Some Thoughts on Sexual Violence and Rape in India – Taking Forward the Discourse and Struggles

February 24, 2013

By Indira Chakravarthi

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On the evening of 16th December 2012, in a moving bus in Delhi, a young woman was subjected to brutal violence and rape by a group of men, leading to her death about a fortnight later.

The incident led to huge protests in Delhi and to an extent in several other cities and towns across the country. In Delhi there were protests daily for nearly two weeks following the incident. Sections of the protestors were demanding instant justice, by either death penalty, or castration of the rapists. When the protests did not die down after nearly a week or so, the police and the administration resorted to a heavy hand to suppress them, such as lathi charge, tear gas shelling, detention and intimidation of protestors, blocking off roads and closing metro stations to prevent people from reaching India Gate, and imposing Section 144 in the area. They justified their actions by claiming that the protests had been taken over by lumpen elements who were indulging in stone-throwing and violence against the police.

A lot has since been written about, said and discussed since this horrendous incident took place: about the incident itself, about the protests, about why women are being raped, about death penalty and chemical castration as justice and deterrent, how violence against women should be handled, about patriarchy, about upbringing of the male child in Indian society, gender sensitization, lack of moral education, and so on.

This incident itself reveals a lot about the monumental extent of corruption, lawlessness and apathy prevailing in Delhi, in the transport department and among the police of Delhi, with the complicity of the government. What is most shocking is the way the incident has been manipulated by the state in its own interests, to give the impression that it was concerned and doing something, but actually using it to divert attention and to suppress protests. For instance, it was the state’s decision to move the victim out of the country even though it was not needed medically, and despite her extremely fragile condition after she suffered a heart attack, stroke and brain damage. Media reports also reveal that there were attempts to persuade the family to not have the cremation in Delhi, which was ultimately conducted `furtively’, amidst unprecedented security – for some hours on the morning of 30th December the area around the victim’s house and the crematorium was fortified with nearly a thousand paramilitary and police people. Only the family and some top political leaders were present, all indicating utter indifference of the political establishment and the police to the sentiments of the family and friends of the young victim. Failing to take actions that could have prevented the fatal attack on her, the state apparatuses apparently had taken over all decisions regarding the young woman’s life and death into their hands, for its own advantage.

Outrage over one, silence over many others
The government (and the media) has also not spared any effort to valorize the young woman. She has been variously named Nirbhaya, Damini, Braveheart, the unknown citizen, India’s daughter, and so on. What the woman had to suffer was terrible, however, the attempts to make a hero of her is more an attempt to score points over those who blame women for bringing this upon themselves, to divert from the serious lapses on part of the government, to cover up for the failures that led to the incident to occur in the first place and to fix responsibility for the same; a weak effort to placate the protestors, as also to isolate this incident from so many other cases of sexual violence.

As statistics cited below indicate, this is neither an isolated case, nor the first gang rape in Delhi; although the violence inflicted upon the woman ostensibly `to teach her a lesson’ is deeply shocking and also very disturbing that some men think of such acts of ferocity and frenzy, and act upon them. Incidents of rape/gang-rape have been taking place for several years now, not only in Delhi, but also in many other parts of the country. In just one month preceding this incident there had been nearly a dozen cases of rape in neighbouring Haryana. In one instance the men circulated video clips of the act, which led to the father of the girl committing suicide. The outrage and continuous protests in Delhi have finally forced open the silence among certain sections on the issue of sexual violence and rapes in the country; it is extremely unfortunate that such a heavy price had to be paid. Why is it that the other incidents of gang rape within Delhi itself did not evoke such attention or protest, except from women’s groups? This is extremely distressing and of concern, for it seems that in this society the violence and brutality has to cross `certain limits’ to evoke a response – that by itself rape of women is not violence, is not something to be agitated about; that they are women’s issues which only women’s groups need to address.
It is an irony – this christening of the dead woman as `the unknown citizen’. Except her name, a lot has been reported about the girl; going by media reports the entire country is agitated and outraged by what was done to her and is demanding justice for her (in form of death penalty). It is a paradox that we know the names of so many women who have been subjected to such sexual violence – manorama, nilofer, asiya, meena khalko, surekha, priyanka, tapasi, seema, soni sori, arati majhi, janki bai, kumari, kamli… the list is long. Yet we choose to either look away or ignore their cases and their lives. Just as the `unknown citizen’ from Delhi was a human being with aspirations and rights that were violated, these women were/are also human beings, many of them young girls like this other `unknown citizen’.

