The outrage is highly selective
by Sandipan Deb
“I HAVE known Venkatraman ( name changed) for maybe 15 years. A thorough gentleman, quiet, charming and unfailingly courteous. And then I read his Facebook post a day after the unspeakable violence committed by some monsters on a young woman in Delhi. This is what the post said: “ Why can’t a hundred people storm that police station lock- up, cut off ( the) limbs ( of the rapists) and rush them to the nearest hospital so that they live… and the way they live could be a deterrent. It would still not end with these six. But if this is done in a few cases, these b*** will think before committing these dastardly acts. At least, we would have done our bit… ” In other words, Bhagalpur blindings redux. The post has received many “ likes”.
Over the last few days, our social media has been aflame with a rarely- witnessed fury. Petitions supporting the death penalty for rapists that I have received for signing number more than a dozen. Middle- class rage has been unleashed again, for all its worth. Sadly, that potentially powerful force comes into play only when a specific type of event takes place. The event, first of all, has to be urban, preferably in the more modish parts of the cities.
It has to be a catastrophe involving a person or persons who we do not find it difficult to locate and place in our scheme of things. The perpetrators have to be close at hand, easily identifiable. So, even in the case of crimes against women, the urban middle class hardly ever does more than gnash its teeth for a few moments when it comes to khap panchayats; in fact, there are enough twitter jokes punning on ‘ khap’ that should make us hang our heads in shame. We don’t spend a moment on news reports— and news reports don’t spend more than 200 words— on crimes against women in rural India, especially lower castes and tribals, or child rape in our slums. There’s no middle class activism even regarding the daily— yes, daily— harassment that girls from the North- East face in our big urban centres, right next to our homes and malls.
Among the posts on social media on the Delhi gang rape last week were many messages about how the essentially patriarchal nature of our society lies at the root of our treatment of women. But there were also many which were screaming: “ Didn’t these b*** think of their own mothers, sisters and daughters when they were raping the girl?” This, the writers do not seem to realise, is also as patriarchal as it can get. This is clichéd dialogue from the same regressive Indian films which have for decades, with great financial success, convinced young men that the first step to wooing a girl is eveteasing, stalking and insulting her verbally and physically. The girl always gives in to the stalker- hero.
This is seen as the girl coming down from her high horse, and finding eternal comfort in the arms of a man who actually respects all women but one as his mother or sister or— in time— daughter.
And this is how so many of our honest and educated middle class, who believe they are gender- equal in their attitudes— still define women, invoking hoary hackneyed stereotypes? Interestingly, I’ve never seen these same heartfelt sentiments expressed for North- Eastern, rural or tribal women, ever.
All women are not our mothers, sisters or daughters. They need not be. They are women, and our orthodox pieties are blatant hypocrisies that try to define them in terms of our convenience. They are women and that is what they are, absolutely the same way as we are men, not fathers, brothers and sons.
The Delhi rapists and proto- murderers must be punished quickly and hard, and made an example of. But the bloodthirsty cries for medieval treatment, even though generated by a passion that is necessary and valuable, must be modulated by reason.
The case against mob justice need not be argued at length. We might all as well then enroll in the Ranvir Sena or sign up in Raj Thackeray’s register. The arguments against a universal death penalty for rape are also well- known. Judges will think 47 times before convicting a person, and in the vast majority of cases, will decide to acquit. This will in fact make matters even worse, since India’s record of conviction in rape cases is abysmal.
The reasons for this, again, are obvious: the shame that society forces upon a rape survivor, the cynical and humiliating interrogations and cross- examinations, the sheer sloth of the judicial process which is particularly damaging in rape cases, where the victim wants to move on and the culprit has all the time in the world. All this, in spite of the fact that India’s rape laws are among the toughest in the world. As many commentators who have dealt with actual situations ( as opposed to our politicians who are more interested in the fieriness quotient of their Parliament speeches and public utterances) insist, it is the swiftness of verdict and certainty of punishment rather than a death penalty that can make a difference. And this is not really difficult for a government and judiciary to implement.
Meanwhile, can we broadbase our middle class rage a bit to include gender crimes being committed daily, as a matter of course, outside our metros? Can we think of women not in terms that slot them into roles that fit our patriarchal values, however much we deny them, and think of them as human beings free to be anything they want to be? After this ghastly crime, a lot of us have said that we feel ashamed to be Indians. Can we feel ashamed a bit more, and in a wider and deeper way? “The writer’s novel, The Last War , will be published next week