'Society' wrote Henry Thomas Buckle 'prepares the crime, the criminal merely commits it'. This underlying philosophy, namely the social determination of crime, may have its weaknesses but it seems to be especially relevant to the present debate regarding sexual crimes in India. In some ways these are 'the best and worst of times' in our country. In every corner of the nation a 'tale of two cities' unfolds like clockwork everyday. Palatial homes like the Antilla in Mumbai, the largest in the world, rise in close proximity to hovels and slums full of despair and gloom. The privations of poverty coexist cheek by jowl with the extraordinary pelf of privatization. Ours is a society in rapid flux, old values hold no longer, new values are slowly creeping in to make a precarious new place in our collective mindscape. But neither is the new foundation strong enough to support a social reorganization nor have the old debris of centuries of patriarchy, privilege and prejudice been entirely cleared. The old abuts the new and the new rests on the old with neither forming a sound and secure stepping stone on which to reach for the future. In such rapid flux, Sexual crimes have increased manifold in the last few years, rising by an astounding 25% since 2006. If society as a whole is at some level and to some extent responsible for this, it is worth inquiring into how and why this sinister social influence exists and how it might be addressed.
We all know why these questions concern us now above all others, for these are moments of deep mourning and shock. The brutal killing and violation of a 23 yr old Student in the national capital has shaken us all to the core and stirred us from our stupor. For once, crimes against women- tangible, real incidents-and not some multi-starrer political drama dominates airtime and flows in the airwaves. The essential question here is, will post-crime brutalization of the criminal deter the brutalization of potential future victim's? Will superficial reforms in the legal sphere be as useless as ointments on a cancerous tumor? What are the indicators and correlates of this high prevalence? It is in the hope of answering these last few questions that I shall continue.
Social construct of Sexual crimes -What does it say about us?
Every crime including sexual crime, is as old as the hills. But even as crimes have existed since the rise of history the narratives surrounding different crimes change with social circumstances. As societies evolve certain types of narratives attach themselves to certain crimes. These narratives through repeated usage of similar words and notions in reference to those specific crimes tend to impart not only a bare narrative about the crime but also a value system based on which those crimes can be judged. How then ,does this 'narrative' of Sexual crimes in contemporary India shape up?
Any recent survey of Indian news media will make it clear that the words used most often in reference to the rapists are 'beasts', 'animals', 'predators', 'perverts', 'barbarians'. While such a narrative may seem natural fuelled as it is by an immediate emotional response manifesting as rage, it underscores a deeper question. Does such labelling implicitly suggest a value system that seeks to cut-off the rapists from society of which they are as integral a part as anybody? Indeed it seems that we construct and our media reinforce our view of sex offenders as people so far out of the 'ordinary' that we may safely assume that society as a whole has little if anything to do with their heinous crimes. Statistics do not bear these notions out, in fact they belie them and show them up to be exactly what they are paltry defense mechanisms set up by a society plagued by a crime epidemic. The statistics are so grim and have been so often repeated in the media as to make iteration here superfluous. Sexual assault has been called 'the most common crime on women in India' and the reported cases appear to be merely the tip of the iceberg whose roots plunge deep into dark recesses of Indian society. Some states like Haryana have virtually institutionalized practices of sexual assault and Khap panchayats often intercede with the police, not in support of the victims but bizarrely in support of the alleged rapists, often getting them acquitted. All this show sexual crimes to be as deep a social problem as any, and yet the 'narrative' ascribing 'extraordinary evil' to sex offenders persists. Such 'singularization' of crime(in this case sexual crime) as being separate and uniquely evil is not peculiar to India. In the US with gun crime exploding onto the national stage over and over again, explanation of the criminals motives often revolve around focusing on the 'insanity' of the criminal. Phrases like 'Gun-nut' with the emphasis on 'nut' seem to suggest a singularization of crime in the form of 'medicalization'. 'It is the man that kills not the Gun!', 'They are crazy' such medical rationalizations are often heard in the U.S. public discourse. Similarly, while dealing with our 'Rape Culture' (as the Social scientists aptly call it) we tend to explain away crimes on the basis of egregious bestiality, pure evil, animal barbarism without seeking to address deeper social issues that may be conditioning such crimes and nurturing such criminality. As Noopur Tiwari writes 'we are constantly trying to classify the perpetrator an outsider, someone on the fringes, a monster. Even the Prime Minister in his address spoke of “monstrous crimes”. But rather than say “they are beasts” we should really be saying “they are men”.
