Rape Cultures in India: Pratiksha Baxi

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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32 thoughts on “Rape Cultures in India: Pratiksha Baxi”

  1. Thank you for this post which is clear and precise about all the aspects of this case. Has walking around Delhi been safer since the incident? Walking back home from the bus stop at 9.00 pm in the last few days, I seem to attract questioning looks as if I am stubbornly refusing to learn the lesson about not walking on the street on my own. I see this as evidence for the fact that the ambit of debate continues to be around the vulnerable female body, and invasive ways of protecting it.


  2. The political bigwig Ms Sushama Swaraj’s advocacy of death penalty for rapists could perhaps be differently seen from that of many others who may be outraged by the Delhi gang rape. Sushama Swaraj has expressed in terms of equating a rape victim to a ‘living dead body’( जिन्दा लाश ) .This is nothing less than euphemistically pronouncing death sentence for the rape victim. This is thanks to the renegade morals dictated by a feudal and misogynistic system. If at all the ‘simultaneous death warrants’, one for the offender and the other for the offended, were to make any sense, it could be understood altogether as a typical right rhetoric that unfailingly betrays passion for ‘individuating’/ ‘personalizing’ any violence generated by the very misogynistic structure. This in turn, is perfectly in line with a well thought out agenda of exonerating the pre- modern structure in a wholesome way at least in the case of gender violence. This is best done by creating expendable categories of humans thanks to which the structures of violence are maintained intact.

    Irrespective of the abhorrent nature of the crime which may make one justifiably outraged, the position one takes against death penalty indeed has its progressive component. It demands an assurance from the state that the state would never arrogate to itself the power to take the lives of citizens . Rather, the state with its legal system should seek to prevent / punish crimes by other means . For example, by reassuring people that crimes will be prevented or sternly dealt with by suitable punishment , that criminals will not be encouraged by any ideology of misogyny peddled in the name of culture, and most importantly, that the state will take lead in gender just social , political and legal reforms.


    1. In my opinion the solution to rape incidents in India are as follows-
      1) Need to change the mind set of individual by providing them the new direction of thinking.

      2) Transparency in thoughts are required because lack of this confusion arises among people which leads to frustration which is the main source of such crime .

      3) Awareness among people about law and justice.

      4)Avoiding over showing such incidents among people to distract their attention.

      5) Use social media and digital media to increase awareness to bridge the gap between the poor and rich people in terms of social out look, traditional thinking and modern thinking. So that each individual respects other’s culture,social outlook at the same time preserve individuality. That will lead satisfaction reflection of positive thinking result of which reduction of such types of crime.


  3. Dealth penalty would not stop rape..There is need to change the mindset of Indian men. Period.


  4. It is a very well written article that aptly elucidates upon what all of us have been thinking for some time now.

    “Nor has any political party even acknowledged or apologised for the sexual violence during mass scale violence”

    I find this point most pertinent. There is a massive irony associated with the political parties, particularly the right wing, demanding harsher laws to punish the rapists without acknowledging that they themselves have been responsible for the formation and propagation of rape culture in our society. One must not isolate incidents of rape, accept and even condone some while protesting against others. One can’t have this hierarchy in mind while demanding an end to violence against women. Somehow this point is not getting articulated very well.


  5. It begins at home when parents teach children moral values and are examples of compassionate respectful human beings. So how Indian women exemplify Indian women is at the core of violence against women. It is not progressive to hold one gender or the other completely responsible. Policies and laws are responsible, society is responsible, and most of all each individual is responsible. I hold the mothers of all men who violate women responsible for creating these creatures capable of monstrosity. I hold the fathers who disrespect the mothers and other women responsible for creating creatures capable of violence and lawlessness. Ultimately and yet first and foremost I hold each individual responsible for their actions. India has been a fundamentally hypocritical society for eons, it will take decades for change, but through this brutal incident perhaps an uprising will be a sustained movement.


  6. Thank you for this piece. It stirs something inside, I hope that stir manifests as social reform as well.


    1. I agree with Charnita. The churning started by the horrible incident should result in permanent solutions which lie in social reforms, Social reforms can only happen when everyone, not merely the government, chips in. All of us, barring none, have to work towards it. It is not an instant job. it has to be persistently and diligently pursued till results that are effectively in place.


