THIS IS A MOMENT THAT COULD GO EITHER WAY. It can deepen a crucial engagement or it can leave one with the chaotic debris of a fierce, but passing storm. As the intense outrage over the gangrape in New Delhi on 16 December begins to live out its heat, it’s imperative to question, which of these will we be left with?
Over the past few weeks, many angry questions have been hurled at the police, the judiciary and the political establishment. The failures of the State are staggering and one cannot be grateful enough for the initial rage and outpouring on the street. Without that, there would have been no conversation.
But there is an urgent need now for calmer review, for genuine and calibrated suggestions that can lead to long- and short-term change. There is a need also to ask, are we framing this discourse wisely? Can its shrillness or the suggested remedies have adverse impacts one did not intend?
Before examining any of that though, there is a big missing piece that must find voice. The anger against the State — the demand for greater efficiencies and accountability — is hugely legitimate. But what about the giant shadow in the room? How endemic is the prejudice that stalks our society? What produces and perpetuates it? What creates the idea of women as ‘fair game’ for sexual violence? What, in effect, do Indian men think about women?
It would have been comforting if vile foolishness in India had been the domain of the few. But Asaram Bapu is not alone when he says one hand cannot clap by itself. Or that taking diksha, reciting a mantra and pleading with her rapists as brothers might have saved the young girl that fateful night.
The clergy of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind are not alone when they advocate co-educational institutes to be shut down, pre-marital sex to be outlawed and girls to dress in sober and dignified clothes as ways to prevent rape.
Mohan Bhagwat is not alone when he asserts more rapes happen in ‘India’ than ‘Bharat’ — the first a synecdoche for promiscuous modernity; the latter for a more pious and traditional order where women live within boundaries prescribed by men. Abhijit Mukherjee is not alone when he mocks women protesters as “dented, painted” girls. Nor are Abu Azmi, Kailash Vijayvargiya or the Chhattisgarh home minister who says minors in the state are being raped because their stars are not favourable.
If they had been alone — a marginal raft of clumsy old men — mere derision would have been enough. But the fear is, they are signposts of a much wider and deeper mindset. And if they are that, how is one to negotiate such a gaping cultural divide? How can a society articulate — and enforce — desired values for itself if there is such a foundational disagreement over what those values should be?
Over the past few days, the national media has rebuffed these men with an acetylene rage. Apologise, they have shouted. Retract your thoughts. Or at least be shamed into withdrawing the impunity with which you say such things in public.
But this rage has triggered its own counter-currents. Madhu Kishwar, feminist and editor of Manushi, for instance, is scathing about the media’s tone. “What kind of imperialist vocabulary is this? If you treat everyone who does not agree with you as aliens and fools, if you refuse to accept them as your own people, what gives you the right to dictate to them? What makes you think they will even entertain your criticism?” she asks.
Santosh Desai, media commentator and head of Future Brands, has perhaps an even more challenging concern. “Media in India is more loud than representative,” he says. “If the framing of this debate gets too vociferous and extreme, it can galvanise the opposition in disturbing ways. Our society has always had a way of evolving organically, using a combination of strategies to create space for new ideas. As long as that change is gradual, the anxiety it produces is also gradual. If one gets too absolutist, the whole thing can boomerang.”
Yet, can change ever be catalysed without someone adamantly staking out new boundaries? Can society be jolted — or even nudged and cajoled — into new positions without bold outriders stridently rejecting the old? What is the most effective approach? Confrontation or stealth? Scorn or the patient building of bridges?
In this week’s cover — apart from evaluating some of the remedies for police and judiciary that have emerged over the past few weeks — TEHELKA set itself to get a sense of that ephemeral phenomenon: a mindset. Its reporters spoke to dozens of men across strata and age and region and class, asking them how comfortable they felt with ideas of freedom for women, whether they held women and modernity responsible for rape and other forms of sexual crime; whether they believed rape was more prevalent in cities than villages; and how far they felt popular culture was responsible for a perceived sense of moral decline in society.
In India — continental as it is in size and plurality — even the most extensive sociological survey can, at best, be only an anecdotal one. This, by every yardstick, is extremely anecdotal and extremely miniscule. But as a dipstick — as an intuition — of what this vast country thinks, it throws up fascinating findings. We expected darkness; we found it. But, gratefully, we also found the unexpected.