The first problematic 'narrative' surrounding sexual crimes in India then is this 'singularization' of sex criminals as unique instances of otherworldly bestiality.
Secondly, we the people of India seem to adopt a completely different standard while forming narratives of sexual crimes alleged to have been committed by 'our' armed forces or police force. As case after case of women being assaulted in Police stations emerge little discussion if any has taken place on the role of 'authority' in sexual crimes. Self proclaimed 'nationalists' often work themselves into a lather in the face of evidence presented by international agencies like Amnesty International on the alarmingly high incidence of sexual crimes in Manipur, Kashmir and Maoist Insurgency affected areas. This social construct based on a self righteous 'patriotic' narrative absolves sexual crimes beforehand by dubbing all locals 'terrorist sympathizers, Naxal sympathizers' and so on. 'Authority' seems to have an inbuilt absolution mechanism. This self censorship of the crimes committed in our names, under our flag (for the Indian flag is a symbol of its people not its Government) enables us to protect ourselves from the qualms of having to deal with them. The notorious AFSPA has been implicated by experts as being instrumental to the perpetuation of sexual crimes against women in these areas. As Duncan McDuie-Ra notes in a scholarly article 'The AFSPA provides de jure impunity in that members of the armed forces are not prosecuted in civilian courts, and under the provisions of the act VAW (Violence Against Women) is not deemed criminal…..the AFSPA also provides a form of de facto impunity as military courts responsible for prosecuting soldiers have often failed to investigate violations or been “simply unwilling” to bring charges against military personnel. In certain cases, the armed forces have lodged counterclaims against women accusing them of trying to defame the army …Despite a 1997 amendment to the AFSPA that any person arrested under the act must be handed over to civilian authorities within twenty- four hours, this is frequently ignored …Persons arrested have been detained for periods ranging from 1 week to several months. These periods of detention have facilitated torture, rape, and murder by the armed forces, including rape and torture of children….The persistence of the AFSPA epitomizes the tacit acceptance of systematic violence as a necessary by-product of securing an unruly border region and policing a suspect population The region is constructed externally and internally as an exception to norms and laws upheld in other parts of India.' Thus if 'Singularized evil' is the first deceptive social construct, a faux 'nationalism' that protects sex offenders is the second.
Thirdly, Identity Violence and crimes committed in its course are often swept under a blanket term 'riot' wherein they lie hidden from public view in a tangled mess of violent statistics as if they had no special or unique significance in a general orgy of violence. This carpet term 'riot' often subsumes specific cases in which victims have been differently targeted based on their gender. Sexual crimes form a unique and disparate group within this mass violence and yet because a 'riot' involving mass slaughter took place, these sexual crimes are often lost in context, with the media deemphasizing its unique nature and placing it in the general scheme of so called 'communal violence'. It is worth noting how little outrage from Media, women's rights groups and the general populace accompanies mass-rapes against women in Manipur, Dalits, Tribals and communal riots as opposed to specific cases of horrible and brutal rape such as the recent horror in Delhi. This summary inclusion of mass sexual crimes under the notions of 'communal violence' is far more insidious & has more vicious consequences than appears at first sight. It leads de facto and de jure to a virtual Rape culture in Indian political life. The renowned jurist Upendra Baxi while brilliantly de-constructing this 'rape culture' in the context of the most recent 'Communal riot' in Indian history ,the Gujarat carnage of 2002 observes that 'women's bodies continue to provide necessary sites for the production of competitive party politics' and grimly concludes that 'the final message for the past, present, and future politically violated Indian women is that there is not much that constitutional governance can achieve except to normalize violence, almost as a social cost of doing democratic politics. This logic articulates what must be named as rape culture, 'which 'signifies ways of doing party politics and managing governance in which brutal collective sexual assaults on women remain enclosed in contrived orders of impunity,' so that 'women's right to be and remain human depends not on the normative necessity of law or constitution but on the sheer contingency of politics, law, and administration as well as of the ways of social protest and action.'(Perusing the full article entitled 'The second Gujarat catastrophe' rewards the reader on many levels. It's a fearless & remarkably lucid analysis of the political, judicial and social determinants of this political rape culture).This 'contrived order of impunity' is so pervasive that the then Defense Minister in what must be one of the most disgraceful remarks ever made in the Indian Parliament, on being questioned about reports of the mass-sex-crimes during the Gujarat violence bluntly blurted- 'This is not the first time this has happened in India'.
