The idea of rape is implicit in ideologies of nationalism and community. This becomes explicit in rapes that occur during communal riots, or in ethnic conflicts, where rape plays the same role as mutilation of the soldiers’ bodies at the LoC
Karen Gabriel Delhi
Although some publicised rapes like that of the Maulana Azad medical student in 2002, Thangjam Manorama’s rape in Manipur in 2004, the 2009 Shopian rapes in Kashmir and the 2012 Guwahati molestation and assault have evoked angry reactions, the ferocity and longevity of the recent Delhi gangrape protests were surprising. Not just because some of us have the continued misfortune to be familiar with the callousness, greed and corruption that characterise Delhi as a city, but also because the rapes, molestations, assaults, and the murder of women have been routinely occurring for as long as one can remember.
Furthermore, the routinely occurring continuum of violence against women, which begins in the womb and includes denial of food, resources, social justice, political representation, safe living environment and freedom from sexual and other violence, is barely nodded at by the mainstream media, despite protests from women’s groups and rights activists. For most people, it’s business as usual. So the spontaneity, energy, independence and endurance of these protests is remarkable and evoked both alarm and celebration.
They began at India Gate and then moved to Raisina Hill in Delhi, which the protesters accurately identified as the visual, actual, and symbolic hub of imperial power. That gesture itself constituted an assertion to entitlement, which had to be disabused.
Core Congress leaders went into panicky huddles, at which many disgraceful decisions born of the imperious arrogance of the political class were taken. One of these was to clear Raisina Hill of the occupying riff-raff, and ready it for important State business (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s impending visit was a perfect excuse). In a violent action that demonstrated the nexus between the police and political class, Raisina Hill was ‘tidied up’ and the protesters were packed off to Jantar Mantar — the protest ghetto of Delhi.
The masculinist machinery of war and some of its dented-painted corporate and political beneficiaries will be on ceremonial display as well. After all, there’s no business like show business and war
But that was not the only shameful decision.
Unforgivably, in a manner reminiscent of their recent secretive hanging and burial of a known criminal, they cremated the girl secretly. The police, armed with Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Sheila Dikshit and Minister of State for Home RPN Singh, dispensed with all decency and sensitivity toward the family of the victim (and the public). With unparalleled obscenity, they intruded into the home and grief of the family, hijacked the funeral, denied them the time or space to grieve, and literally intimidated them into cremating her body secretly, within two hours of it reaching her home. The body reached her home at 4 am and was ready for cremation at the Dwarka crematorium by 6.30 am. They were prevented from cremating her in the dark only because Hindu customs forbid it. Who knows, they may have dispensed of that and more, had there been no milieu of public vigilance and outcry. After all, what did her ravaged body mean to the high-powered and wily entourage?
They were there only to protect themselves. They were there to ensure that the tragic evidence of the collective failure of the State machinery to first prevent, and then respond to the savage crime and its medical challenges, was destroyed opportunely. They were there with the ardent hope that all the ugly facts and uncomfortable questions that have been raised about the State, our society and the structures of power within both would somehow dematerialise along with her body. They were there to obliterate the material and symbolic site of their culpability. They must have been impatient for it.
Interestingly, no queasiness was displayed when it came to the mutilated bodies of the Indian soldiers on the LoC. Though quickly cremated, they were honoured by the State. Everyone seemed to know their lines and spoke them on cue. It was a concert of harmoniously coordinated voices, confident in the validity and value of their orthodox sentiments, assured of the value of the quintessentially masculinist values of borders, territoriality, honour and war mongering. There were no Asaram Bapus, Abhijit Mukherjees, Sharad Yadavs, Mohan Bhagwats, Sushma Swaraj-es, Kailash Vijayvargiyas or Anisur Rahmans to offer implicit or explicit justifications for the beheading and mutilation.
Once Chhattisgarh adivasi Soni Sori was identified as ‘an enemy of the State’, her marginalised identity was further devalued, and the custodial rape and torture of her body became barely consequential
Nobody blamed the soldiers, or the fact that they were men, for the end they met. Nobody alleged that they invited it in the way in which women are implicitly or explicitly blamed for their own rapes and murders. On the contrary, responsibility was clearly fixed with the violators. The mutilation and violence practised on those bodies was not allowed to qualify the meaning, status and legitimacy of the men or their bodies since they were seen and were upheld as bearers and agents of State nationalism. In fact, their value and legitimacy as agents of both nation and State intensify further because of their LoC location.
