions marches down the road calling for war against Pakistan. To my eyes, it is all male and drips with the kind of testosterone that would lead to an assault on a woman. This procession is motivated by a skirmish on the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir sector. According to The Hindu’s Praveen Swami, a grandmother, Reshma Bi (70) left her village of Charonda (India) in September to live with her sons and grandchildren in Pakistan. This illegal flight alarmed the local Indian military commanders, who began to build observation bunkers near the LoC. According to the 2003 ceasefire, such buildings are barred. Discussions between the two sides broke down in October, when Pakistan fired mortar shells across the LoC, killing Mohammad Shafi (25), Shaheena Bano (20) and Liaqat Ali (9). The firing continued. On January 6, Indian troops launched an attack on the Pakistani positions – India argues that its troops did not cross the LoC, but Pakistan takes the opposite position. A Pakistani soldier died, and another was critically wounded. Pakistan retaliated with the death of two Indian troops. Jingoism fled the confines of the Right toward the populist middle. Neither of the governments wants war, or escalation. But they have both benefitted from jingoism – it is cheap national glue, particularly when the economy is on a downslide.
The media does not help. It is given to hyperbole in a highly competitive landscape. Gone are the kinds of people like G. K. Reddy, in the late 1940s the editor of Kashmir Times, who wrote honestly about what he saw – placing the shroud on the governments on both sides of the border, favoring none. Reddy was based in Pakistan during 1947-48, after which he worked for the Times of India and later The Hindu (he covered the Bhopal Gas story, including the controversy over the arrest and release of Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson). The chasm between an erudite and sober Reddy and a hectoring Arnab Goswami widens by the day.
War is not on the horizon, but jingoism remains part of the social fabric. There seems to be little awareness amongst the populists that such jingoism contributes to what many of them had only recently been so incensed about: violence against women. On the other hand, the call for death against the rapists is on par with the call for a bombing run against Pakistan. Such a culture of violence is itself part of the problem; not its solution.
A universe away from this procession, a few minutes walk down the road, sit members of various women’s organizations. They are part of a three-day protest to raise awareness of the long history of violence against women in the villages and small towns of India. The Hindu Right’s chief, Mohan Bhagwat (RSS), had quite stupidly said that rapes mainly occur in “India” (the modern cities) and not in “Bharat” (the traditional rural areas). Obviously he had not met the lead activist of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) from Haryana, Jagmati Sangwan. She would have told him of her work amongst women of the fields and factories, whose stories of oppression would put the lie to his idiotic statement, “You go to villages and forest of the country, and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex-crimes.”
These women’s organizations, notably AIDWA, made space for several survivors of sexist violence and their families to speak about the violence they have been subject to – and their futile attempts to win justice from the State. In October 2012, AIDWA held a protest in Rohtak (Haryana) to support the nineteen women who had been gang-raped and who had received no justice. Based on this case, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in October 13, three months before the Delhi gang-rape, said that rape was the fastest growing crime in India. Sexual assaults of children under the age of 14 rose to 10 percent of the 24,000 sex crimes cases registered each year. “The dismal record of convictions,” the CPM noted in October, “shows that 75 percent of the rape accused walk free, encouraging criminals to commit this heinous crime. The recent incidents in Haryana and West Bengal, where those in power have sought to brush aside the increasing sexual assault cases as a ‘conspiracy against the government,’ add insult to injury, demean rape victims and are condemnable.”
The Haryana rape cases are grotesque:
* A 16 year old in Gohana goes to buy groceries. The grocer tells her to collect them from a warehouse behind his shop. She goes there and is attacked by the grocer and three boys.
* A 19 year old in Sonepat is held for four days and raped by a group of men.
* A 13 year old in Rohtak (home of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda) is raped.
* A 16 year old in Dabra is gang-raped, filmed by her rapists, the film sent to her father, who set himself on fire and died.
* A 16 year old in Jind is gang-raped and then sets herself on fire and dies.
The last two girls came from Dalit or oppressed castes. Vimal Thorat of the Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, who spoke at the sit-in, has on numerous occasions said that the Haryana government has been lax in invoking the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 – the attacks on the Dalit girls are similar to those against any woman, but they are also part of a growing anger amongst dominant castes against whatever gains Dalits have made.
After the Delhi gang-rape, and to deflect attention from calls to sack the chief of police and others, the government set up the Justice Verma Committee. The women’s organizations that held the three-day sit-in submitted a memorandum to the Committee that proposed a comprehensive set of legal and social reforms. These reforms include:
* Efficient investigation of the crimes and swift justice, including severe punishments (but not the death penalty).
* Amendments to the sexual assault laws that extend the idea of rape to “all forms of penetrative sexual assault” (including in same sex relationships).
* To change the archaic language in Section 354 of the Penal Code that now makes sexual assault punishable if it “outrages the modesty of a woman.”
* To add an additional category to the Penal Code of “aggravated forms of molestation which cause or are accompanied by causing hurt or injury or by stripping.”
* To consider martial rape as rape.
* To define consent as “unequivocal voluntary agreement by a person to engage in the sexual activity in question” so that consent is not confused with “mere passiveness.”
* Provide proper means for relief and rehabilitation.
* Take preventative steps including having policewomen in public places, instruct the police to properly uphold the law (including forbidding buses with illegal tinted windows to ply the roads).
* Regularly send police officers and the judiciary for gender sensitization courses.
All these reforms must come, the organizations say, alongside “a strong campaign to counter the erroneous but oft repeated assumption that women’s attire, behavior, etc. incites rape and sexual assault, which amounts to blaming the victim for the crime, and diverts attention from the actual perpetrator.”
As we heard from the survivors and their families, news came of a gang-rape in Kahnuwan village of a 29-year-old woman by a bus driver (Daler Singh), the bus conductor (Ravi) and five other men. The police registered the case against the men, arrested six of them, with one on the run.
Jag, sang the poet Mahadevi Verma, awake, tujhko dur jana, you have far to go. The Indian women’s movement has been at work for more than a century – it has gained a great deal, lost a lot and is now at work to win even more. If not half the sky, then at least half the earth.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is co-edited with Qalandar Bux Memon and Madiha R. Tahir, Dispatches from Pakistan (Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2013).