Rohit, a former JNU Students’ Union President, teaches at South Asian University. He can be contacted at rohit.jnu[at]gmail.com.
I participated in a protest march organised by the JNUSU on this wednesday against the brutal sexual assault in Delhi. I felt extremely proud to be part of a militant protest organised by the students. Scores of students from JNU and other universities had gathered at the India Gate who later marched to the North Block catching the Delhi Police unaware. The slogan was ‘Occupy North Block’ till the home minister meets with the students. They sat there for close to two hours till the home minister finally relented. The protest venue then shifted to his residence.
That the country in general and the city in particular was outraged by the heinous act is evident from the fact that militant protests have been held across the city and beyond over the past couple of days. While the activists of AISA and AIPWA braved the water cannons at the Chief Minister’s residence yesterday, AIDWA protested at the Delhi Police Head Quarters. Red salute to all of them.
At the same time I am appalled at the response of the visual media demanding death penalty, enacted publicly or otherwise, castration, lynching because I don’t see them as a fitting solution to this crime. There are at least two problems with this line of response. First, such demands are mere safety valves for maintaining the status quo in the patriarchal relations of our society. It’s like blaming a lax anti-crime law for the incidence of crime itself. Second, it actually reflects the same machoism and barbarism that is at the centre of the crime in the first place. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not being a pacifist here. Far from it, I am asking for a far more militant and a firm response which hits deeper.
Some analogies, though of a different terrain, might help here. A few days ago, there was yet another shoot-out in a school in the US. A simple response to that would be punish the culprit, if he stayed alive, in the harshest possible way. Another would be to abolish the outrageous gun laws in that country. In another instance, we were told that the misery of the working people in the current global crisis was a result of excesses of the financial sector so the solution lies in punishing and regulating them. Sure, but is that it? This crisis is a reflection of a deeper malaise afflicting the system as a whole, which gets exposed in an unparalleled increase in the gap between haves and have-nots both within and across the nations. Unless that is addressed, regulating the financial sector by itself would not achieve much. So, it’s up to us, till what point do we want to fight a fight.
Similarly the issue at hand needs to be addressed at a more fundamental level, which to my mind requires a struggle on two fronts – legal and social.
On the legal front, there have been arguments that sexual assault should be treated at par with murder. However, there is something even more brutal here than murder. Sexual assault is not just violence of any other kind, it is an exploitation of a hierarchy of one over the other. So, unlike a murder, it is a crime perpetrated at two levels: violence and exploiting unequal relations. A clue in terms of finding a legal solution can be taken from the SC/ST atrocities prevention act, which is far more stringent than other forms of punishment. Just as crimes against Dalits and other disadvantaged sections of our society is, aside from the mere act of violence, an exploitation of unequal relations between the aggrieved and the aggressor, sexual assaults can be treated in a similar category and, hence, their prevention act should be at par with the SC/ST atrocities prevention act.
On the social front, there are many things to be said where each one of us has a role to play. Yesterday, in a well-argued Op-ed piece in the Hindu, Ratna Kapur argued that such assaults are a patriarchal reaction to a phenomena where women are choosing to become a ‘subject’ from an ‘object’. One might disagree with her reasons for this transition but she is right in her conclusion. A more fundamental solution, therefore, would lie in contributing to resist this objectification itself. And it is here that our role matters the most and this is a far more difficult and an arduous battle than demanding castration or death penalty.
In our everyday lives, such objectification happens which we either become a party to, at times even drawing pleasure from it, or remain a passive participant in. In other words, it becomes part of our psyche. To give a few examples:
1. Customs like rakshabandhan, karva chauth, chhat, where men, whether as a brother or a husband, become the subject of worship for women. Such is the power of rakshabandhan that it is used to ensure that the men will not assault at least those who have tied rakhi to them. At least that’s what is expected!
2. Preference for sons: A lot has been written on the dwindling sex ratio in India. Such is the sorry state of affairs that the state had to by decree announce that sex determination is illegal! The absolute commodification is reflected in the fact that migrant women are being bought for marriages from the poorer parts of the country to those regions which have a ‘scarcity’ of women. What is this preference all about? It’s the absurd idea that only a son carries your lineage so if you don’t have a son, you die a ‘nirvanshi’ with nobody to perform your last rites, which also kills your chances of ‘moksha’! And this of course adds a premium to a son over a daughter amply reflected in unequal property rights and dowry practices.
3. Woman as a commodity in marriage: Not only are they not preferred in birth, and discriminated against in inheritance, parents bribe men to ‘accept’ their daughters as life partners. Before marriage, a woman’s body was in charge of her father/brother, after marriage, the baton is passed on to the husband. Of course the husband uses this body as he pleases, including physically or mentally abusing her.
4. Expletives: Quite aside from the larger questions of female foeticide, domestic violence, dowry etc., our normal talking language is full of an entire range of sexist to downright criminal expletives. Men (or even women at times) say that they don’t mean it but the point here is precisely that. It has become such a part of our psyche that even if we don’t mean it, we say it at the drop of a hat. These expletives convey what we feel about women, what their place in the society is. And sure enough, in these words, women are the objects and the men, who are physically forcing themselves on them, are the subjects.
5. Woman’s body as a commodity: There is a whole industry of advertisements selling different parts of a woman’s body through different camera angles while selling products which ‘tightens or whitens’ this or that part; films which show outright harassment as a way of winning over a woman’s heart; tabloids which have nothing to sell other than the naked body of women of a preferable body-type; obnoxious video games which give you points based on how many women you have raped in a game; pornographic films where a woman’s body becomes the object for the male gaze. And they all sell big time!
Do we (both men and women) have the resolve to fight these at our own levels even as we fight for justice in this particular case? In other words, would we, at least to begin with: boycott such regressive patriarchal festivals; fight against son preference (not just in our own home but in our neighbour’s too); ensure gender-just property relations within our families; take a stand against dowry; fight against domestic violence; stop using such expletives; boycott and campaign against such products which commodify a woman’s body?
Unless we do these, it would be nothing except showing some machoism and clearing our conscience even as we revel in the patriarchal and sexist relations which generate such conditions.
Therefore, notwithstanding the immediacy of acting on this case, I believe that these protests should not revolve around one particular incident alone. Instead it should become a rallying point for raising some more fundamental questions. But are we prepared for that?