Large sections of the urban middle class people choose not to know about them, and the media also does not get outraged or talk about them, about the violence they have faced, and how their cases have been dealt with. While what has been done to this young woman was horrendous, however, it is high time we acknowledged that such brutality is not unprecedented in this country. What about the violence inflicted upon women during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, on 45 year old Surekha and her 17 year old daughter Priyanka Bhotmange by upper-caste men in Khairlanji in 2006; on young Seema in Jaipur in 2010 in a police station, the custodial torture of Soni Sori, a 35 year old adivasi woman from Chhattisgarh in October 2011, who was stripped, sexually abused and humiliated by the SP, and stones and batons were thrust up her private parts, all inside the police station, and the two women police were threatened into silence. In February 2010 20 year old Arati Majhi was picked up by security forces from her village in Odisha during combing operations; along the way she was forced to see obscene pictures on mobile phones, raped and when she protested, abusive language and taunts followed: ‘how would you handle a rifle’s butt if you cannot take in a man’s penis’. In another case from Chhattisgarh, of collective rape by policemen of a tribal woman inside the police station for several days, chillies were thrust up her vagina. (See recent petition). The horror of sexual violence has been to the extent of rape followed by murder of the women, such as those of 32-year old Manorama by soldiers of the Indian Army in 2004 in Manipur; of 22 year old Nilofer and 17 year old Asiya in Shopian, Kashmir in 2009; of teenager Meena Xalxo in 2011. In the case of Manorama and Meena there were bullet wounds in and around their private parts. The list is long. There were protests against these incidents of violence locally. It is indeed sad that the national media, especially television media, gets agitated and gives space only when the violence and the protests take place in the capital, in Raisina Hill.

While it is a matter of concern that a high proportion of the sexual violence is inflicted by acquaintances, or relatives, or friends, there is also sexual violence by the army, the police, and in state institutions such as in prisons and remand homes. What is unique about all the above-named cases of rape, and rape followed by murder is that they have been carried out by security forces or police, except the twin rapes and murders in Khairlanji (which could have been easily prevented by the local police, but it chose not to). Extensive documentation by civil liberties and democratic rights groups shows that in Kashmir, Manipur, Assam, and Central India sexual violence is being systematically used by security forces as an instrument of power and intimidation, of humiliation and revenge, and of subjugation and repression. While we have listed out some specific cases above, there have been instances of mass rape by soldiers, such as that of around 80 women in Kunan Poshpora in Kashmir in February 1991, by Assam Rifles of 25 tribal women and children in Tripura in 1991. Since 2006 there have been a large number of rapes of tribal women in Bastar, Chhattisgarh by the state supported vigilante group Salwa Judum and during Operation Green Hunt by the security forces. 98 complaints of rape committed in this period are pending with the NHRC in Delhi, awaiting action and justice.

While sexual violence takes an acute form in the conflict areas and during riots, it is pervasive even in the non-conflict areas. It is used as an instrument of power and to elicit submission by the upper castes against minorities, tribals and lower caste women, as indicated by the Khairlanji case, the rape by police in UP during land acquisition in May 2011, the rape of Pardhi women in Betul, MP in 2007 by police and politicians, and rape of poor women by police in Pararia, Bihar in February 1988 by policemen.

This reality also busts the shallow, frivolous, explanations of right wing forces that say “rapes take place only in India and not in Bharat”, that it is due to the influence of western culture, that women bring it upon themselves, and so on. It has recently come to light that in the hostel of a residential primary school for tribal girls (ashramshalas – set up in isolated locations in tribal dominated districts), in Kanker, Chhattisgarh, the male teacher and watchman had been regularly raping the girls for years (see ). No action was taken by the Gram Panchayat and the Block Education Officer when it was brought to their notice! If at all there had been no rape in the villages of “Bharat” as claimed by Mr. Mohan Bhagwat of RSS, then the BJP ruled state government can certainly take credit for introducing it in its schools, villages and forest hamlets.

In short, there is this other reality we need to wake up to – of the state agencies not hesitating to use rape and sexual violence against its citizens, or condoning it by acts of omission and commission. We need to also talk and discuss about this larger `dirty picture’, this grim reality of a very large number of such `unknown citizens’ of “Bharat”, and stand by the quest and struggles of their families too for a fair hearing and for justice. (WSS REPORT).

