July 2014: Sociocultural and economic factors play an important role in the way we address issues of justice and sexual violence in India.
One only needed to open the papers or keep a lazy eye on the internet to be taken aback, afresh, at the spate of horrific crimes against women that have recently put Bengaluru and UP in the news.
Sisters raped, murdered and hung from a tree; sisters gang raped over seven days; 11th standard student raped, murdered and disfigured; and, finally 32-year-old gang raped to death—that’s UP. In Bengaluru, girl kidnapped, along with a male friend, and sexually molested in a car at knifepoint; female doctor stripped; 16-year-old apprentice nun in a Christian seminary raped in the day; and six-year-old raped in her school by teachers. And, the spotlight’s back on women’s safety, like it was in 2012.
When I wrote about the Delhi Rape Case, someone in UP told me: “Such cases are par for the course here, it’s just because it happened in Delhi that people and the media are reacting.” While the brutality and frequency of the UP cases have succeeded in getting them past our apathy, the Bengaluru cases have pricked our thick skins because, well, let’s admit it, it’s Bangalore, the cosmopolitan IT hub with its breweries and bars, old-world clubs and many English channels on the radio. And these are People Like Us.
These, the sociocultural and economic aspects are especially relevant in understanding the way the media and people of India address issues of justice and sexual violence. Us in metros, part of the educated, social-media-using SEC A, the coveted target audience for much advertising and the English media, are considered, and consider ourselves, an entitled bunch. The ‘Stranger Danger’ of India shouldn’t touch us in our gated communities, chauffeured cars, reputed schools and golden cages. We sleep-walk to our attached bathrooms at midnight; when we hear of a girl raped and murdered when she left her home to relieve herself in the fields, in a faraway village somewhere in UP, we think, “This would never happen to me.” When it does, to us or to PLU, living in cities like us, living lives like ours, doing things we would do, making choices we would make, we’re reminded of the fragility of our lives and lifestyles, and we’re outraged.
The PLU/non-PLU divide is the new-age class divide, based on but not limited to complex factors like the religion, caste, culture, haves/have-nots, Us/The Other biases of yore, and education, access, location, English, consumerism, liberalisation, money, the internet, media. In The World Before Her, documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja portrays this gap as a yawning chasm, a polarised duality that demands women chose between Indian and ‘Western’ values. In actual fact, we live in a diverse and populous land in the throes of change, where cultures and classes are crisscrossing, clashing and coming together all the time. And we’ve got to strive for a little more mutual understanding, a little more common ground.
Says Sowmya Rajaram, Junior Assistant Editor with the Bengaluru tabloid that exposed the Frazer Town car abduction case says, “Arguments that pit cities against each other (Delhi vs Mumbai or Mumbai vs UP) make it seem like rape is a malaise that can be treated with just a simple city-switch (‘find a job in Mumbai where it’s safer to travel at night’), or a rise in economic standing (‘get a car, you’ll be safe from gropers’). Rape is a consequence of the attitudes entrenched all throughout our chauvinistic society.”
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that PLU don’t commit or endure sexual violence, that we’ve all collectively, uniformly acquired a Zen-like disengagement from patriarchy and understanding of our rights and the rights of others. We do need groups like Win Bangalore Back, that was started as a Facebook page as a reaction to the Frazer Town car abduction case and now has 19,000 members engaged in the gender conversation. And Russ Peterson, one of the 10-12 people running the campaign, tells me that they intend to continue: “We want to channelise this outrage, and continue to address the issues of sexual abuse, the responsibilities and accountability of the police, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizens.”
Not to sound patronising, but, for their sheer number, it is the majority that we have to understand, educate, engage, empower. The majority that is heterogeneous and complex, speaks different languages, lives in places out of our earshot or teem in the crooks of urban life, culturally transitioning, not reached through books and newspapers, not as aware of human rights and feminism as you or I. “It is time the protestors moved beyond their anger that often comes from a place of privilege, and clamoured for a holistic, empathetic understanding of rape culture,” says Sowmya. More grassroots campaigns are the order of the day. And for any real good to come out of all our drawing-room conversations and online outrage, it’s time you had a heart-to-heart with your maid.
An edited version of this article appeared in DNA in July 2014.