  7. Rape and murder have become a way of life for many not only in Delhi, but the whole of India.There have been many reported cases of father, step-father, grandfather or brother pimping, raping or killing innocent women. Where are are we heading to? is this because of deterioration of moral values, or because of sexual starvation in which case, may sound cruel and absurd though, why not legalise prostitution in this country ? Perhaps,Mathis might prove in the long run an effective anti-dot….


  8. It is unfortunate that though the offence of rape has been placed in the penal code as ‘offence against human body’ it has not been considered as a violence. Instead it has been interpreted as unconsented sexual relation. Even the simple ‘no’ is not sufficient to prove absence of consent. The victim is required to prove ‘utmost resistance’ to support her claim of absence of consent!

    Nicely articulated by Dr. Baxi. Thanks for the excellent piece.


  9. Great piece, timely and articulate, thanks for sharing. I am discomfited also by an unself-reflective practice in re-membering and recording rape in our writings, imagination and memory, some of which this article perpetuates as well. Why are rapes – on the rare occasions that they do become subjects of public discourse and parliament talk – not remembered and named after rapists? Why do we know and remember rape cases after their victims? Why isn’t shaming – an instrument of patriarchy itself – not used to name and shame rapists, molesters, and those that are endearingly, sparingly, casually and lovingly known as ‘eve-teasers’ in our everyday lives? Isn’t that but one concrete way of constituting these acts as crimes in the public imagination, of heightening the intolerance of the violences that you rightly point out in your article?

    This seems to be particularly pertinent and ironically important now when amidst all the useful anger, outpour and necessary talk about the zero-tolerance of hetero-patriarchy and its paternalistic visions for the ‘protection’ of women, the press decides to go and nickname the recent rape survivor ‘Amanat.’


  10. At the JNUSU march yesterday, a group of young men joined us, with placards saying hang the rapists. They agreed to our request to leave these placards out. I spoke to them about how death sentence has not brought down crime rates in the USA, comparing the data with Scadinavian countries. One of them said, what about castration. I told him this had been tried in some states in the US, with injections of oestrogen, or even long-acting contraceptives like Depo, but had not reduced rape rates in those states. They said, but what is to be done, we are very angry? I said we had to improve policing, sensitise the police and judiciary, improve forensics, improve conviction rates etc, and think of how we treat women in our society. That rape was not about sex, but power, and that knee jerk emotional responses could cause further damage, albeit unintended. They wanted to know why the media did not carry such stories. What could I say?


  11. There is a need to critically reflect on the ongoing outburst of anger caused by the recent incident of rape of a 23 year girl student in Delhi. Wide sections of educated public have lost no opportunity to air their views on the issue. Vociferous emphasis has been on punishment. Various forms of punishment for the perpetrators of heinous crime such as capital punishment, castration – chemical or surgical, public hanging, lynching, quick justice through fast-track courts, handing over the culprits to the public, victim’s right to decide the form of punishment have been stridently suggested and demanded. In order to provide security to women in public places various suggestions have been marshalled, of these most disturbing is the uncritical demand for the increased public presence of the police. Electronic media organisations as usual have competed with each to make a spectacle out of this display of anger predominantly by the middle class educated public.
    Display of spontaneous anger is much welcomed but instead of taken-for-granted attitude it should provide an opportunity for critical reflections. But expectedly much of what have been said are commonsensical responses which have produced a thoroughly misplaced public debate reproducing the same stereotypes against which this public ostensibly intends to protest. The very intention even without critical reflections by the general public, however, should be welcomed, but what is disturbing is that even the informed educated people too have actively participated
    in reproducing stereotypes.
    Here I will touch upon few critical questions that have been subsumed under this outburst:
    Firstly, the strident demand for increased and efficient presence of the police in public spaces needs serious reflections as it would lead to further policisation of society. In the given situation an ‘efficient’ state with its organs such as police in any way is not a very good thing as it would further increase surveillance on all kinds of critical thinking and action which could conveniently be defined as threat to agenda of state and ideologically dominant groups/classes.
    Secondly, there is unequivocal and one-sided emphasis on state and its organs as the lone site of the problem. State of course perpetuates violence is in many ways, but there is no mention of society’s doings. What is needed is critical reflection on ideologies that sustain relations of domination in society in which this very protesting public too very

