Guest post by PRATIKSHA BAXI
Delhi has tolerated intolerable forms of sexual violence on women from all backgrounds in public spaces for decades. It is a public secret that women are targetted in streets, neighbourhoods, transport and workplaces routinely. There have been countless campaigns and appeals to all agencies concerned to think of safety of women as an issue of governance, planning and prevention. However, prevention of sexual violence is not something, which features in the planning and administration of the city. It is not seen as an issue for governance that extinguishes the social, economic, and political rights of all women.
It is a public secret that rape of women in moving vehicles is popularly seen as a sport. The sexualisation of women’s bodies accompanies the projection of cars as objects of danger and adventure. Private buses now participate in this sexualisation of moving vehicles as a site of enacting pornographic violence. In this sense, safety is not seen as a commodity that can be bought, purchased or exchanged. Men consume images of a city tolerant of intolerable violence. City planners enable rapists to execute a rape schedule. Streetlights do not work. Pavements and hoarding obstruct flight. Techniques of surveillance and policing target women’s behaviour, movement, and clothing, rather than policing what men do. The city belongs to heterosexist men after all.
The brutality of the assault on the 23 year old student who was gangraped and beaten mercilessly with iron rods when she resisted has anguished all of us—generating affect similar to the infamous Birla and Ranga murders decades ago. The nature of life threatening intestinal and genital injury has shockedresulting in angry protests in the city and elsewhere.Yet most remain unaware that the brutality accompanying sexual violence such as assault with iron rods, swordsand other objects; mutilating a woman’s body with acid;stripping and parading women; and burning them after a brutal gangrape routinelyscar the pages ofourbloodied law reporters. There is no political or judicial framework to redress such forms of aggravated sexual assault.
The judiciary, tall exceptions apart, construct rape as sex. This perspective from the rapist’s point of view, does not frame rape as political violence,which posits all women as sexual objects. Rape is repeatedly constructed as an act of aberrant lust, pathological sexual desire or isolated sexual deviancy.
Politicians for most part do no better. The parliamentary discourse on rape, after the brutal attack on the 23 year old woman who is fighting for her life, uses sexual violence as a resource for doing politics, and therefore re-entrenches rape culture. By arguing that rape is worse than death and rape should attract death penalty, rape survivors are relegated the space of the living dead. The social, political and legal mechanisms of shaming, humiliating, and boycotting rape survivors are not challenged. Nor are the mechanisms of converting rape narratives into a source of further titillation and excitement displaced. Rather most political actors convert rape into a technique of doing party politics. No one reflects seriously on why India sports a rape culture—surely the political and social toleration of intolerable sexual violence in everyday and extraordinary contexts of violence produces an effect of immunity and impunity to men who enjoy rape.
The right wing politician who is exhausting lung power on death penalty for rapists is not concerned with how a strident Hindu nationalism is built on violated bodies of women. Nor are such politicians concerned with what may happen to women if rape is punishable by death—surely there will be more murders and even more acquittals, since judges prefer to give lower than the mandatory sentence in rape cases. They have not marked the upsurge of the phenomena of burning and mutilating women after rape, as reported in the media, after a spate of such cases in Uttar Pradesh last year. Nor has any political party even acknowledged or apologised for the sexual violence during mass scale violence. Surely if chief ministers who get elected year after year dismiss mass scale sexual violence as a figment of imagination, this generates, endorses and even celebrates a new national rape culture.
The men (and even some women in positions of power) who lead India are successfully able to de-link the celebratory stories of neoliberalism, militarisation, nationalism,growth and development from the toleration of sexual violence as a sport, a commodity, as collateral damage, or a necessary technique to suppress women’s autonomy. Fact of the matter is that Surekha Bhotmange and her daughter were stripped, paraded, raped and killed in Khairlanji for expressing and asserting their autonomy. The men who assaulted and murdered them were not tried for rape. Does anyone even remember that Bhanwari Devi’s appeal still languishes in the Rajasthan High Court? A courageous woman in whose debt all middle class women working in universities and everywhere else remain for the promulgation of the Vishaka judgment. We got the guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace, but Bhanwari Devi did not get justice. All of us remain in the debt of BilkeesBano who is perhaps the first survivor of mass scale sexual violence in Independent India to secure a prosecution in a rape and riot case but only after the trial was transferred. Manorama’s gangrape and murder by the army did not result in the withdrawal of AFSPA, which gives the army the licence to rape as ifto rape is in the line of duty. Can we de-link these issues from what Delhi protests today? Surely we must make these connections since we have benefited from the courageous litigation by women whose lives have been made absolutely abject.We must then equally resist the politics, which institutes public amnesia about these voices of suffering.
Alas, the brutality that Delhi witnessed is the effect of the toleration and celebration of rape cultures in India. Men and women, alike, from all classes, castes and communities must adopt a stance of solidarity that will not tolerate politicians, police officers, planners, judges and lawyers who build their careers on silencing the voices of raped women. Only a heightened intolerance for any kind of sexual violence as a social force will begin to chip away at the monumentalisation of rape cultures in India. Our collective melancholia must be far more productive.
(Pratiksha Baxi is Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)
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