FIRST, A window into the darkness. A few days ago, the virulent Raj Thackeray asserted that migrants were responsible for a huge percentage of rapes in India’s metros. If you heard Raju, 45, a migrant auto driver in Delhi, speak, you might believe Thackeray was justified.
“The root problem for all these crimes is women themselves,” Raju told TEHELKA. “The mirror in my auto tells me everything, what young boys and girls are doing behind me. They are willing to pay extra because they want to make love. In my village in UP, my wife keeps her ghungat even in front of my mother. Now imagine if a person from such a strict society comes to Delhi where women flaunt their bodies and provoke men with their dresses, what will he do? You may want to close your eyes at first, but if someone offers you fruit on a plate, will you deny the invitation?
Delhi girls are like mangoes. What do you do with the fruit? You eat it, suck it, and throw it away. These women are being used and overused. Sometimes, they have 10 boyfriends. In such a situation, how can you stop rapes? The current discourse is being created by elites and it ends there. You have all these rich people talking on TV, but if the rich want to have fun, they can afford to hire women and go to a hotel. Where will a poor man go?”
Unfortunately, in keeping with the stereotype in different ways, this view — this crude bewilderment laced with latent aggression against women — repeats itself across the cow belt. Ram Kishen, 53, a farmer from Bhiwani, told TEHELKA, “Of course, girls are solely responsible for the rapes that happen. We must marry them off when they are 15. Why should a girl remain unmarried even in her late 20s? Girls in big cities are given too much freedom. They are allowed to go out with men at night and roam about. What else do you expect in such a situation?”
Kishen could be a twin for Narendra Rana, 33, a farmer from Rajasthan. “Most of the time it’s the girls who invite such problems. Look at the Delhi case. Why was the girl out at that time of night? I heard when she got onto the bus with the man, they started kissing. So it’s not the fault of the men who raped her. Why would she want to do such a thing in a public space?” he asked. “Girls are being given all the freedom in this world, which they are misusing. If you want to curb these incidents, just take away this freedom.”
These men find endless echoes. Moolchand, a 42-year-old sarpanch in Manesar. Sham Lal, 36, a labour contractor from Bhiwani. Satbir Singh, a businessman from Jind. Prashant Singh, 28, a serviceman from the Haryana Electricity Board in Faridabad. Every one of them blamed women for the breakdown in society; not one held men responsible for their own actions.
Spiral this outwards to rates of female foeticide, dowry deaths, marital violence, early marriages, the percentage of working women and the number of honour killings and every fear about the Hindi heartland would seem to stand true.
But Raj Thackeray is wrong. The stereotype is not exclusive to the heartland. Since the debate around rape exploded into public consciousness over the past few weeks, there has been a temptation to frame the discourse through every kind of stereotype: a gender war; a class war; a religious war; a culture war; a regional war; a war between modernity and tradition, between city and village.
The hard truth is, there are enough dark voices to justify each of them. If you listen to men across India, you would know enough of them want to keep women in a box or thrust them back if they have escaped. This impulse expresses itself in a myriad ways: as brute misogyny or stifling protectionism. But running common through it all is a fear and abhorrence of women who display autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality. Women’s clothes, you would imagine, are the ‘greatest internal security threat in this country’.
No culture, profession or age group — no level of education or exposure — seems to make men immune to this. Here’s what Basheer Tawheedi, a 40-year-old lecturer in Kashmir, lists as reasons for rape: modern culture, girls wearing “inviting dresses”, less parental supervision, a decline in religious pieties, and a free mingling of the two sexes. “Of course, women’s freedom is responsible for the rise in sexual crimes,” he told TEHELKA. “How can we expect that dry grass with petrol near it under scorching heat won’t catch fire?”
Listen to Tabish Darzi, 26, a banker in Srinagar, and you get the same atavism, different metaphor. “To me, a woman is a pearl that is safe inside a shell,” he said. “Keep it open and everyone will try to snatch it.” The lofty idea of men as benign protectors flowed uncritically throughout his conversation; the narrowest interpretations of Islam formed his bedrock.
“Yes, women are somewhat responsible for the crimes against them, but ultimately it is actually the responsibility of their guardians, parents and husband. We know women are easily fooled and lack reason (sic),” he said. “Men must act as protectors of women because Allah has made one to excel over the other. There can be no equality between the sexes. In Saudi Arabia, there are no rapes because women dress well and don’t mingle freely with men.”
