Delhi Gang Rape – Understanding the Structure of Violence: Esha Shah

Guest post by ESHA SHAH

The social, political and legal debates that have followed the gruesome incident of gang rape in Delhi on 16 December – including the debates on the recently published report of Justice Verma Commission widely hailed for its revolutionary character – have not sufficiently engaged with the structure of violence perpetrated in the act of brutality. In forging the solidarity against the suffering, there is a popular tendency to externalise the act of barbarity causing this suffering as demonic and hence out of this world. For instance, one of the posters in the protests that followed the incident read “your suffering is my suffering” – in the same poster it was demanded that those who caused this suffering were narpishach and should be hanged. The pain of the victim is shared collective pain, but the brutality of the act is certainly not the shared collective responsibility. In the preliminary remarks below I want to argue that we need to revise the nature of power asserted in the act of brutality, and in doing so we need to not only convert the demonic caricatures as flesh and blood human beings produced by this world but also to embed their acts into deep-rooted structures of violence in our society.

I want to recall that the torture during the incident continued for two hours during when a rod was used to deliberately inflict and amplify pain in her body. Ironically, the intense agony and pain of the victim subsequently could not have been made visible to others without the references to the rod and extensive damage done to her intestines. There can be no dispute of the fact that the problem of pain and suffering is bound up with the problem of power. However, the relationship between the deliberate infliction of pain and the assertion of power is not as straightforward as Newton’s third law of action and reaction. It is far more complicated. Discussing the internal structure of torture and pain, Elaine Scarry in her path breaking work The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World asks: How is that one person can be in the presence of another person in pain and not know it – not know it to the point that he himself inflicts it, and goes on inflicting it? Scarry points out that ordinarily the person in acute physical pain is unable to describe it, the expression of pain resists language and verbal objectification. For instance, in medical vocabulary, pain is described in terms of intensity (moderate, severe) or by a limited number of adjectives (throbbing, burning, pulsating) or by the description of pain in “as if” structure – usually, the “as if” structure specifies a tool or a weapon that is described as producing pain or bodily damage that is pictured as accompanying the pain. Through imagining the tool/weapon or wound that the sensation of the hurt is conveyed. In other words, to have pain is to have certainty, but to hear about pain is to have doubt. Consequently, to convey the felt experience of pain to someone outside the sufferer’s body we need a reference to a weapon or a wound. Let’s recall yet again that the gang rape victim’s intense agony was made “visible” through the references to a rod and the extensive damage done to her intestines.

This structure of pain has political and perceptual consequences of the serious kind which refers to Elaine Scarry’s question– how is that one person cannot know the other person in pain to the extent that he inflicts it and goes on inflicting it? The internal structure of pain – its resistance to language and objectification – requires that in the act of deliberate infliction of pain like in any form of torture (happened during the gang rape too) the pain has to be amplified in sufferer’s body in a prolonged manner in order to make it visible to those outside the body.

The much-needed focus on the suffering of the victim however makes us overlook the fact that the brutal act of amplification of pain in sufferer’s body demands an obsessive agency; it demands that the person carrying out this act is involved to the very intense extent of his being. Where is this obsessively intense agency emerging from? It is unlikely that this obsessive energy is generated by a simple imitation of a hyper masculine character in cinema or video games. The production of this obsessive pain-inflicting affective agency collectively shared by six men in the case of Delhi gang rape is also not neurotic or psychopathic. This form of torture is so without human recognition or identification with pain that the torturer is not only able to witness the pain but able to continually inflict it and sustain it for a prolonged period.

The production of such obsessive agency demands emptying of the content of consciousness. Elaine Scarry argues that intense physical pain is world-destroying, it suspends civilisation. Referring to the diverse accounts of torture she shows that the person inflicting pain reverts to pre-language, to making uncaring noises. This form of torture is two-fold denial of the human – denying the pain of the particular human being being hurt and denying the collective human present in the production of civilisation. In fact, to allow the other’s suffering in his consciousness would immediately compel the torturer to stop the torture. And emptying of the consciousness, including stopping the basic instinct of animal pity in this act of civilisation-suspension is not easy – it is not achieved just by a whim, overnight.

