Republishing a letter written to a friend abroad enquiring about the horrific gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in the Indian capital New Delhi five years ago. Nothing has really changed in India since then it seems, going by the continuing spree of rape – including by self-styled religious ‘Godmen’.
Thanks for your letter. Yes, as Indians, many of us are deeply ashamed of this tragic incident, even more so as it is part of a larger context of rampant violence against women in this country.
On top of having the world’s largest numbers of those living in absolute poverty, suffering severe malnutrition or without sanitation and shelter we have also today become the globe’s foremost Republic of Rape.
You have asked in your letter why exactly is it that India has such a high number of rapes? You also ask if any meaningful long-term measures will result from all the public outrage on display currently?
To tackle the second question first, one can only hope the death of this brave girl will not be in vain and will become a turning point in our history. The incident has sparked off unprecedented protests and the government/the political class/media have been forced to take notice. The widespread participation of young people in the protests all over the country is heartening.
There is much talk now of bringing in tougher laws, better policing, awareness campaigns, putting gender issues into school curriculums and so on.
Yet, going by our own history it looks unlikely that the widespread violence against Indian women will stop so easily anytime soon. I sound cynical perhaps, but you have to understand the reasons behind this violence are complex and run quite deep in my country.
The fact is historically (I don’t have to tell you this) men have been predatory towards women for millennia and Indian men in that sense are not very different. As Susan Brownmiller, the American feminist researcher and writer on rape puts it squarely, “Man’s discovery that his genitilia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe.”
It is not known when exactly Indian men figured out how to use fire but they discovered the use of their natural ‘weapons’ ages ago and ever since sexual violence against women has been a staple part of our history. In one mythological tale the Hindu god Indra, notorious for his lechery, rapes Ahalya, the wife of Gautama, a learned sage. When the sage finds out, like a typical patriarchal male, he first punishes Ahalya by turning her into stone, a form in which she remains for sixty thousand years till another mythological hero Ram, of the epic Ramayana, touches the statue and brings her back to life.
Meanwhile Indra, who tries to escape the sage’s wrath by becoming a cat, is cursed with castration and to ‘bear half the blame of every rape ever committed’. (Since at least half the rape cases in India go unsolved or unpunished, I suppose the Indian police assume Lord Indra to be the culprit, who is always ‘absconding’.)
I mention this tale only because Indra is also the God of War in Indian mythology, confirming the well-known link between war and rape that is to be found in the history of the world everywhere. Whether it was the colonial English brigades raping Scottish Highland women in the 18th century while putting down a rebellion, early European settlers raping native Indian women in both North and South America, the Japanese carrying out the infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ in China during the Second World War, the Germans raping Jewish women by the hundreds during the Nazi era or victorious Russian soldiers ‘avenging’ their own women by raping German women- the lesson is straightforward- wars have always been fought on the bodies of women as much they have been on land, sea or air. All war, often fought ironically in the name of the ‘motherland’, seems to be at their core about sexually assaulting the ‘enemy’s women’.
Yes, you guessed right. The number of rapes in modern India is increasing every year, going up by 873 percent between 1953 and 2011, simply because we have a bloody war going on here. Over the last half a century or more, this is a country of intensifying civil strife, with different sections of society fighting each other and the Indian state waging war on its own people.
In each part of India the reason for this state of war could be different, ranging from battles with the Indian state over regional autonomy or independence, displacement due to large projects, conflict with mining companies to caste and class struggles, reckless urbanization and the crisis in the agricultural economy. And in each war, in every context, it is usually women who pay the highest price, with all sorts of indignities visited upon their bodies.
The Indian army, paramilitary and police are notorious for raping or sexually molesting women wherever they get a chance, more obviously in places like Kashmir, the north-east of India or central India where there are armed conflicts going on. The men in uniform are not the only culprits though. Sectarian violence along religious lines, like the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat saw dozens of rapes against Muslim women by Hindu extremists and the same brutality was evident in 2007 during political violence carried out by cadre of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) against peasant women resisting forced land acquisition in Nandigram, West Bengal.
However, overt incidents of rape that get reported or taken cognizance of legally all over the country are just the visible froth of a tsunami of sexual violence that takes place in India. The country is awash with cases of sexual harassment on the streets, marital rape, molestation at the workplace, sexual abuse of children, incest and criminalized trafficking of women and children for prostitution.
The systematic attack on women in this country, in particular, has also been institutionalized for centuries through the ghastly caste system and rigid cultural codes related to marriage and sexuality. The mindset of the Indian caste system is in fact not very different at all from that of an average rapist- ‘the mighty can and should always take advantage of the weak’. In many parts of India, even today, the sexual assault on Dalit or tribal women, is routine and considered ‘normal’ by upper caste males. While in theory for the ‘upper’ castes coming in physical contact with the ‘lower’ castes, is to get‘polluted’ when it comes to sleeping with or raping ‘lower’ caste women, men of the ‘upper’ caste don’t hesitate at all.
Marriage in India is another institutionalised form of slavery for many women who, after purchasing a ‘suitable’ husband by paying hefty sums in dowry, have to ‘serve’ him for the rest of their lives. If the purchase price is not good enough the woman often ends up dead as part of phenomenon of ‘dowry deaths’, whereby in upper-class homes kerosene stoves mysteriously burst and turn the targeted bride into charcoal.
The practice of female foeticide, whereby parents deliberately abort female babies in preference to a male one, is widespread in India and that too in the most affluent parts of the country. In several provinces of India the ratio of women to men in the population is so low that it is indicative of a virtual genocide going on against women.