The limits of the criminal justice system
Concerns have been rightly raised about the indifferent functioning of police, the delays of the criminal justice system, the low rates of conviction, and hence the accompanying sense of impunity among the rapists. However, the situation vis-à-vis punishment for the rapes by security forces is far more alarming and of concern. Security forces enjoy a lot of impunity stemming from laws regulating the security forces such as the Army Act, which places criminal acts perpetrated by army men while on active duty, such as rape and sexual assault, outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary criminal justice system. The prior right of the army and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) to seek custody of accused personnel under their respective Acts, for prosecution through court martial, and not before the ordinary criminal court, is a complete violation of the victim’s right to remedy and justice. These laws allow the security forces to be Judge, Jury and Prosecutor, encouraging impunity. Along with the extraordinary powers and the immunity provided under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), such provisions ensure absolute denial of justice to the victims of these violations, including for grave crimes of murder and sexual violence.

For instance, in the case of rape and murder of Manorama, despite its men being found guilty, the Army has stonewalled any moves towards justice by challenging the very jurisdiction of the state government to institute an Enquiry Commission into the incident, and the legal struggle now lies in the Supreme Court. One finds that in almost all the cases enumerated above, no one has been held culpable; none of the perpetrators has been punished. The response of the state to the custodial sexual violence on Soni Sori is another example. There is an attempt to not only dismiss Soni’s complaints of sexual torture by casting doubts on the medical findings; far from instituting an inquiry into the complaints and placing the accused SP under the scanner, on the recommendation of the Chhattisgarh government the Union of India awarded him the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry on 26th January 2012, just three months after the incident. In fact, yet another SP, (SRP Kalluri), who along with others raped a tribal woman in Sarguja, has been similarly awarded this medal this year! Thus, the State’s attitude towards the perpetrators of sexual violence within its ranks is one of indulgence and tolerance, while there is indifference and attempts to discredit the victims.

Attempts by women’s groups and civil liberties groups to raise these issues of sexual violence by state agencies is brazenly ridiculed and dismissed by the administration and political establishment (and the media), on the grounds that such `allegations’ demoralize the security forces and cause obstructions in their duties of protection of the country from terrorists, insurgents, etc. From the actions of the Indian state and the Army it appears that the morale of the security forces and their right to rape and perpetrate violence comes above the basic human rights of citizens of this country, above the rights of the women of this country to life, personal liberty, respect, dignity, and bodily integrity.

So, added to the issues of state sexual violence is the equally serious issue of the state reserving for itself the right to be out of purview of the criminal justice system, and the right to grant itself impunity and immunity.

A lot of faith is now being placed upon the criminal justice system to act fast to apprehend and punish the culprits, and come up with strong and effective deterrents. But they come into the picture largely after the `crime’ deed has been committed. Will they be sufficient to prevent the violence, to end the violence? Once an act is `criminalized’ then the state appropriates the matter; how do we proceed bearing in mind the highly unequal functioning of the system, knowing that in this highly unequal society it may develop in ways not intended, and can end up actually worsening the plight of the vulnerable, or creating unforeseen problems. In addition, across the world `crime control’ remains ineffective for various reasons.

While we struggle to make the state and its institutions genuinely democratic and accountable, while we struggle to remove patriarchy and its manifestations in the family and all institutions of society, we also need to focus on primary prevention of sexual violence. The response has to be on multiple levels. While laws are not completely useless, yet one should not ignore the potential and possibilities of other policy responses and measures, other explanations. One also knows that not all men are committing rape. Can we look beyond a reformed criminal justice system, beyond deterrence and understand why rapes occur in the first place? What are the circumstances in which some men or groups of men commit rape? Patriarchal biases, attitudes and beliefs have been around for centuries and still run deep. But can they be the only explanation for the increasing sexual violence? Is there something more happening that we are not paying attention to? One also needs to look at why some men are committing rape – is there any pattern discernible; if so who are these men, why do they do it, and so on. We need to look upstream for contributing factors to sexual violence, only then can we begin to prevent sexual violence.

Upstream Factors of Sexual Violence
Available statistics on rape points to several issues that need further study and analysis that can guide preventive measures. There has been a consistent increase in the reported cases of rapes over the years from across the country, since 1971 when it began to be recorded. This is large in any case, and one shudders to hear that many cases are not reported and these could be underestimates!