It is also interesting to note that crowds of young people do not come out to the streets when reports of mass-rapes in 'communal riots' emerge. The construct surrounding sexual crimes in this context is that they are part of 'identity violence' and not sexual violence per se and therefore deserve different narratives. This social narrative not only places such victims at a disadvantage as compared with other rape-survivors but also doesn't address the problem of why mass-sex-crimes seem to accompany mass-violence almost every time in India. Also the bizarre cognitive dissonance (and not mere hypocrisy) that exists in society when dealing with individual cases of rape and mass-rapes in 'riots' deserves special attention. The very same people who lament that upwards of 300 MP's and MLA's in our parliaments have cases of sexual assault against them happily vote to power enablers of mass-rapes and even laud them as models of 'development' politics. This cognitive dissonance is made possible by the social construct and narrative of 'riot' which is seen as a 'action-reaction' of violence and not a series of horrible crimes including 'mass-sexual crimes'. In fact the almost invariable accompaniment of sex-crimes in riots seem to indicate that women are perceived, not simply as people who like 'men' must be promptly killed, but also as 'sex objects' to be dominated sexually before being murdered. It is incumbent upon all right-thinking Indians to see through the semantic callisthenics of our politicians and call out the term 'riots' for exactly what they are 'instances of iterative sponsored political violence that routinely involve brutalization of women' and not spontaneous, uncontrollable 'natural disasters of human origin' subject to Newtonian laws of physics ,which heartless politicians make them out to be.
'The limits of my language means the limits of my world' said Wittgenstein. We must clear our language first, and hence un-clutter these devious social narratives surrounding sexual crimes if we are to get rid of them in our world .
But these 'social narratives' beg the deeper question-What is the basis of the cultural norms that make such social constructs possible in the first place. What lies at the crux of our epidemic of sexual crimes ,is it just sexual repression or something far more complex?
Not only sex but power-
Stanton Samenow author of 'Inside the Criminal Mind' expresses a near consensus among psychologists when he writes that sex-offenders tend only rarely to be hypersexual seekers of sex per se but more commonly just as driven conquest or acquisition as other criminals such as robbers, murder's etc. In fact chemically castrated sex-offenders who, having lost the ability to commit sexual crimes with their bodies have been known to use objects to commit sexual crimes. It is a myth that chemical castration alone will serve either as deterrent or entirely curative for sex offenders. In the popular pressure surrounding the Delhi Gang rape the Government has mooted 'chemical castration' as a possible punitive measure. It isn't too difficult to judge whether this measure will work or not since chemical castration has been used for sexual crimes in several states in the U.S. even if only (sic) as a precondition for parole and not punishment. California first adopted it in 1996, followed by Florida in 1997. Several states have taken up similar legislation since, even Russia and South Korea, Poland and the Check Republic have adopted Chemical castration recently, but has it reduced sex crime or prevented recidivism? While data suggests that it helps sex offenders overcome sexual fantasies and urges and indeed reduces recidivism to less than 5-15% in some studies, several cases of sex-offenders perpetrating sexual crimes by other means have surfaced. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed the 1997 adoption of Chemical Castration in Florida, not only on legal or ethical grounds but also because "Sexual assault is not about sex-that is a myth. This law reinforces the stereotype that men are sex-crazed individuals and that child molesters and sexual predators need to be drugged to control sexual impulses. In reality, sexual assaults are about violence, power and the humiliation of a survivor or victim." Like every criminal the sex offender seeks to possess some 'thing' and revels in the perverse pleasure and thrill of acquisition and conquest. It is the laxity of law enforcement, corruption in policing and above all social sanction and approbation that makes such random 'conquest' acceptable. But what is the source of this apparent social sanction of the 'conquest' of women. What are the ideas, notions, norms, traditions, beliefs that reduce the feminine to a 'thing' and 'woman' to an 'object'. Two culprits come foremost to mind ,one modern and new another age-old and time worn.
