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Mainstream, VOL LII No 29, July 12, 2014

Rape and the Politics of Hate

Monday 14 July 2014, by Krishna Majumdar


Nirbhaya in December 2012 and Badaun in May 2014 are nothing less than landmarks for women in India,—landmarks in their conscious-ness of what men do, and can do, to them. But the statement made by the TMC MP, Tapas Paul (also a popular actor), caught on camera and released last week, go even beyond the violence, sometimes fatal, that individual women face throughout their lives. He is seen addressing a meeting, reportedly of his party members, and is heard saying that he would send his ‘boys’ to rape CPM women, that their houses would be burned and the (CPM) men killed. The destruction of the enemy thus includes killing men, destroying property, and finally, raping the women. Rape is thus the ultimate symbol of domination.

Unbelievable though this is, it would be idle to pretend that this is the first time that rape, or the threat of it, has been used as a weapon in the battle for political power. Nor assuredly, will it be the last, notwithstanding the outrage this statement has evoked all around. Politics today is about capturing power: what more potent way is there to establish one’s power, either as an individual or as a group, than by crushing all opponents or challengers, by death and ‘dishonour’? The age-old rules of warfare, when women were captured, raped, sold as slaves or used as sex slaves, still linger in the masculine unconscious,—Geneva conventions be damned.

And herein lies the problem. Politics in India is no less than war, especially in West Bengal, and has been so for several decades. No parliamentary conventions or niceties stand in the way of political parties spewing their hate-filled rhetoric, without a care for the conse-quences. For there are no consequences. The visceral hatred for each other that informs the political discourse gives short shrift to ideology and sees the act of winning power as a physical act of domination accompanied by ‘occupying’ enemy territory, chasing out and killing members of rival parties and, as a final blow, raping the women.

Nobody should be surprised to hear this speech by Tapas Paul. The surprise is that it became public. The violence that is part of politics in our country is in any case visible through our TV screens and the print media. In these days of cell phone cameras, incidents of bloody turf wars and mass reprisals can hardly be kept secret and strenuously denied, as they were in the past. Tapas Paul was simply caught napping.

In the last 67 years, Indians have, several times, witnessed such horrors. Collective punishment has invariably involved sexually assaulting and brutalising women. In every incident of comm-unal violence, women have most often been raped, or raped and murdered. Whether it was the Sikh women in 1984, or the Muslim women in Gujarat in 2002, or in Muzaffarnagar in 2014, the sexual violence unleashed on women was a common feature of all these shameful incidents. Rarely do such women victims get any justice; rarely is anyone punished for the crime of rape. Is it any wonder then that the message that goes out is that there will be no consequences for such outrages? Or that outrageous statements by politicians, of the kind made by Tapas Paul, are so common that they could fill volumes if anyone troubled to compile them.

Communal violence targeting women is a hoary tradition in India, but even smaller conflicts arising out of inter or intra-party/caste/clan/family feuds,—indeed, even personal quarrels—have seen women molested, stripped, paraded naked and tortured, raped and killed.

Who can forget Dhantola, for instance, where members of one faction of the CPM attacked, looted, raped and killed members of another faction as they returned with their families from a wedding? Or the gang rape of a tribal girl in Birbhum on the orders of a so-called tribal council, an euphemism for a kangaroo court, for the crime of defying the diktat of the council and refusing to give up the man she had chosen to marry? Or the attacks by the vigilantes of the Ram Sene on young girls, for their un-Indian behaviour in going to pubs?

All these incidents are of a piece because they arise out of the deep-rooted understanding that an act of revenge, of meting out exemplary punishment, is most effective if it involves the physical humiliation of its object, especially a woman, in the age-old manner,—by stripping her, parading her naked in public and/or raping her.

How ingrained this tradition is can be seen in newspaper reports almost everyday of the week. Though the situation in UP has been referred to by a columnist as the ‘heart of darkness’, the fact is that these reports come in from across the country. A Shiv Sena MLA from Maharashtra, Prakash Bala Sawant, is reported to have threatened an elderly woman who is his neighbour, that he would strip her naked and beat her up. It needs to be noted that when a man settles scores with another man, it involves beating him up. When a woman is the object, nothing less than stripping her will serve the purpose—beating her comes only afterwards.

The connection between this and Tapas Paul’s threats will be clear to the meanest intelligence. The only difference is that Paul’s threats were aimed at political foes, while Sawant’s were at a personal one. It is the climate of tolerance for such obnoxious statements, made fearlessly in public, which has allowed politicians from across the spectrum to express their misogyny so openly.

The misogyny of the Indian society stares us in the face wherever we look. Just as frightening, if not more so, is the complete denial of any agency to women, which is at the core of most atrocities against women. Women are an indispensible, but purely functional, part of the life of the family. Across rural India, and much of urban India as well, they remain uneducated, ill-informed and powerless. Their feelings, wishes or aspirations are of no consequence whatever,—they are non-persons, available to be controlled and dominated. When Tapas Paul exhorts his ‘boys’ to go and rape them, they are simply instruments in the humiliation and subjugation of the men of their families/communities/parties.

Similarly, when Mulayam Singh Yadav blithely says that ‘boys will be boys and make mistakes’ (such as raping women), or the Chhattisgarh Home Minister, Ramsevak Paikara, says that nobody deliberately commits a rape, it happens ‘accidentally’, or the Madhya Pradesh Home Minister, Babulal Gaur, says that rape is ‘sometimes right and sometimes wrong’, they just leave us breathless. They are of course only revealing how inconsequential women are in their scheme of things. The victim of a violent and sickening crime, such as rape, simply does not figure in the responses of these men. She may as well not exist.

If any proof were needed for this invisibility of women, it comes from O.P. Dhankar’s speech in Haryana. In the State notorious for its adverse sex ratio, where men are increasingly unable to find brides, he assured his listeners that he is aware of the problem, and will arrange to get them brides from Bihar. He may as well have been talking about an onion shortage!

If powerful men such as these, two of whom are Home Ministers in their States, can trivialise this most despicable of crimes; if respected Chief Ministers and important Union Ministers have dismissed rape saying ‘such things happen’, can one expect the Tapas Pauls to ever be reined in? The answer of course is NO.

In the last two decades, India has become a more violent and angry place than I can ever remember it being. As long as this anger and misogyny of our society, which cuts across caste, class, political, ethnic or religious lines, does not change, no woman will be able to feel secure in India. Whether it is the hate politics or the caste/class domination, or simply the machismo of the male, sexual assault or the fear of it, will not let women be truly free.

The author is the National Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women.