Like the men in the Hindi heartland, Tabish and Baseer are facsimiles. You could replace them with Muhammad Rafiq, 28, a teacher in Kashmir, or Mudassir Kakroo, 32, a civil engineer, or Ahsaas Lone, a marine biology scientist, or Muhammad Afzal Wani, 30, another banker, and their thoughts would just duplicate each other in different shades.
But there is cold comfort for those who would revel in the stereotype of the regressive, patriarchal Muslim man, because here’s what Vijay Prasad Shetty, 57, president of the Udupi Bar Association, told TEHELKA: “The clothes today’s girls wear provoke even the most upright men. Women have become too wayward. They have moved away from Hindu culture. Girls wear 3/4th pants and figure-hugging clothes that leave little to the imagination. Obviously, this turns men on. Boys will never approach a girl if they don’t get the right vibes from her. They always know when they see a girl who is ready to sleep around. Why can’t women wear churidars instead of skirts? If women roam around wearing revealing tops, obviously men get the idea that she’s available and loose. The best of men can fall for that. In the olden days, our elders had a rule. A grown-up daughter would not be allowed to be in the same room as her father or her brother. We have drifted away from there. That’s why these things are happening.”
At one level, how can one hear such assertions with anything except outraged rejection? The efficacy of that rejection can be evaluated later; surely one must first record the rejection?
Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. Farmer, labourer, auto driver, scientist, lawyer or teacher. Educated or illiterate. Old or young. Haryanvi, UP-wallah, or Southie. Only one thing seemed to bind the men TEHELKA spoke to: they had no concept of male accountability; no concept of the hijab of eye and action. The burden of social order lay only with the woman.
The conversations had other disturbing yields. Apart from the expected distrust of popular culture and western lifestyles, the binary of a wonderful Indian “tradition” wherein no violence ever happens versus a disruptive “modernity” that had unleashed beasts and snakes, TEHELKA’s dipstick into the Indian male psyche brought home one particularly difficult truth: for a vast majority of men, rape does not even register as a violent or heinous crime. For many, even the Delhi gangrape case was deemed worthy of condemnation only because of the brutality of the iron rod and the ripped intestines. The rape itself was too commonplace to grieve about. “Rape hua, theek hai,” many said, “par iss tarah seh marna nahi chahiye tha.” (If they raped her, that’s okay. They shouldn’t have killed her in such a brutal manner.)
Gratefully, however, the story of India can never be told through one window.
OVER THE past four weeks, there have been many outraged demands. Pressured by the outrage, the Chief Justice of India has announced fast-track courts, the Central government has set up a committee for recommendations on how to combat rape, universities have ordered sensitisation courses, and there is talk of capital punishment, castration, tougher laws and more women in the police force.
Much of this threatens to be no more than the debris of a storm. Many thoughtful citizens are trying to put in cautionary notes. Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonsalves, for instance, laughs at the illusion of the fast-track court. “There aren’t enough judges, what’s the point of setting up new courts?” he asks. “For every fasttrack court that is set up, another one somewhere must be put on hold or dismantled. There are only 12 judges per million people in India; the average elsewhere is 80. Yet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says he does not have enough funds to pay for more judges.”
Madhu Kishwar too warns against many of the over-zealous changes that have been demanded: denying the right of appeal to a higher court in the case of a rape conviction; shifting the burden of proof to the accused; instant FIRs; and selective fasttrack courts. “The demand for special courts for rape comes from an unrealistic faith in ‘special measures’. When it is manned by the same personnel and procedures, how can it work like a magic wand? Ask the Bhopal gas tragedy victims how they fared with their special courts! Besides, rape victims are not the only aggrieved group in our society. Demands for special courts have come from many other disadvantaged groups — environmentalists, anti-corruption crusaders, and those displaced by arbitrary land acquisition laws. The list will keep growing if the entire judicial system is not reworked thoroughly. The same holds true for sensitising the police force. It’s true our colonial-minded police are very gender insensitive, but it’s not as if they treat men any better. Women are no doubt more vulnerable, but only if they are not well-connected. Ask the slumdwellers and street vendors who survive at the mercy of the police and see if they fare any better. You cannot make the police ‘gender sensitive’ unless you make them ‘citizen sensitive’,” she says. “In short, the situation calls for far-reaching police and judicial reforms, not knee-jerk tokenisms.”