The Modern 'Item' and the ancient 'Chattel'-
When Marilynn Monroe complained that in 1950's America 'a Sex Symbol becomes a thing and I just hate to be a thing' she had put her finger intuitively and perhaps, given her own life experiences on an insidious aspect of sexuality in any capitalistic society. In an environment in which private ownership forms the basic engine of growth and possessions signify and imply power the sexual revolution was inevitably going to lead to the rise of the 'sex symbol'. This sex symbol, like a modern totem ,would be the focus of collective fantasies and feelings, dreams and drives. But as soon as a symbol emerges that gets the attention of the market and brings 'consumers' forward it becomes ,what in modern parlance is called, a 'brand'. A brand is an object, a symbol, a color, a song, any 'thing' that identifies a product and successfully tags it for consumption in the viewers' minds. It is any 'thing' but still only a 'thing', a mere object, a means to an end, a bridge not a bastion, it can be burned ,it may collapse ,but so long as it serves its purpose i.e. bringing people in, it will be kept in good shape. It is precisely such a 'thing', a brand that Marilyn Monroe dreaded becoming and ultimately became, more successfully than any lady in history. But as we all know, her branding did not end well, at least not for her- her 'brand' ended up taking her life. Today as in the U.S of the 1950's India faces a similar barrage of sexualized branding. With a prosperous sliver of society ready to spend money for brands' sake, we are at a cross roads as far as 'sexuality' is concerned. Has 'sexuality' effectively become a brand in India? If so what are the popular agents and manifestations of this branding?
In a much quoted recent article on the depiction of sex relations in popular cinema, Swaminathan Aiyer notes that-'item numbers' and 'rape scenes' apart- 'What’s truly terrible is the manner in which film heroes have for decades pestered, stalked and forced their unwanted attentions on heroines in a thousand films, yet ended up getting the girl. That sends the most outrageous of all messages to the public: pestering girls is what heroes do, and a girl’s “no” actually means “yes.”'He then proceeds to cite examples from scenes and songs that seem to legitimize sexual harassment as an acceptable mode of courtship.
It is also worth noting that in the 1970's and 80's a rape scene was as integral a part of every movie as an item number is today, as this facetious article brings out. In recent times the 'item' number has raised the bar for crassness and blatant objectification to dizzily nauseating heights especially in the recent hit 'Fevicol se'. Moreover it is mouthed in the movie by a female star.
To this ignominious list of 'item numbers' and 'rape scenes' and 'harassment courtship' must be added the recent spate of so-called 'new age' movies by 'young' directors ostensibly reflecting the liberated mores of a 'younger' audience. But apparently even this 'new age' cinema seems only to be catering to our age-old prejudices if only in newer guise.