Joanna, you are curious to know why should there be such horrific violence against women in a land like India that is the birthplace of so many world religions? Well, you should consider the possibility that the low status of women in my country is closely connected to the deep-seated misogyny of these religions and the hypocritical attitudes towards women and sexuality that it has fostered among many Indian men.
The attitudes towards women of most Indians are what they are today as they have been shaped historically by three of the most patriarchal and sexually conservative groups known to humankind. This includes the pretentiously ascetic Brahmins, who have dominated Indian society for several millennia; Muslim rulers who added yet another weighty layer of conservatism to the national culture during their several centuries long reign; and the tight-assed Victorian British colonialists, who surpassed the previous elites in prudery and made everything sexual synonymous with the term ‘sinful’.
In the Brahmanical version of Hinduism those who renounce sex altogether and become celibates are hailed as great saints who have achieved ‘mastery over their base desires’. For most ‘upper’ caste Hindus, sex – due to its association with various bodily fluids- is an ‘impure’ act and something to be indulged in only sparingly, mainly for the purpose of procreation.
Women, in the worldview of conservative Hinduism, are seen as both inherently ‘dirty’ and as obstacles to the noble path of male spiritual ambitions to transcend physical needs and achieve salvation. As a result what we have is the widespread hypocrisy of many Indian men pretending to ‘resist’ sexual desire and yet lusting away at every given opportunity. Women automatically, under this worldview, become second class citizens, underfed, overworked, abused and murdered at will.
Coming to Islam, while men are more or less free to behave in any manner they want there are a huge number of restrictions placed on women who are seen as ‘lesser’ human beings, often even seen as mere cattle. The real or deemed sexual ‘indiscretions’ of Muslim women have been traditionally met with severe and brutal punishment.
As if these two influences were not bad enough the country has also had the misfortune of living for almost two centuries under the British colonialists- who loftily claimed to be on a ‘civilizational mission’ and held the ‘uncontrolled passions of the natives’ as proof of their ‘inferiority’.
In this period, the sexual prudery of the colonialists –which drew heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition of seeing sex as the ‘original sin’ – got enshrined in the modern Indian judicial and administrative systems through written laws. Thus for example the British transformed homosexuality, lesbianism and adultery, that were at best well accepted and at worst merely frowned upon by Indian society – into ‘criminal’ acts to be punished by the forces of the State.
The Indian middle-classes even today are probably the largest and most loyal repository of British Victorian values anywhere in the world. In fact much of what passes off as ‘Indian values’ or ‘morality’ on sexual matters in contemporary times is nothing more than the worst of old local prejudices cohabiting with imported British colonial ones.
The conservative attitudes towards sex and sexuality in Indian society would not really have mattered much if not for the fact that they bring truly horrific social and human consequences, particularly for women. The more mainstream India pretends morality is only about observing certain sexual dos and don’ts the more it neglects the larger ethical issues that cry out for attention – social injustice, poverty, hunger, lack of health care, , sectarian violence…the list is long
The inability of Indian society to deal with sexual desire and sexuality in a sane and democratic manner results in a situation where violence occurs regularly between men too. According to official data compiled by the Indian National Crime Records Bureau love affairs and sexual causes were among the top three motives for all murders and culpable homicides committed in the country in 2006.
Expressing sexual desire normally or even simple affection in a civilized manner is severely discouraged in the mainstream Indian milieu and this has resulted in a culture where rage is the norm and rape or murder are the inevitable end results. So apart from being the Republic of Rape India is also, it seems, the global Graveyard of Love! And – believe me- the two trends are very closely linked.
Is there hope anywhere that Indian men could change and behave differently with women? I will stick my neck out on this question and say I do think so. The hope lies in the fact that Bramhanical Hinduism- is not the only tradition influencing a country as large and diverse as India. Within the over 800 million people clubbed under the generic label of ‘Hindu’ there is a phenomenal variety of sub-cultures, belief systems and personal practices.
Bahujan intellectuals in India have for long pointed out that many so called ‘lower’ caste communities display a more liberated sexuality than even the most radical feminists from the ‘upper’ castes. Similarly there is plenty of evidence that in many tribal communities women also have a very high if not equal status with men in most aspects of life.
While patriarchy has come to dominate Hinduism in modern India historically the feminine spirit has asserted itself powerfully too. The ‘upper caste’ norms and values of mainstream Hinduism are regularly challenged by the numerous Mother Goddess cults that are to be found throughout India and are as ancient if not older than Hinduism itself.
Similarly, the bhakti (or devotion) movement that started in eastern India in the 13th century, emphasizes the female nature of the male Hindu god Krishna and promotes the idea of devotees (both male and female) seeing themselves as ‘lovers’ of the Lord.
Within Islam and Christianity, and other religions in India, too there are counter-currents asserting the rights of women, challenging orthodoxies that seek to control women and evolving alternate ways of looking at sexuality, the human body and ultimately all of society itself. The Sufi saints of Islam- who are the counterparts of the preachers of bhakti in Hinduism- still have many adherents who are attracted by their moderate, non-macho approach to spirituality.
Equally importantly the modern Indian woman, whether in the city or village, is no longer willing to be subjugated so easily by men and are resisting male domination in their various ways.
What all these traditions point to are the possibilities of a future India where the feminine aspect of all human beings- the fountainhead of all forms of life and creativity- is not looked down upon as ‘impure’, ‘evil’ or ‘sinful’ but understood as an essential part of what makes our world so wonderful.
PS: While I am still optimistic about this country please don’t forget to pack a sharp knife with you when you visit India next time. Nothing changes so fast in a vast nation such as India and it is better to be safe than sorry!
Satya Sagar is a public health activist and journalist and can be contacted at email@example.com