    actively participate. That is why much emphasis has been put by this public on the rape and quick punishment, and not on the vehement opposition and valiant fight back by the girl. It was not only a rape but also brutalising the innocence. The very fact that the girl opposed vehemently, angered the rapists, is some thing that this protesting public must pay attention to. This thinking is reflected in various forms in everyday life – in and outside home. It is the critical self-reorganisation for a humane society that alone is the answer, which would entail the critique of the state that perpetuates relations of domination in the society including gendered relations of domination.
    Thirdly, there has been unequivocally vociferous demand for quick justice through a fast track court for this heinous crime. Yes, the case should not be dragged and justice should not be delayed. But the demand in the given situation is fraught with serious consequences as it would lead to bypassing the due course of law. We know that law itself is inscribed with statist agenda and crucially contributes in the construction of inverted truth. The logic of the demand for quick disposal of cases of such heinous crimes can have further serious ramifications for the religious and ethnic minorities who already are facing prejudices of all kinds by the law enforcing agencies. The demand for quick justice and quick disposal of cases would further strengthen the hands of state and ideologically dominant social forces in defining what constitutes a heinous crime or anti national activities. Such an approach would further diminish the scope of law as a domain of struggle.

    Neshat Quaiser is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi


  12. Where in India can a women say ‘no’; if she say that in her private homes, she will be summarily dealt with by women, men, society that includes all learned gurus and pandidts. A lady is not even supposed to talk, she should not have her own will and wish expressed even to herself, then how can she protest?

    Was it like this always in India?

    I do not think so. If so, since when has the scenario become so; people who try to make sense of the rape culture in India should start from there. In other words, it should start from unwinding the lie of what we call now the Indian history. How did the kunthi matha become pregnant, was she raped by an old brahmana guru in whose service was she rendered? How many can ask that question?

    Well so many things have happened in other communities as well in the past; but only in India such stories are glorified and idolized. What is the difference between a girl raped by her guru and a girl raped on the street?

    Nobody has ever tried to educate the public that there is no difference between the two; for both are cases of rape.

    Unless we start from there, the rape culture of India will remain unquestioned, unanswered and undone

    Prathiksha Baxis’ is a very relevant posting in that direction. There are many questions in it? It is through such questions and dialogue the Indian community can come to grip with what is the essence and the size of the rape culture in India.


  13. Pratikhsha Baxi’s inaugural intervention raises several questions,issues and contradictions. We need to advance its critical tempo further rather than look for easy or immediate solutions. There aren’t any immediate solutions, no matter how strongly we wished for them! In an environment where ‘the parliamentary discourse on rape…uses sexual violence as a resource for doing politics,and therefore,re-entrenches rape culture…where 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 displaced…’ in such an environment,fraught with dangerous implications and appropriations all round,whatever one says,must be said with due diligence and care and a sense of responsibility. I,therefore,hesitate to post this rejoinder to P.Baxi but I sense that holding back one’s criticism,even at this delicate juncture of ‘activism’ with respect to women’s movement in India, is not the best possible way of advancing the spirit of the movement; hence this post.

    First of all,its amazing to note how judicial discourse on rape in India has constituted its object of inquiry!! In cases after cases the judicial gaze tends to zero in on the figure of the ‘criminal’,his character,family and religion;in short,a kind of investigation technique which is cast in purely psychological terms to the exclusion of what ‘shapes’ or ‘structures’ the possibilities of sexualisation of female body as a kind of adventure sport in our society. In this context, training program for judiciary, or what is patronizingly called gender sensitization workshops, is not enough! How do we make the judiciary realise and appreciate that social or political,which may be commented on in passing in writing a judgement, is not a setting or a passive backdrop of ‘crime’: that it is indeed constitutive
    of crime? Further, that urgency of electoral politics in India make it almost imperative for political parties to choose and induct hardened criminals and gangsters who employ rape as a frequent means of political power to humiliate,punish and crush those who express their dissent and anger against an exploitative power-structure at all levels of society: from the family,to panchayat,to the church. Therefore, how can or what can the judiciary do to cut this umbilical chord joining political urgencies and the birth of crime?