If Movies perpetuate stereotypes even the advertising industry seems to be contributing in no small part to modern 'itemization'. Virtually every product from cell phones, soft drinks, chocolates, biscuits to cars, bikes even gadgets are sold on the promise that its possession will serve to boost the possessors appeal to the 'fairer sex' (for whom of course 'fairness creams' are prescribed as imperative to success). Some examples recalled offhand include a cricketer who uses his Cell-Phone to capture an unknown girl's (in this case a starlet's) photo against her wishes only to ultimately 'get the girl', another actress smeared in chocolate in an ad for 'Lux chocolate soap', a third lasciviously gulping down Mango juice and the infamous 'axe effect' Ad's. Several Ads for cars and bikes follow the common pattern of depicting the rider or driver of the car attracting a lady or several ladies, some of whom are even bewitched into hitching a ride with them, apparently because of the extraordinary sex-appeal with which these vehicle endow otherwise ordinary men!('The men are back!' goes the slogan of one such car-Ad, the 'muscular car' says another).In almost every advertisement the suggestion is made that the possession of such and such a product is sure to help you acquire such and such a lady. In fact in some cases it seems not to be clear if it is the product that is being advertised or the ladies, with the product touted as an easy conduit to the real 'thing' every man is shown as wanting to (and therefore suggestively encouraged to ) 'posses'-women! The manipulative advertising mantra 'sex sells' seems to have devolved into the crass and shameless dictum 'sell sex'. The immense popularity (especially, as it happens, in Delhi itself) of the so called 'rapist ' lyrics of the now infamous rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh seem to embody this terrible degenerate 'itemization' of women that has swept across various mass media.
As debasing as the portrayal of women in the Media may be it would be unwise to blame these media as such for sexual crimes in society since films, Ad's and songs reflect society as much as society reacts to them. To censure these trends is the need of the hour, but to censor these media may lead onto the slippery slope of garroting free speech (the position of which is already precarious in India) in the name of propriety .What would be far more productive would be to help civil society to engage and debate with influential voices in these media to evolve methods of self regulation that will buck this trend of crassness while guaranteeing protection of free speech and expression. As we have seen 'modernity' has led to its own challenges to women's rights by its brand of 'itemization' but a far more sinister influence extending back millennia has fostered misogyny and aided sex crime for much much longer.
Ours is a fundamentally a 'metacultural patriarchy'. For thousands of years in almost every part of the subcontinent women have been subjected to an essentially second class status. Often this subjection of women is fostered and nurtured by religious norms and social customs. The enforcers of these norms and their self anointed custodians are predominantly male and embody a deep misogyny. The infamous Khap Panchayats and village councils, Ulema and the priesthood, Sadhu's and Sant's are the many modern faces of such attitudes. The slew of disgracefully sexist remarks made by well known politicians like Minister Jaiswal(Old victories ,like old wives, don't satisfy),CM Modi(50 crore girlfriend!),recently Abhijit Mukherjee ('painted and dented women'),RSS chief Bhagwat('raising cows instills morality & prevents rape', 'women aren't raped in Bharat') and many many others and the sad fact that none of them lose elections because of these remarks are a sad indicator of how acceptable such rhetoric is in India.(Contrast this to the USA where Todd Akin who made the infamous 'legitimate rape' remark and many of his ilk lost their Senate races.).The most brutal and public manifestation of this patriarchy in recent times has been the phenomenon described by the culturally loaded term, 'honour killing'. At the root of this phenomenon is the fact that women as still perceived in many parts are fundamentally the family 'chattel' or 'movable property'. The ensuing blood curdling crimes (fathers and brothers proudly beheading daughters, sisters or burning them) are a direct result of this dehumanizing idea of women being 'property'. Sometimes distorted further by the parochial claims of caste, community or region, a venomously misogynistic rage erupts to the surface in ghastly crimes. It is illuminating to note that its s almost invariably the family of the female in such cases who feel dishonoured by their daughters elopement and not the family of the man involved, for the onerous burden of 'honour' is placed entirely on women and not the men who may be equal actors in any elopement.
Thus 'modernity' on the one hand and 'patriarchy' on the other have unhappily converged to reduce the personal and public space in which women can function in Indian Society. Both have the common denominator of 'objectification', one in the form of an eye-candy 'item' and the other in the form of 'chattel' or 'property' of the men of the family. This underlying objectification is further bolstered by accepted social constructs and narratives ,prominently the rubrics of the 'evil criminal', 'Anti-Nationalism' and 'Communal violence'. These attitudes and narratives have insidiously combined to produce the three cornerstones of a virulent and widespread 'rape culture' - sexual objectification, victimization of the victim, and normalizing rape as an extension of normal behavior. The plain and plaintive truth seems to be that as long as these social conditions exist, our society will continue 'preparing' criminals who will then commit these crimes.
