Burgeoning Delhi Rapes: Some Reflections
[Guest Post by Latika Vashist and Amit Bindal]
The reason for writing this piece is the feeling of utter failure to comprehend the cultures of rape that engulf us. Even as the horrors of December 2012 Delhi gang rape continue to haunt public consciousness, the incident of the brutal rape of a five year old child has put our sense and sensibilities to an extraordinary challenge. How to evoke sensibilities and make sense of the images, narratives and news of the horrific rapes hurled on to us by newspapers, visual media and other allied sources, including judicial discourses, political statements and state interventions? How do we diagnose the foundations of our society that becomes instrumental in the production of such depravity and inhumanity that even a child is not spared from the acts of such horrific atrocity? So much so that the sadistic infliction of inexorable pain, with candles and plastic bottles inserted into the private parts, can become a form of decadent human expression?
Another facet of the sense of failure is the question to our own self? Do we write this paper today with such unease because of the gruesomeness of the incident or because the news is taken seriously and appeared on the first page of leading daily newspapers? We ask this as the atrocious rape encounters are spilled, though in smaller fonts, all over in the print as well as visual media after December 2012. Why did we need yet another horrific story to evoke a similar sense of failure of contemplation or the urge to write? Is it the post traumatic incident of institutional insensitivity and indifference, as the police not just attempted to hush up the matter (by offering the parents Rs. 2000) but also violently attacked a woman protesting against the police callousness? It seems that the sense of failure to think about the problem of rape, and for us, as legal academics, from a limited canon of law, prompts us to ask the reverse question framed in Nietzschen terms: how not to think about rape and cultures of rape.
The one thing that we certainly do not want to do in this discussion is to make specific policy recommendations as to how to interpret or change the law relating to rape. Perhaps, a trap too easy and too tempting to fall into especially for those trained in the discipline of law. This consequentialist, policy-oriented turn of the present legal scholarship can at times hamper the proper structural issues of decoding the culture of rape. We are certainly not opposed to policy recommendations in principle. As teachers of law we have had occasions in classrooms as well as in doctrinal scholarship to take that route. However, we need to question the frantic activity of policy recommendations and churning out changes in laws that blinds us to the sensibility that must inform us in the very framing of issues relating to rape, which reduces humanity to mere objects of consumption to be used and then thrown away.
“Two sex maniacs libidinously ravaged a tiny female tot like wild beasts and finished her off. Police after investigation found that the two respondents herein are those two fiends.” – State of NCT v. Sunil
“The remnants of extensive mangling of the tender body of the child would reflect the possibility of more than one rapist subjecting the child to such beastly ravishment.”
State of NCT v. Sunil
“Accused Saleem who offered custard apple to the little girl when they reached the graveyard suddenly turned himself into a demon and made a forcible attempt to ravish her.”
State of A.P. v. Sheikh Mazhar
“It seems that Manoj Kumar’s father had an inkling of the demon in his son.”
HT, Rapist’s father had disowned him from his property (20th April, 2013)
The discourse of rape emanating from cultures of rape remains entrenched in the dehumanization of the rapist. The TV images show the accused handcuffed, surrounded by cops with cameras desperate to catch a glimpse of what lies beneath the face covered accused. These projections stimulate the imagery of devils/ beasts concealed behind the mask. When the mask comes off- as it did for Ajmal Kasab, another “demon”- the responses are of astonishment at the visible humanness of the demon. The same flesh, same skin and an innocent young human face! Clearly that is not what demons look like. This is not what such “demons” should look like. And thus starts the project of dehumanization of these visible humans.
The rapist (as a terrorist) is described and projected as a “wild beast”, “a demon”, “a fiend”. Such a description puts the rapist in a class of heinous monsters, a class far removed from the ordinary human beings. This is one way of telling ourselves (the civilized and responsible moral agents) that the doers of such grotesque crimes are not in any manner like ourselves, they are too distant from us. The distancing (through which we constitute our own humanity) can only happen if the representations and descriptions of the rapist are directed to evoke the emotion of disgust in the viewers/ readers. Since, as encapsulated by Martha Nussbaum, “(o)ur disgust creates the boundary: it says, this contamination is and must remain far from our bodies. We might even say…that we call disgust to our aid: by allowing ourselves to see evil people as disgusting, we conveniently distance them from ourselves” (Susan A. Bandies (ed.), The Passions of Law at p. 51).