There is, therefore, a huge actual and ideological investment in affirming the integrity of these men (more so in the face of their mutilated bodies): they cannot be held responsible for what happened.
This difference, and the absurdity of assigning culpability to the “provocateur-victim” in the case of rape, reveals the extent to which violence and the expectations around it are gendered.
The difference itself may be accounted for in several ways. Traditionally, sexual violence against women has been turned into a peg on which to hang a multitude of discourses, not least the discourse of “honour”, which this rape was made to host as well. Consequently, in a further violation, the raped woman is gradually absented and silenced and turned into ‘an existential cypher’, a hospitable receptacle for any meaning that might be forced on her, including her consent to or enjoyment of the violence. This habit is so established that despite the savagery of the rape, her statements, and the testimony of her companion, one of the defence lawyers, Manohar Lal Sharma, has reportedly already implied her consent and blamed the couple themselves for the rape and torture.
BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya had earlier expressed a milder version of this, when he suggested that rape was inevitable if women crossed the Lakshman rekha that protected them. Thus, rather ironically, when the guardians of the ‘Lakshman rekha’ of the LoC were themselves violated, the same discourse of “honour” had to be activated as an outrage, rather than as shame, or by disparaging the victims’ character.
The continuities in these two discourses manifest the conception of the metaphorical body of the nation as feminine and “raped”, when its borders are transgressed — so that, even if the troops guarding this metaphorical body are not themselves raped, the colouring of the assault on them in terms of “honour” serves only to reinforce and legitimise the larger discourse around rape with the power of nationalism, jingoism and masculinism.
The idea of rape is implicit in and central to ideologies of nationalism and community. This becomes explicit in rapes that occur during communal riots, for instance, or in ethnic conflicts, where rape plays the same role as mutilation of the soldiers’ bodies in this instance: it becomes the means through which the metaphorical body of the “other” nation or community is violated and abused through the violation and abuse of the actual bodies of its people.
The complex of intersecting identities and social formations within which we are all located, govern the ways in which we perceive, encounter, experience, process and respond to actions, situations and events. Who is located where in the socio-economic and political hierarchies determines the nature of exposure to violence, their capability to escape or withstand it and inspire sympathy.
The scale, bestiality and the numbers involved in the Nithari case in Noida, in which at least one woman and 32 small children were barbarically and sadistically tortured, raped, dismembered and disposed of, caused a sensation and led to significant media coverage. However, it did not evoke the kind of protests across that the rape of the physiotherapy student witnessed, possibly because the victims were mainly slumdwellers.
One possible reason is that the assault on her in the bus was not “contaminated” by communal, class, caste, ethnic or national dynamics. Perhaps public sentiment built up too fast for a cynical politics of appropriation to take root, or for the State to begin to dilute the event with innuendo or misinformation. For the urban middle class that rose in protest, “she”, like the other women of this highly stratified class, was to play a crucial economic role in the improvement of her family’s middle class status. This role is performed outside the ‘safe’ confines of the home — in offices, schools, laboratories, shops, banks, universities, hospitals and hotels.
She became emblematic of this particular category of women — which is why she could so quickly be identified as ‘India’s daughter’ (the India imagined thus being similarly “pure”, shorn of all its tensions, schisms and diversities). Her rape exposed the vulnerability of this class, as a class, to the gender and sexual violence otherwise pervasively prevalent in the city and in the country, and to the complete indifference of the State and government to it. Perhaps this, more than any other reason, explains the scale of the response as well as its particular limitations; it explains why this particular rape has disturbed this constituency much more than the regular rapes of Northeastern girls in Delhi and in the Northeast, of tribals in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Kashmiris, Christian nuns, Dalit women and so on.