Castration, public hanging, execution: Are these Solutions?
In the wake of the wider knowledge of the full horror that the 23 yr old victim of the Delhi gang rape had to endure rage has stomped out into the streets and outraged thousands indignantly display placards that are violently inventive in suggesting punishments for the rapists. Castration, public hanging, stoning, sodomy (Yes even sodomy!),vivisection has been suggested and many have bizarrely lauded repressive Islamic states as exemplars of punitive justice. But as Rupa Subramanyam notes in a recent article, an exhaustive review of the evidence for and against the efficacy of the death penalty as deterrent is inconclusive and suggests 'not just reasonable doubt about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty - even about its sign. 'Anyhow, given the abysmally low conviction rates in rape cases in India arguing for tougher punishments is placing the proverbial cart before the horse. In a society as deeply misogynistic as ours all efforts to root out sexual crimes must begin where all criminals begin, at home. Empowering wives, mothers and daughter and protecting them from crimes committed (as most sexual crimes are) within the four walls of their home may go a long way in stemming and countering harmful cultural norms and practices. Female foeticide ,a terrible crime in itself ,may be increasing sexual crimes by irrevocably and unnaturally skewing the sex-ratio. Once the child leaves home ensuring basic education may go a long way in empowering and educating women about their rights and boys about their responsibilities. Sex education and ending sexual segregation in schools and colleges is the need of the hour. Police reform leading to better pay and work conditions for the constabulary, better forensic facilities, performance based promotions and preventing political interference must be instituted, only then can Judicial and legal reform be effectual. Ending the political patronage of Khap Panchayats and other self anointed guardians of culture is also imperative. Politicians who protect and promote mass-rapists by abjuring responsibility and legitimizing targeted political violence should be prosecuted, this will dissuade any future 'foot soldiers' who may be willing to offer their services for mass slaughter and mass-sexual crimes in the next 'communal riot'.
In the wake of the recent tragedy many Indians on Social Media and elsewhere have declared that they are ashamed to be Indian'. While understanding such shame and anger, which is in its own way salubrious, I for one have found, even in the midst of this tragedy that we still have something's to be proud of. I am proud at least, to belong to a society that faced by wanton cruelty has at long last woken up to its own failings. For once we are introspecting, for once we are not dismissive of stories of sexual crimes from the Northeast and Kashmir as Anti-national propaganda, for once we are prepared to shed our blinkers and look at the mangled mess that our politics, Judiciary and police have become, at last this all too human tragedy has made us see through the shallowness of our differences.
While we certainly have a great deal to be ashamed of let us also call to mind the tremendous Social change that even our 50% democracy (as Ramachandra Guha puts it) ,with its barely functioning legal & police system has wrought over the last few decades. Let us remember that India granted voting rights to women at independence- before Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, the entire Middle East and many African countries, India has seen female premiers even when the U.S hasn't, a lady who had to burden the double disadvantages of being Dalit and female has made it to the Chief Ministership of our largest state, we have more women CEO's than the U.S.A girls consistently outperform boys in all our National examinations, and a woman from a minuscule tribal community in a far flung state has made us proud not only in Six boxing championships but also the Olympics. Most of these instances would be unthinkable in our neighbouring countries even today but also unimaginable in the India of the 1940's or 50's. Social change is possible, slowly and over generations, but possible nevertheless. At long last a semblance of a 'sisterhood' across states, castes and creeds has made a slight appearance, let us hope that this 'womanhood' will evolve in the future into an issue based voting-block as indispensable and critical to electoral success in India.
@syedfaizan87 on Twitter
The Writer is a medical graduate and hopes to specialize in Psychiatry. He is deeply interested in politics, creative writing and history. He has written two books of poetry 'Indian Sonnets' and a 'Diwan of English Ghazals' .