Evoking disgust for the rapist by dehumanizing him produces an alienation of our human selves from him. It creates a distance between our humanity and his fiendishness and thus prevents us from engaging in a self-scrutiny, of recognizing in ourselves the capacity to be evil. The distancing prevents us from confronting the fact that we are capable of turning into the diabolic evil that we abhor. And thus, induces a forgetfulness of the everyday atrocities that we may be committing (covertly) when we indulge (unconsciously) in our own perversions. Disgust induced distancing from the rapist obliterates all discussions around the normalization of everyday violence of everyday lives that goes unnoticed because we fail to look within as we situate ourselves within an imagined humanity which the rapist lacks. Otherwise, how do we begin to understand the normalization of the apparatuses and structures which legitimize violence against women in the society? When the sexist representations of women- when they are cast into strict gender roles defined by dominant heteronormative structures- go unquestioned by most of us even if such representations constitute the everyday violence (not necessarily physical) of work places, public transport, markets and even the safe bounds of our homes. What can be made of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 that completely ignored the recommendation of the Verma Committee Report exhorting for criminalization of marital rape? Is it not true that law reforms have failed to question the asymmetrical character of marriage reinforcing an object-like treatment of women and thus continue to legitimize violent structures in the private lives of women? How far then can the attempts at reforms and amendments of laws be taken seriously?
The rape discourse as a discourse of dehumanization of the rapist deepens the cultures of rape that produce emotions that oscillate between un-mindful retributive cries of anger to sheer apathy and indifference. The responses to violence against women in these cultures also swing between rhetorical law reforms that institutionalize retributive anger through aggravated punishments and death penalties, and an attitude of forgetfulness as we change the channel from NDTV news to NDTV Good Times, or for that matter shift our glance from the news of rape at the front page top column to the advertisements that promise us dream lives that we can buy with nothing but money. This point needs further explanation.
Slavoj Zizek argues that the imaginary virtual reality, floating around through images of print and visual media, constitutes the reality of the contemporary society. It works so strongly and incessantly that the meanings of virtual reality surface as the reality of the virtual. And if that is so, then how does the reality of the virtual propagate the cultures of rape that we encounter?
Consider some images from the front page of a leading newspaper which reported the rape of 5 year old “Masoom”:
The five year old lies covered in a sheet as she is taken to AIIMS from Swami Dayanand Hospital where she underwent life-saving surgery. Three dolls on the stretcher accompany her as some helpers clear way for the stretcher. A box below lists the brutal horrific injuries that were inflicted on her: bite marks on cheeks, lips and chest, cuts on neck probably from blade like object, 200ml cracked plastic bottle of hair oil and three candles that were taken out of her vagina.
A passport size image of ACP BS Ahlawat slapping Beenu Singh who was protesting against police apathy and laxity.
A half page advertisement of workwear showing a happy couple, dressed in western attire, walking along exuding confidence and in complete equality. Skyscrapers and the modern city life set the background for this joyous and equal public space when men and women are equally successful, rich and safe. Provided they “Go Trendy. Strike Deal. Refresh. Get New Yorked”.
A real estate advertisement of a five bedroom luxury villa. It says: Opulence, Rs. 10.03 Cr. Onwards.
There are some issues that need to be examined here. Whether there exists a relationship, worthy of exploration, between the cultures of rape that thrust upon us an unwanted reality and the cultures of consumerism that we want to be immersed into in order to live our dreams? If yes, then how can that relationship be conceived? What does it say of our vision of progress? When images of reality and images of unreality confront each other what impact does it have on real lives? What is the relationship between the dominant images/ narratives of rape/ rapist with the other virtual images that we confront every day in our lives? What happens, as John Berger puts it, when images of reality confront the images of unreality? How can words that express anguish and agony of the feeble cries of a 5 year old victim be understood when they are juxtaposed with words and images that promise us lives of happiness and equality as we progress, as we prosper?