Hanna Arendt shows in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem that for the SS officers receiving the orders to torture Jews was not so much to overcome their conscience as the animal pity to which all normal men were affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by the SS was to turn these instincts around in training the officers – the officers were taught to pity the self instead of pitying the sufferers. Instead of saying what horrible things I did to people, the murderers were able to say what horrible things I was made to watch in delivering my duties. The guard of the concentration camp would say to the prisoners, “I will shoot you but you are not worth the three pfenning of the bullet.” The guard is taught to find it normal to value three pfenning better than a human life. The emptying of the content of consciousness needs deep un-conditioning of the human instincts. This is routinely carried out for instance in military boot camps, and in torture cabins. Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket depicts the violent, hyper-masculine and pornographic character of this training. These acts of deep brainwashing as in military boot camps have to be sustained systematically over a prolonged period of time to achieve its consciousness emptying motive – as the movie depicts. The act of brutality performed during the Delhi gang rape in a moving bus points out that it is not necessary that such deep un-conditioning can happen only in the SS or military training camps, even our ordinary culture is also capable of producing such civilisation suspending consciousness.

The acts of torture and violence in the Delhi gang rape are acts of power no doubt. It is unlikely this serious nature of world-unmaking pain is inflicted because women in Delhi have decided to reduce the length of their skirts. Power is not that naked and flippant. Power covers itself, it hides, it debases, it positions, it conditions and un-conditions, it mutates and persists over a very long period of time. But most importantly, it is generated inside the deep rooted structures of our society. Instead of screaming death penalty for the accused, and in addition to making the state and legal apparatus accountable and responsible, we need to also focus our attention towards understanding the internal structures of violence in order to generate an over-arching critique of society that produces such heinous acts.

Esha Shah teahces at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University, The Netherlands and can be contacted at

10 thoughts on “Delhi Gang Rape – Understanding the Structure of Violence: Esha Shah”

  1. What a long, hyperbolic load of nonsense is this. Not a single word of this trajectory makes any sense. When the public describe the perpetrators of the pain as “demonic” they know perfectly well that these people are all too human. They use the term partly as metaphor, to mean that these acts are psychopathic and no normal person properly socialised would find them acceptable – which is true. Also the whole Elaine Scarry thing is a nonsense and simply turns out common sense experience on its head. Sympathy and empathy are normal human reactions of properly socialised people and do NOT require words. Witness the reaction of of people to watching a film in which there is a huge amount of visual cruelty but little or not dialogue in those scenes – though plenty of sub-verbal sounds, perhaps. As for the analgoy of the SS guards via Hannah Arendt, in what way were these gang-rape fellows brain-washed? Who systematically incorporated them into it, at the point of a gun, and with the blessings of the cultural majority? Are we going to say that their community did it? You might as well say that sociopaths are deliberately produced by society because most people want some people to be sociopaths! Similarly with the analogy with the Stanley Kubrick film – utter nonsense. This type of crime is not like brainwashing at all, However, i would argue that it is indeed a symptom of the failure on Indian urban society to control its sociopathic elements because the Indian political system at large is controlled by criminals and gangsters against which the average person feels helpless. Everyone knows that bad and powerful people are effectively above the law because they remain in their seats of power despite serious criminal charges against them including – and specifically including – acts of extreme violence. There is no “brain-washing” here : everybody knows what they are doing. The “bad guys” are out doing the “bad things” because they think they have a good chance of getting away with it, because mostly they do . They are not “normal” guys who have been brain-washed at all. Neither is their thinking and acting condoned by the moral majority- on the contrary, most people are horrified and disgusted. The Delhi gang rape is a symptom of the failure of the political system, not brain-.washing or any normal failure of humans to empathise with pain requiring verbalisation. Such articles serve only to create intellectual red herrings and divert attention from the evident social and political processes at work.


  2. It’s only going to get worse in the future.
    Caste system coupled with poverty seeds savages in India.
    You’re are naive if you think streets are safe for your women.