Ankit Garg, an IPS officer whom Soni Sori named in her letter to the Supreme Court as overseeing her assault and torture, was conferred the President’s Police Medal of Gallantry on Republic Day last year
But, precisely because the rape of the girl in the bus remained ‘uncontaminated’ by these social formations, it could reveal a fact often forgotten in the more ‘contaminated’ cases, viz., that rape almost always consists of sexual assault by men on women, identified as a group, as radically ‘other’. Even when rapes occur during communal riots, conflict situations or in cross-border incidents, very rarely do men get raped; it is almost always women who are raped (if the soldiers patrolling the LoC had been women, it is quite likely that their bodies would have been found, not just mutilated, but also raped).
However, because the rape was largely ‘uncontaminated’, the “other” common to all rape cases was revealed to be the entire community of women; which is why, one heard identical sentiments from across the spectrum, justifying the assault, normalising rape, arguing men’s rights over women’s bodies and the right to exercise that everywhere. The voices from different quarters that, almost in spite of themselves, trotted out bizarre justifications for rape that essentially blamed the women victims, also served to reveal this same point: here, the rape could not be blamed on caste or communal or ethnic animosity or vengeance, it was revealed to be, in first principles, a sexualised hate crime against women.
In this sense, it might appear that the discourse of nationalism binds and unifies the discourse around the violence on the soldiers, because the violence on the soldiers was allegedly committed by the “enemy”, by Pakistanis, the “other”. The violence on the girl and her friend was committed, as several astute commentators pointed out, by “one of us”, people who live among us (which corroborates our reading of it as a middle class wave of “pure” identification). Nevertheless, this too gained a nationalistic hue: the discourse of nationalism and, aptly, sexism too, likewise bound the protesters to the girl’s rape, when they claimed her as “India’s daughter”.
The multiple, layered and often-contradictory ways in which we engage with the diversity of populations within the nation prevent univocality, in fact, demand polyvocal responses. However, when other social variables like caste or ethnicity come into play, when considering rape in particular, the contestations transform the meanings and value of the act and the suffering body.
For instance, once Chhattisgarh adivasi Soni Sori was identified as “an enemy of the State”, her already marginalised identity was further devalued, and the custodial rape and torture of her body became barely consequential. The fact of it being, in essence and in first principles, an act of sexual violence on a woman almost identical to the rape of the girl in the bus, is lost in the consideration of other issues.
Consider the fact that Ankit Garg, an IPS officer of the Chhattisgarh cadre, whom Soni Sori named in her letter to the Supreme Court as overseeing her assault and torture, was conferred the President’s Police Medal of Gallantry on Republic Day last year.
What is of particular significance is that the moment the rape in Delhi began to get woven into a discourse of nationalism, the State found it had to reclaim the space, the legitimacy and the control over that discourse — whether through wrapping the bodies of the soldiers in it, or through its anticipatory celebrations of Republic Day.
Ironically, when the guardians of the Lakshman rekha of the LoC were themselves violated, the same discourse of ‘honour’ had to be activated as an outrage, rather than as shame, or by disparaging the victims’ character
On January 26, Raisina Hill will once again affirm the hierarchies that State power is invested with and rests on, when it proudly displays the grotesquely imperial phallic regalia of State nationalism, those sexed-up versions of the rusted iron rods used on the girl in the bus. The masculinist machinery of war and some of its dented-painted corporate and political promoters and beneficiaries will be on ceremonial display as well. After all, there’s no business like show business … and war.
The spectacle of a virile, armed and potentially lethal imperial State will be orchestrated and conjured with the hope that it will replace the haunting memory of a wounded, eviscerated and dying girl. It will strive to replace her with the very logic that killed her. It will strive to woo back the confidence of the middle class with the ceremonial and ritualistic commemoration of the patriarchal power and authority of an imperial nation-state.
Meanwhile, that spectating middle class — also known as ‘cattle-class’ and ‘mango people’ — and its interests, will be kept at a safe and barricaded distance. Not surprisingly, there has been a call by the astute protesters to boycott Republic Day and reclaim the republic with a long march in Delhi and elsewhere on January 26.
Karen Gabriel is Associate Professor, Department of English, St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and the author of Melodrama and the Nation: The Sexual Economies of Mainstream Bombay Cinema (1970-2000)(Women Unlimited, 2010). This article was written before January 26.