Others are raising different flags. Activist Aruna Roy talks about the self-defeating futility of castration and capital punishment. “Even after the Bhanwari Devi rape case, there was a lot of talk of castration, but through all our discussions on ground, as women we arrived at the position that we did not want to be party to the same idea of revengeful physical violence. What we need is more governance, more rule of law and more comprehensive redressal mechanisms. It sounds boring, but that’s where the answers lie.”
In this issue of TEHELKA, activist Flavia Agnes has detailed how the police interface with rape survivors can be made more accountable, irrespective of their personal prejudice or views. Over the next few weeks, TEHELKA is committed to engaging more with such sober assessments of where the answers lie. But, for the moment, even if one were to assume one had all the answers, how could any of them yield positive outcomes unless we at least agree as a society on the nature of the crime and what causes it?
To speak of collective outrage is to assume a shared value system. Clearly, we don’t have that. As lakhs of Indians listening to Mohan Bhagwat, the Jamaat leaders and Asaram Bapu would have wondered what the media fuss was about, it’s possible many Indians will read the excerpts of conversations with Indian men listed in this story and wonder why we are calling it a window into darkness.
It’s crucial, therefore, to outline unequivocally what the fuss is about. As a modern democracy, the right of the individual — irrespective of religion, caste, class or gender — is enshrined in our Constitution. For a woman, this ought to mean a complete autonomy over her body, her choices, her movement and her right to work. These choices may be curtailed on the ground by the cultural or personal context she inhabits, or where she herself wants to stand on the ladder of emancipation. But, in essence, there should be no curtailments.
The fuss is, many sections of Indian society don’t see this as a desired value. Where the State and its institutions are concerned, confronting this should be a fairly easy and precipitate process. If you hold any public office — as a minister, a judge, a policeman, a bureaucrat or any government functionary — voicing or acting on any misogynistic impulse should automatically invite censure or removal. This does not happen, but it is time it should. Nothing would send out a clearer message to society than a Constitutional principle made visible.
The greater muddle is in society’s own responses. India, proverbially, contains multitudes. Inevitably, there is a face-off between those who wish to live by this ideal and those who want to thwart it. How should one, as Santosh Desai puts it, keep society moving towards a positive destination without solidifying the resistance?
One of the temptations of the past four weeks has been to frame the debate on rape and women’s rights as a war between men and women. Obviously, there is no merit in that argument. Women can be as oppressive — if not more — than men. But the exhilarating find in TEHELKA’s conversations with Indian men is that the picture is more sunlit than one had imagined.
Speaking at a discussion last week about the media’s reporting on the Delhi rape, social scientist Nivedita Menon said, one of the most gratifying aspects of watching young girls and boys protest the rape was to see that the idea of feminism and equal rights had percolated through every layer of society onto the street. The slogans and placards spoke of an emancipated consciousness that was in the skin, beyond any studied political positions or self-conscious feminism.
TEHELKA’s findings echo that. For every regressive, reductive conversation, there were others, particularly young men — across religion, culture, class and profession — who defied the stereotype. Men who expressed a profound commitment to the idea of equality and women’s rights over their own bodies, ambitions and sexuality.
There was Tejas Jain, 23, an IT engineer and music student from Indore, who told TEHELKA that his concept of a successful, modern Indian woman was “someone who can stand up for herself in all walks of life and is neither scared nor controlled by men such as her father, brother or husband”. His concept of an ideal man was equally enlightened: “Someone who not only respects women, but all of life — be it human, animal or plant.”
Like many other young students TEHELKA spoke to, Tejas poured scorn on the idea of women as objects for sex, violence or household chores. “Our rigid and orthodox societal mindset has to go. Media, cinema and TV have to own up to the responsibility of how they project women. Turn on the TV and you will see women decked in saris, sitting at home, plotting and fighting all day. We need to fight these stereotypes.”
Like Tejas again, Sukalyan Roy, 27, a marketing executive in Delhi, spoke with self-confidence. A successful woman for him was someone who is truly independent, who can live with her family or on her own, take her own decisions, dress as she wants, go where she wants and have as many sexual partners as she chooses. “I think women in many ways are the stronger sex,” he told TEHELKA. “They have a deeper strength than men are capable of. It is men who have to steadily change.”
Similar assertions rang like positive chimes through dozens of other conversations. Abhishek Verma, 25, an MCA student in Ambedkar University, Lucknow, for instance, said, “The emancipation of women is in the larger interest of society. They need more freedom, not less.”