  3. The initial reactions from all and sundry over the DGR ( I don’t even feel like writing this fully ) is over now, which is natural and a reflex action , we need to more deeply introspect as to how such pain can be inflicted by men/woman of our society. These types of atrocities ( May be different on a severity scale ) were committed since time immemorial and will continue ( does not mean that we should ignore ) . We need to find root causes take corrective and preventive actions (also predict and preventive actions are necessary) . This can only be done by analysing human deviant nature specifically under the influence of alcohol/drugs. Men not under the influence of alcohol/drugs and men not brain trained ( in army / madrasa ) can never inflict such pain and not empathise with the victim . There are hardly few words, rightly as the writer says to describe pain in words. But the men make nonverbal noise while inflicting the pain. This brave heart girl repeatedly said the names of the perpetrators and rod to the police while describing pain. Punishment alone is not a deterrent, patrolling alone is not enough; long dresses/veils alone are not the answer. This is the problem of mind more often a drugged mind. Thinkers and psychologists should debate and find answers, not the fast track courts.


  4. Its all well to understand the psychology and physiology of pain and the person inflicting pain; but another thing to understand why it is happening in society.
    A social critique is not a main concern here. Action is required at all levels to help people marginalised, who feel ‘powerless’, and at some point in their lives get intense in their need for power…people who got desensitized by the very circumstances/society they live in.


  5. this is excellent articulation of the problem at the theoretical and abstract level , which is the need of the hour when resolving the issues of violence are left to the discourse of law and the enforcing agency of police. although the response of justice verma committee is exceptional and commendable but to consider it appropriate for the civil society will entrap us in the complacent discourse of the state apparatus. legal measure could be effective to some extent and that too in urbane settings but we have to go long way in transcending the barbarity of the sociality of our times. ours is a society which has become accustomed to naturalization of coercive violence .ours is a society where commodification of women in caste kinship is an accepted norm which also co-opts with the consumerism . ours is a society where it does not even become an issue that 80% of the people are barely physically living far too below the accepted standards of human dignity. and normalization of violence is omnipresent in our public and private life. any articulation of the issue that contests the naturalization of violence has to inevitably face the suppression. so we are far below the accepted norm of democratization of the social bond. the critique of incidence of gang rape also needs to problematise the naturalization of acute violence which has made us immune to to the oppression and suppression which are inherently woven in our day to day living .gang rape is in a way brutal way of exercising annihilating sadism to derive gratification from the hurting the victim to demonstrate triumph of the power’ of ‘masculinity’ in a peer group .and the imposition of broadly consensual social stigma on the victim of rape is also equally brutal in her quest of liberation and attaining dignity. and we can see the historical continuity in the naturalization of violence in the mass popular protest against the legal provisions to curb child marriage and against the creation of provisions for widow -remarriage . one just has to visit the banaras to witness the brutality of discursive violence excersised on widows sense of their own self. and our acceptance of nuclear power is also a zenith in our un-conditional normalization of violence in public life
    thus , preventive legal discourse can never allow us to engage in critique of foundation of violence and we will succumb to the policing of diverse types. thus justice vermas report will be conservative and parochial if it address the violence in overtly empirical terms without addressing the naturalization of violence and consequent immunization of ours self towards the violence. violence could be effectively handled only when we are able to contest the our discursive acceptance of violence in our day to day living.
    deependra baghel , bhopal


  6. I may not completely agree with the views of the author… i am still thinking about them …. but thank holy god that someone finally tried to take up the issue of violence at an individual level … how could those men be so brutal as individuals to another person is something that obviously requires study …. understanding how people lose all sense of empathy or “animal pity” and do atrocious things to others is necessarily the first step in preventing such brutal violence … to say that they are just different people (psychopaths) or to say that it happens coz of the government is sheer escapism and thus in an oblique way promoting this kind of brutality … as the author mentions, the fact that normal civilians could be so brutal shows that somewhere our society and our values are breeding “psycho-paths” (just as the nazis did it institutionally we are doing it culturally or socially) and understanding these people is the only way to understand how to stop doing so …. commendable effort by the author


  7. Did you consciously stop short of telling us “so why this infliction of pain by the torturer? What was his mind/body directing him to do and why?


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