“If a woman can’t be safe on a public bus, then what’s one to do?” Nandita Das, famous actor and human rights activist, fumed. She was referring to the infamous Delhi gang rape incident, which took place in December 2012. Sitting in a garden-café in the international town of Auroville, discussing gender issues over a cup of tea, I was encased in my bubble of comfort and safety with the privilege of intellectually conversing about the deep-rooted problems of Indian society, without it being part of my lived reality.
I often think of India, much celebrated for the diversity of its society, in terms of invisible encapsulated bubbles where different classes and groups of society live next to each other in separate worlds that have little to do with each other. Take Dwarka for instance. Dwarka is that part of Delhi, where the victim once lived in a two-room tenement with her family. When I am in Delhi, I too live in Dwarka, in my brother’s securely guarded three-bedroom apartment. I move around in air-conditioned taxis shielded by darkened glass windows from the poverty, the frustration, and the plight of the people in the Dwarka slums. Our worlds are geographically close and yet worlds away.
But there are times, as in those wintry days of December, when these separate worlds, these invisible glass bubbles collide with a force and brutality that leaves one gasping. The reports of the Delhi gang rape, the horror and the brutality of the story, so permeated my consciousness that I couldn’t sleep for nights, filled with rage, sorrow, and helplessness. So was it, with many of my friends. Men and women alike.
Rape in India is nothing new. Rape is a fairly common phenomenon in patriarchal and feudalistic societies. So was it in Europe before Enlightenment. So was it and is it now in India. In many parts of rural India, boys are brought up in homes where male superiority is unquestioned and domestic violence and rape are not out of place. On a tangential note, forced sexual intercourse within the sanction of a marriage is not considered rape under Indian law. Along with a handful of other countries, such as China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, India has the dubious distinction where marital rape is not a crime. Indeed, marital rape is even sanctioned by the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which says a wife is duty-bound to have sex with her husband. Characteristic of India’s socio-religious schizophrenia is the fact that in the predominant Hindu culture, women (especially wives) are worshipped as goddesses while at the same time being subject to oppression and violence.
Impact of globalisation
So while sexual violence in India is not new, what is novel is the increase in sexual violence in spite of, or perhaps because of, the economic prosperity of the middle classes brought about by globalization. As millions of young men migrate daily to the cities lured by its riches, a deeply-entrenched feudalistic consciousness finds itself at odds with the modern, emancipatory consciousness of the urban milieu. All six rapists had journeyed from poor villages—from Uttar Pradesh, from Rajasthan, and Bihar—to seek their fortunes in Delhi. The rapists, and here is the chilling factor, in their age, their education (or the lack thereof), and their social status fit the average description of the Indian male to the tee.
Europe took over three centuries for the democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity to become enduring social norms. Women’s rights followed soon after. In India, these norms having been borrowed from the West, and having been shackled to colonialism, it will take much, much longer. Moreover, social equality is an ideal that the Hindu mind finds difficult to embrace, hard-wired as it is to a religiously sanctioned caste-system. Yet, paradoxically, economic globalization with its glittering ads and borrowed veneer from the West is trying to shortchange the process of social evolution. Think of a bullock cart hitched to a Ferrari. That is modern India for you.
The ruthless form of market-driven globalization that India has subscribed to, since the nineties, is creating cultural upheavals and rending the fabric of our society apart. India’s abrupt change from a sleepy socialist republic with an agrarian economy to a rapacious capitalistic society, despite its much-touted increased GDP, has not been without its costs. Increasing urban migration with its attendant problems, increasing slapstick development accompanied by rampant corruption, increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and sigh, increasing crimes against women are the negative externalities of India’s growth.
Had we as a nation, as economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen so persuasively argue, invested more in education, we would have better empowered the poorer sections of society to benefit from the economic gains of globalization. But given the poor state of India’s education, globalization, by deepening the fissure between the rich and the poor, has further disempowered the average Indian male. Uprooted from his native village to a filthy, crowded slum in the city, average Indian male is continually mocked at his failure to climb up the socio-economic ladder as the disparity between haves and have-nots is so glaringly obvious in the cities. Somehow, women are more successful than men in seizing the economic opportunities thrown open by globalization.
Studies show that women in India perform consistently better at academics than men. Consequently, and in keeping with Dreze’s and Sen’s theory, women are better positioned to take advantage of jobs created by the global market. The Delhi gang rape victim, even though she came from the marginalized sections of the society, was a bright young woman, passionate about her studies, passionate about tutoring the kids in her neighborhood, and about earning the money needed to pay for her studies. Freed from her traditional obligations, supported by her family in her choices, she was all poised to steadily climb up the economic ladder. She paints a very different picture than those of her assailants, who also came from that same lower working-class section of the society.
Economic changes are a precursor to the changes in social roles of men and women. Traditional roles of men and women are disrupted in societies that are in transition. And if men are unable to take full advantage of the economic opportunities or embrace the inevitable social change towards greater gender equality, they turn resentful. They resent the changes in women’s roles, functions, and status, and this resentment expresses itself in violent ways.