Juxtaposition of publicity images of products of globalization and their consumers (take for example, the images of workwear wardrobe bringing in happiness and equality in sexes at the workplace; mobile phones and cheap call rates bringing radiance into relationships; clean RO water assuring security from all fatal disease and so on) with the images of horror and agony stimulates a similar distancing as mentioned above. What happens in the images of unreality- the happiness, the dreams, the pleasures- is something that we think would happen to us (provided we gather enough money to acquire these possessions); while what happens in the images of everyday reality- rape, harassment, state apathy, perversions- is something that is far from us and cannot happen to us. Just as the rape discourse distances us from our own perversions (by producing a false distance between our humanity and rapist’s monstrousness), the culture of consumerism distances us from the reality that demands serious deliberation and well thought out political and social action. The publicity images that astound us create for us alternate lives where living in dreams and for dreams becomes our only life.
All the images mentioned above look real (virtual imaginary reality reflected in images cannot be convincing if they do not look as real, if not more, than the real images). But there is clearly a disconnect and an incoherence between the rape/ molestation image and the image of equality in workplace/ public sphere which figures prominently on the same page of the newspaper. While reality decries the position of women in society- as means to an end, as tools that can be used for one’s own interests, as bodies that can be violated because they lack bodily integrity- the virtual images make the reality of the former unrecognizable. The urgency of deliberative action to correct the injustices that surround us (that is evoked by Masoom’s tiny body covered in a white sheet), is diluted as we see our dreams depicted in advertisements that exhort us to consume more if we are to become more equal and more happy. Images of dreams are the required distraction for the sustenance and flourishing of the culture of consumerism that reduces everything to an object of consumption. While on the one hand they yield an ineffective response to violence (Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 has been nothing but a knee-jerk reaction, presented as a quick fix solution to rape which has failed to foreground the larger issue of the relationship between sexism that is a part of everyday lives and rape), on the other hand, they cement the attitudes that look at women as objects to be used and consumed like other objects on sale.
What is then required is an urgent emphasis on the cultural patterns of objectification of women especially the ‘culture industry’ which thrives to reduce everything into a consumable commodity. This includes women as well as men. In doing so we inadvertently create paradigms where women and men are not organic individuals who think, love, have dignity and suffer alike but as body-parts to be displayed for market campaigns. Such crass market logic reduces human bodies as the only attribute of being human and that attribute being best used as a consumable commodity. This by no means suggests that one should take a fascist turn against the market forces but certainly makes one re-think the way we are socialized into behaviors and patterns that reduce human beings into human bodies and human bodies into marketable and consumable commodities.
The relationship between cultures of consumption and cultures of rape (that thrive on objectification of women) is direct. The culture of consumption is founded on the ideas of use (of products) and domination (one who has money has the power gets to consume more). The attitude this breeds is that all things are meant for usage and they can be acquired and controlled with money. Then, is it appropriate to ask: Whether Delhi has become the rape capital because it is one of the global cities basking in the glory of consumerism, where status of a person is determined by his/her wealth and ability to acquire and consume? Is it the attitude of consumerism (which also trickles down to those who cannot consume right now because of lack of money, but nevertheless have the desire to consume because consumption defines happiness) that has conceptualized all our relationships and our entire world view? Have women become the targets of this attitude when they are looked at, gazed and used as nothing but interchangeable bodies or as means to an end, rather than ends in themselves? The objectification of women is then not about sexual perversion only; it is about a culture that values money as the only end and turns everything else into an object for consumption.
(The authors are Assistant Professors at Jindal Global Law School of O.P. Jindal Global University)
[The cover photograph is in the public domain and is sourced from the US National Archives and Records Administration]