    Secondly, the problem with Baxi’s post,and several others in a similar vein, creeps in when this political power to “punish” one’s adversary is associated exclusively with ‘the right wing’ and a nationalist Hindu culture which is supposedly ‘built on violated bodies of women’? Isn’t this a gross form of politicization of rape from the left wing? Let me clarify further. I don’t hold brief for the ‘right wing’ at all.In fact,if anything,I abhor their politics,and I think their call for death punishment etc. for the rapist is juvenile,to say the least. But that phenomenon does not prevent me from seeing the ‘danger’ of introducing a binary opposition of the right and left where cultural codes and patriarchal norms,both subtle and not so subtle deeply pervade the social and cultural spaces everywhere. Is this to be “imagined” that a state ruled by Maoists,for instance,or even by the C.P.M. as it was in West Bengal, Rape has not been used ,or will not be used,both as a trope and as an instrument of political violence?

    Finally, a brief note here on images of city for male consumption and need for surveillance etc.Baxi’s excellent post opens this up with expressions such as : ” Men consume images of a city tolerant of intolerable violence. City planners enable rapists to execute a rape schedule” and so on. However,such phraseology seems to be deliberately limited in its scope. Shouldn’t we add further to these images of male consumption the economy of pleasure and desire generated by a certain “freedom of expression”,including the freedom to explore one’s sexuality of whichever persuasion in public places; a certain freedom to valorise the nude and pornography sometimes as ‘art’ for the aristocratic; freedom to encourage arousal and erotica as a form of liberation against ‘repressive’ feudal and patriarchal norms? Do these images of consumption not ‘connect’ with rape culture in India,or is this a mere uncritical whining from the ‘right wing’?

    Finally, there is always a curious paradox about demands for effective surveillance and policing as well as demands for cultural expressions of female sexuality where women are both active and acting subjects of desire. In an ideal state and city planning this must be the case but ….

    Mukesh Srivastava
    Professor,centre for law,language and culture
    National Law Institute University,Bhopal.mukesharunachala@gmail.com


  14. Is this an entirely societal malaise or is it partly that and partly a problem of governance?

    Can the State sit back and let a societal malaise operate? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the infusion of norms which guide or govern our behavior towards different people around us on the basis of the rule of law?

    Whose responsibility is it to ensure the working of rule of law under which all citizens, irrespective of their gender are entitled to a secure environment and equality before law?

    What is more crucial for the freedom of women, the State’s recognition and enforcement of their rights and ensuring a level playing field or the societal reform where the end result would be a decreased number of attackers? Can the State’s proactive role in ensuring the working of rule of law lead to a societal reform? Or would a social reform lead to a proactive State?

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta says in one of his recent articles that let 2013 be a year in which “we become conscious of what a republican rule of law entails.” How much of this consciousness can be achieved on its own by the society and how much the State can bring in is an interesting question.


    1. Society is much bigger than the government. Govt. is merely a structure created by the society to carry out some of its functions. It is not right to delegate any more functions to it when it is unable to properly carry out the functions delegated to it so far. Society, the bigger entity, has to step in and carry out such functions. All of us have to do it, govt. included.


  15. Is this an entirely societal malaise or is it partly that and partly a problem of governance?

    Can the State sit back and let a societal malaise operate? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the infusion of norms which guide or govern our behavior towards different people around us on the basis of the rule of law?

    Whose responsibility is it to ensure the working of rule of law under which all citizens, irrespective of their gender are entitled to a secure environment and equality before law?

    What is more crucial for the freedom of women, the State’s recognition and enforcement of their rights and ensuring a level playing field or the societal reform where the end result would be a decreased number of attackers? Can the State’s proactive role in ensuring the working of rule of law lead to a societal reform? Or would a social reform lead to a proactive State?

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta says in one of his recent articles that let 2013 be a year in which “we become conscious of what a republican rule of law entails.” How much of this consciousness can be achieved on its own by the society and how much the State can bring in is an interesting question.

    Phd candidate, CSLG


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