In a feudalistic society, a woman is not an individual. She is someone’s property. She either is a wife, a mother, a daughter, or a sister of a man. And that knowledge guarantees a certain degree of safety. A woman, on her own, is considered “loose” and fair game for any man to claim her as his “property”. This lesson was driven home to me as an adolescent growing up in India. Once when I was walking down a street, a gang of guys (loafers we used to call them) made a lewd comment at me. But then immediately another guy, in that same gang proclaimed, “Leave her alone. She is Raja’s sister.” This insight into the Indian male psyche was used, I later learnt, by street-smart Delhi women.
When facing possible harassment by a gang of men, the trick was for the woman to go to the likely leader of the gang and ingratiatingly address him as “bhaiyya” or brother. Acknowledgement of such kinship granted one protection. For again, in a feudalistic society, one honors one’s kith and kin, and in India, the relationship between a brother and a sister is particularly sacrosanct. Also in the class or caste-driven feudalistic societies, crimes that would not be tolerated within their own castes are sanctioned if they are perpetrated on the “other.” It is said of two of the more violent rapists that they never harassed the women in their own slum but acted with cruel impunity towards a stranger.
Feudalistic code in changed environment
It is a mark of our decaying social order that the unwritten feudalistic codes of conduct by which a woman navigated the chauvinistic Indian society are no longer reliable norms. As long as I was accompanied by a man, I used to feel safe in India, for I clearly belonged to that man. But the Delhi rape, followed by a more recent Mumbai rape, belies that understanding. In both cases, the male companion of the victim was beaten and tied up. What I found even more distressing about the Delhi incident that the juvenile rapist (who turned out to be the most violent of them all) lured the woman to board the bus addressing her as “didi” or elder sister. If I don’t feel safe, even when I am accompanied by a male escort, and if I can’t trust someone who addresses me as a sister, then what can I rely on? Such are the troubling thoughts of Indian women in our contemporary times.
What roused a generally complacent nation to an outpouring of public outrage was the brutality of it all. In my living memory, the only time I recall such brutality was that shown by the mobs in Gujarat against the Muslims during the 2002 riots, and that was clearly a pre-mediated, orchestrated event. With the Delhi incident, no matter what the pent-up frustrations of these six men were, no matter how much the cheap alcohol had obfuscated their consciousness, it is still difficult to comprehend the viciousness of these men towards a complete stranger. There are perhaps things that we will never know. These six men, by their own admission, “were out to have fun.” Were the other unreported incidents of such “fun” earlier? Was the 18-year old trying to “prove” himself to the others, by his show of violence? We will never know.
But there are other things that we do know, such as the immaturity of our society in its attitude towards sex and sexuality. For a country that bequeathed the world the Kamasutra, why do we as a nation shy away from openly acknowledging the sexual repression among the young in our society? Surely it is a perversion that sexual desire, an innate biological impulse, is denied socially permissible outlets outside of marriage? And given the enduring poverty of working class men, marriage and thus sexual gratification is delayed until long after the body reaches sexual maturity.
Surely there is something perverse about that? Religious and social norms have so twisted this instinctive impulse of bodily desire that most Indians (and again this is true of some sections of society more than others) think of sex as something dirty—to be refrained from or done furtively. And then media bombards us with contrary but equally distorted messages about the intense and uncontrolled nature of desire. Given the nature of the male sexual drive, little wonder that that all this results in a warped mindset where sexuality is deformed with men having a greater proclivity towards sexual violence and abuse. Nearly one in four Indian men has committed some act of sexual violence, according to a survey conducted in 2011.
The fact that most publicly committed rapes in India are gang-rapes speaks volumes of the emasculation of the Indian male through systematic (economic and otherwise) disempowerment. It was only recently I learnt that the staple pornographic fare for young Indian men, from lower economic strata of society, is enactments of gang-rapes. What underlies the psychology of gang-rape is a sense of belonging or identification with a group. Again, the feudalistic mindset shows up, for in such societies, allegiance to the clan is more important than asserting one’s individuality. Increasing gang-rapes in India undoubtedly point to the increasing sense of inadequacy and consequently, emotional dependency of men upon one another.
Sadly, gang-rapes tend to be more violent for it is not an individual but a larger organism, the group that acts. The group lends power to the individual. The process of embracing a group identity leads to de-individualization: one is no longer guided by the moral compass of one’s own scruples, and personal responsibility is easily shifted to the group. There was a telling, and even touching, anecdote where one could see this struggle between the group morality that one temporarily adopts and one’s own conscience resurface after the crime: One of the Mumbai rapists came home and kept mumbling to his mother about seeing the girl’s face in the floor.
Psychological and sociological theories to explain torture and abuse abound. Personally, I lean towards the opinion that sociopaths are not born but made. As Philip Zimbardo (a Stanford social psychologist known for his investigation into the causes of systemic abuse at Abu Ghraib) proved with his famous Prison Experiment, in a bad environment, even “good” people do horrendous things. The increase of rapes in Indian cities, even after the public outrage of the Delhi incident, points to the rotting social environment of India.
We all were left naked, bleeding, and unconscious by the highway on that cold December night. We all are doomed to be hanged in the near future. And we will all continue to suffer individually and collectively till we find ways to change our society for the better. There are no easy solutions, and it will be long, painful journey towards economic empowerment, gender equality, and sexual liberation. And till then I, along with millions upon millions of women in India, no matter whether they are rich or poor, salaried or jobless, from the villages or from the cities, will walk the streets of India with fear.
*Writer, teacher, consultant based in Auroville, Tamil Nadu; passionate about environmental and social sustainability.