Like these students, Pramod Kumar, a professor of history at Lucknow University, took on the easy and reductive revilement of ‘modern’ and ‘western’ culture. “It’s not modern culture but a medieval mindset that is to be blamed for rape,” he said. “The protest against rape by common people in Delhi and other places was, in fact, a product of modern culture. Earlier, we hardly ever protested. Western culture is not just about wearing jeans and short skirts. It’s about liberal values, equality, liberty, fraternity, service to mankind and the Greek values of Humanism.”
Hearteningly, these enlightened positions did not only emanate from colleges and universities. Vipul Patel, 28, an electrical goods shop owner in Udupi — a perfect foil to the chauvinistic lawyer quoted earlier from the same town — said, “As far as clothes are concerned, if women cannot tell me what to wear, how can I dictate terms to them? In Manipal, we have girls from all over roaming about in short skirts late at night. That doesn’t mean you go around harassing them sexually. I saw a placard in a newspaper that read: ‘Ask your son not to rape, instead of telling me how to dress.’ I think that’s a fair comment.”
Wonderfully, Patel’s views found a mirror in Prakash, 35, a daily wager and coconut plucker from the same town. “How can anyone hold women responsible for crimes against them? If anyone is responsible, it is the men. What women do with their lives is none of my business. I have no say in my sister’s life — she should be allowed to do what she wants with it.”
These conversations run like a redemptive stream across the country. Men and boys who spoke up to take nuanced positions, critiquing themselves, women, their upbringing and the plurality of India that enables many worlds to both collide and co-exist. Not all of them were positioned at the extreme end of total freedom for either themselves or women. Instead, they spoke rationally of freedom with responsibilities, of cultural constraints and the pragmatics of safety. What distinguished them, though, was that even their intermediary positions were thoughtful and self-critical.
As Rak Kumar Singh, a documentary filmmaker from Manipur, said, “I hold women equally responsible as men for the segregated outlook of our society that views them as a solitary object for childbearing and sexual gratification. Unless women stand up and fight for their rights, this mindset will always prevail. Giving freedom to our women would mean providing peace and brighter opportunities for our society. But even our government — both in the state and Centre — are maleoriented bodies where women have the least right of decision making.”
Many spoke of witnessing violence in their own homes and of their resolve not to subscribe anymore to the triad idea of shame, silence and honour.
Dark as India’s societal attitudes might sometimes feel, these men are testimony to the fact that the ground has been shifting radically and imperceptibly. Santosh Desai, who with a team of 25 others have visited more than 73 towns in the past two years to conduct similar, casual dipstick conversations, says he has felt a definite new assertiveness, confidence and ambition among the young girls and women he has met on these trips. Combine that with the voices of these young men and one could begin to believe that despite every misstep— despite the lack of contemporary social reformers or enlightened government or moderate platforms for real dialogue — India is embarked on a fascinating and organic journey.
The beauty is, as Nivedita Menon says, that none of this new assertion necessarily means a complete break with the past. Rather, it is evidence that social transformations in India over the past decades have seeped to the ground level. Most of these young men and women would, in fact, be spending their salaries on looking after parents and younger siblings, and taking their responsibilities seriously, in very “Indian” ways.
OFTEN, RAPE is used as a weapon to maintain status quo, a tool for feudal, upper-caste or State oppression as the rapes in Gujarat or by the army and paramilitary jawans in Kashmir, the Northeast and Chhattisgarh. The brutal Delhi gangrape — a more plainly maniacal and criminal act — had none of those complex underpinnings of power and politics. Perhaps, as writer Arundhati Roy says, this made it easier for people to respond with horror and outrage to it, while other rapes are met with greater silence.
Even then, undeniably, it has prised open — at great and horrific cost — a crucial new space for discussion. As the white heat of its horror recedes, the only real honour we can accord the woman who died is to keep the discussion meaningfully alive.
As Aruna Roy says, the deepest feminist position one can have is a commitment to participatory dialogue. The ideas that will emerge from that lengthy process will always have greater validity and acceptance by plural cross-sections of society. The idea of equality may be non-negotiable, but the paths to it are many. If we stay committed to that process, even after the clumsy water cannons are gone and the anguished candles have died, we might still have one billion rising.
With inputs from Brijesh Pandey, Baba Umar, Aradhna Wal, Jeemon Jacob, Riyaz Wani, Soumik Mukherjee, Ratnadip Choudhury, Virendra Nath Bhatt, G Vishnu, Imran Khan, Nishita Jha and Sai Manish
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