New Delhi: I arrived in Delhi the day after a 23-year-old woman was brutalised on a bus – six men had raped her, sodomised her, and reportedly used a jack and iron rod to “teach her a lesson”, leaving her intestines so mangled they had to be removed. She and a man she was travelling with were beaten, stripped, and thrown out into the cold of the winter night.
The city was in shock, as was most of the country. But, while the incident itself is horrific, I find the reactions to it even more worrying.
The day after the rape, when Jaya Bachchan broke down in Parliament, camera crews from the national news channels ran around trying to do walkthroughs with her, all of which were flashed with an ‘Exclusive’ band.
Before long, all of Bollywood was on television. Aamir Khan, who has slapped around women in so many of his movies; Shekhar Kapur, who made the rape scene in his Bandit Queen as titillating as one could, bringing in a nude body double so as not to leave anything to the imagination; and others from an industry whose biggest hits are item numbers, an industry that has sanctified sindoor in the face of marital rape, that has endorsed marriage with rapists as a corrective measure for rape.
I’d be very surprised if some of them hadn’t been asked whether they planned to take their activism to the big screen, with the next films they made. And I’d be surprised if they didn’t think they were aiding a noble cause by making films that showcase the denigration of our society.
The first reaction I noticed on social media came from my male friends on Facebook, most of whom were apologising for being Indian men, a response I simply don’t understand. These six rapists, and their counterparts who violate women, children, men, and animals across the nation, are not representative of an ‘Indian male psyche’, if such a thing even exists.
Perhaps what exists, and what is most dangerous in the context of the safety of women, is an Indian psyche, a psyche that our cops and our women are not exempt from – a psyche that places the onus on women to be careful, and blames them even when they are.
I don’t believe women and men can ever be equal, and I do think biology is destiny – women do have attractive bodies, women are generally weaker than men, and clothes that make one look pretty will get attention from unwanted quarters too.
But in focusing on the issue of clothing, or of being out late, we’re getting lost in a discussion that has no relevance. India is not the only country where women get raped, and India is a country where men get raped too. Rape victims are asked what they were wearing in other countries too – in 1999, Italy’s highest appeals court ruled that women wearing jeans could not be raped, sparking off protests from women, politicians, lawmakers, and legal professionals alike.
However, the problem in India, and one that we refuse to recognise, is that we’re failing as mothers, as friends, as daughters, as sisters, as fathers, as sons, as brothers, in not being able to separate the sexual identity of a woman from her identity as a person. We don’t acknowledge that we don’t realise that women reserve the right to be sex objects when they want to be, and to be left alone when they don’t want to be.
After the incident, I find women terrified, paranoid, and jittery. A friend sighed, as she walked into a party in the afternoon, “When I was walking on the road, from the car, har aadmi mujhe rapist lag raha thha.” (“Every man looked like a rapist to me.”) As we were getting ready to head out to a concert, another friend turned to me, and asked, “Are you sure you want to wear such a short skirt over your tights?” When one of our male friends said he would escort us back home, we all laughed.
The cops were out in full force for a day or two after the incident – but they were mostly hiding near signals, waiting, as usual, for violators of traffic rules.
“See, this is the rape capital after all,” someone said, with a note of triumph, as we passed a copless road in South Delhi, “You keep saying you’ve had worse experiences with eve-teasing in Madras.”
“But,” interjected another friend, “This is the capital of the country. It should be safer than any other place.”
“The problem is that so many of these people from the villages keep spilling in,” someone else said.
“The only solution is pepper spray.”
I don’t even know what part of that conversation troubles me most. The fact that people believe rapes mainly happen in Delhi? Or that those are the ones that deserve attention? The fact that it doesn’t seem like a country capital, because the entire police force is out protecting VIPs and VVIPs, and neglecting our roads? The fact that people subscribe to the notion that rapists only come in from villages? The fact that we all need larger handbags now, to accommodate cans of pepper spray, just to make sure we’re not raped?
It doesn’t matter whether the bus had tinted windows or not, whether the cops were out on the streets or not. Six men out for a drunken joyride found it in themselves to assault a couple in inhuman ways, and not one of them thought they should stop before they did. Would it have made a difference if the bus had curtains, which are still legal? Or if cops had been standing on the roads as the bus zoomed by?
Rape happens all the time in this country, and we’re always shocked. And we’re always searching for explanations, just as America does every time there’s a shootout. All of us are wondering if the men were mentally ill, if rape could be deterred by capital punishment or castration.
Perhaps we should accept first that there is no explanation. And no deterrent. That a horde of liberals will cry foul if capital punishment were made the normative punishment for rape. That even if it were, the perpetrators, or some of them, could worm their way out of it – think Nithari case. That there is no solution, and we will continue buying baskets woven by rapists lodged in jails. That every time a rape case works its way to the front pages of newspapers, and the prime time of news channels, our nation will get worked up, rage, grumble, mourn, analyse ‘expert’ opinions, and then get back to everyday life.