1971

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2011

2487

5023

7289

10068

13754

16496

18359

22172

24206

(All figures from National Crime Records Bureau, available at http://ncrb.nic.in/)

However, there is a wide variation in actual incidence and in the rate of rapes across the country. Therefore, we need to look at the disaggregated picture, at the variations across states and regions, across age groups, who the offenders are and who are their targets, why it is high in some places. What is alarming is the large number of rapes taking place of children and teenaged women. In 2011 of a total number of 267 cases of incest from across the country, 170 cases (64%) were of persons below 18 years of age. In 2011 30% of all the reported cases of rape victims were below 18 years of age. In absolute numbers, 875 were up to 10 years, 1707 were between 10-14 years, and 4646 between 14-18 years.

A study by doctors of the Department of Forensic Science & Toxicology, AIIMS, Delhi, on sexual offenses in South Delhi provides some useful information. The study looked at few demographic features of 90 victims of sexual offenses in South Delhi during the period January 2001-September 2002 who had been brought to AIIMS for examination. While 88.9% of the victims were females, the age distribution of the victims is distressing: 68.9 % were aged between 11 to 20 years (this included 4 boys), and 11 % were below 10 years of age. The female victims were mostly in the age group 16-20 years. 92.2 % belonged to poor socio-economic status (income below Rs 5000 per month); and 81.1 % were unmarried. In 44.4% cases the assailant was an acquaintance; in 30 % a close friend and in 18.8 % cases it was a stranger (http://medind.nic.in/jah/t05/i1/jaht05i1p60.pdf).

One reason for the large number of child rapes is the prevalence of the superstition that sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis can be cured by intercourse with a virgin (http://medind.nic.in/jah/t05/i1/jaht05i1p60.pdf). If this indeed is a reason for rape of children then it is a serious matter calling for an emergency response at several levels. One need not labour the point of poor female children being particularly soft targets in the slums in urban areas, with both parents away at work and no access to childcare facilities. Rape can also be viewed as a particular form of violence, that power and anger are some of the motivations for rape; and that a culture in which women historically have been denigrated and objectified and viewed as the property of males provides fertile ground for angry individuals to target individuals who are vulnerable.

While there is a huge tendency, rightly so, to focus on medical and legal services for the victims, there are not many studies in India of sex offenders to understand the motivation behind their attacks. A review of research on risk factors for rape perpetration concluded that there is strong evidence that five groups of risk factors are important in rape perpetration: adverse childhood exposures; attachment and personality disorders; social learning and delinquency; gender inequitable masculinities; and substance abuse and firearms. There was considerable interconnectedness between these groups of factors, and indeed between them and other factors where direct impact on rape perpetration has yet to be demonstrated. Not all people exposed to these factors will engage in sexual violence and not everyone committing rape will have the risk factor. Hence the question about what makes a person who has a risk factor vulnerable to become sexually coercive is of great importance in understanding rape prevention. (Jewkes, R. (2012) Rape Perpetration: A review. Pretoria, Sexual Violence Research Initiative).

Given the host of structural factors for the perpetration of sexual violence, should our struggles be limited to demands for an effective criminal justice system that focus on the individual victim and reduce the problem to a unidimensional male aggressive behavior? Or do we move forward from here towards a more systematic, systemic analysis of violence including sexual violence? Socialist feminists have attempted to understand rape and sexual violence by placing women’s oppression, sexual violence and rape within the totality of the unequal and exploitative relations prevalent in the capitalist patriarchal societies we live in to understand how class and gender oppression and exploitation are related. Without denying the reality of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism, these feminists look at the fundamental reasons for individual acts of violence, of men raping women. There are attempts to take on board the exploitation of the working class by capital and the manner in which it is carried out, leading to devaluation of labour, alienation, and lack of powerlessness and control over their lives among workers. This leads to acceptance of the domination of capital as well as the dominant ideas of capitalism, such as those of the role of the family, of sexism and gendered roles. In such an understanding people’s lack of control over their lives makes them frustrated, at times angry, passive and apathetic. Anger among workers can lead to organised class actions for change. Or at an individual level, it can lead to lashing out at fellow workers, including women. The divisions caused by sexism and other social categories create easy targets for lashing out at those placed lower in the social hierarchy.

In the present times all workers bear the brunt of the globalization processes. Women as workers and care-givers continue to bear a greater burden of labour and exploitation, subject to lower wages, to migration for livelihoods, to trafficking, to sexual violence, to lack of control over their sexuality, reproduction, etc. This moment of protest and debate can also be a time to revisit, renew and sharpen our theoretical understandings, based on the material realities, of not just women’s oppression and exploitation leading to violence, but perhaps of all such oppression and exploitation, and understand the social production of violence and harm, if we are to act towards preventing it, ending it.

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