In the streets against rape

Direct Action, January 12, 2013

[Tithi Bhattacharya recently returned from India, and wrote in the US Socialist Worker on January 10 on the protests against rape and sexism that are shaking the country. This reprint is slightly abridged.]

In a crime that sparked sustained and angry protests in several cities in India and around the world, a 23-year-old student was gang raped and beaten in Delhi on December 16. She died from her injuries 13 days later. The outrage caused by the case has helped to spark a larger discussion about rape, sexism and women’s rights.

Even how to refer to the slain woman has become a subject of vigorous debate. Since the media, under Indian law, cannot reveal the name of a rape victim, she has been given a variety of pseudonyms by the media and protesters alike. People have come out in the thousands to rally in her defence and against sexual assault more broadly.

Recently, for the first time, the victim’s family released the young woman’s real name to the public. In an interview with a British newspaper, her father defiantly asserted that he was “proud” of his deceased daughter and that “[r]evealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks”.

“They”, he said, “will find strength from my daughter”.

Rapes are not uncommon in India. In 2010 alone, there were 22,000 cases recorded nationally. In Delhi, the national capital, 660 cases were reported in 2012. It is also widely acknowledged that the ratio of the actual number of rapes to reported cases is at least 5 to 1 and probably often higher, thus making the above figures far more alarming.

So did the recent protests erupt because this was an unusually violent case of rape? Were the demonstrations, as some leading activists, including Arundhati Roy, have claimed, largely composed of middle-class men and women who had come out to rally for one of their own? Lastly, as some Western journalists argued, is this brutal sexual violence an indication of the particular backwardness of India as a country?

Sexual violence in India

“In India, there is a woman raped every 20 minutes”, a young female student at Delhi University told me at the massive protest near India Gate in New Delhi on New Year’s Day.

“This was the last straw”, said Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, who has been leading various sections of the protests in the weeks following the attack. “We must understand that there has been a long build-up to this moment.”

According to Krishnan, women from Adivasi (indigenous people) and Dalit (lower caste) communities, women working in non-unionised workplaces, sex workers and transgendered people have been particular targets of such violence.

Rape in such cases is used as a terrifying method of social control, and the authorities frequently turn a blind eye to it. In 2006, for instance, a Dalit mother and her daughter were brutally raped and then lynched to death over a land dispute in Kherlanji, a village in the state of Maharashtra. The rapists were powerful local men from a socially dominant caste. The police, in league with the rapists, denied any rape, and the men were never tried.

Similarly in 2010, Delhi police refused to respond to a phone call from an eyewitness who saw her friend being kidnapped and gang raped on their way back from their night jobs at the local call centre in Dhaula Kuan.

It is a long tradition of the Indian ruling class both to support rapists and to use rape as a disciplinary tool against politically vulnerable communities.

In 2009, Indian army personnel in Shopian, Kashmir, allegedly raped and murdered two Muslim women, Neelofar and Asiya. While this particular case became well known mainly due to what many believe to be a cover-up by the Indian state, Neelofar and Asiya remain two among several women who have been raped and killed by the Indian army in Kashmir.

In these matters, British colonial history has proved to be a great teacher for the postcolonial Indian ruling class. Draconian laws that the British crafted to target freedom fighters have now been revamped to attack dissidents. One such law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), allows non-commissioned army officers to search and arrest citizens without a warrant and even to shoot to kill.

In 2004, in one of the worst cases of extrajudicial killings, army officers stationed in the north-eastern state of Manipur raped and killed 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi for her alleged involvement with the People’s Liberation Army. Her killers remain free since the law gives the armed forces virtual impunity.

Riots and pogroms against minorities serve as laboratories of misogyny. In the now infamous anti-Muslim pogrom by Hindu nationalists in Gujarat in 2002, rape and sexual violence were routinely used against Muslim women as a way to “dishonour” the community. Further, in a sickening institutionalisation of rape culture by the state, several men who have rape charges pending against them remain important public figures and leaders of right-wing parties, while some even serve in the Indian parliament.

While these horrors may serve as the immediate background from which these most recent protests sprang, the global context is just as important. People who gathered in various Indian cities to protest over the past several weeks could not but be influenced by the international rise in gender violence. From the defence of rape by Republican senators in the US to the attack on reproductive rights by the Tory government in Britain, women’s bodies are increasingly becoming a global battlefield.

Origin of the protests

One need only look at some of the contours of neoliberal India to understand the deep connection between the crisis of capitalism and the assault on women’s rights. Rape apologists in India have repeatedly blamed women for being out “late at night”, claiming that they deserved their violent fate.

In court, an attorney for three of the five men accused in the case of the woman raped and beaten on December 16 stated that “respectable” women are not raped. “I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”, Manohar Lal Sharma told the court.

The woman attacked in Dhaula Kuan and the woman attacked on December 16 both worked at call centres providing cheap labour for Western outsourcing firms. The women’s working hours had to keep pace with business hours in the West, thus imposing a regimen of very late night shifts for them and forcing them to navigate night-time streets and cafes with minimal support from their employer or the government. To then blame them for being out late is viciously hypocritical from a system that provides so little support for women.

At the other end of the spectrum, the opening of the Indian market for global capitalism has meant a glutting of public imagination by the worst kinds of sexist representations of women from leading capitalist brand names, where female sexuality is used to sell everything from saris to cell phones.

Protests led by women have a long and proud history in the subcontinent. According to Kunal Chattopadhyay, a leading historian and activist from Kolkata, the massive public protests led by women’s groups in the 1970s against the rape of a 16-year-old girl named Mathura by two police officers inspired and “heightened” for the first time “the political consciousness of many of us male activists”.

The sheer size of the protests in the Mathura rape case forced the Indian Supreme Court to overturn its initial decision, which found the police not guilty, and instead convict them. Since then, there have been similar examples of robust organising by women’s groups for demands such as changes in rape laws, against dowry deaths and for more representation in local and national government.

The recent protests are tied to the wave of fights back against the system internationally. The women and men who have been filling the streets of various Indian cities have seen, in the last few years, dictators fall and public spaces be occupied. We need to see these protests as not just standing in the tradition of past women’s movements in India, but also as echoes of Tahrir, Tunisia and Zuccotti Park — and inspiring, in their turn, a new cycle of protests for women’s rights.

Is India backward?

The tragedy of December 16 has created a disgusting response from the mainstream Western press. A New York Times editorial singled out India as a country that “must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued”. Similarly, London Times columnist Libby Purves demanded that India change itself forthwith if it wanted to be “allowed to hold its head up in the civilized world”.

It is particularly ironic that such imperial dictums are coming from the US and Britain, two countries that, despite their vast material resources, have an abysmal record of gender injustices and victim-blaming within their own borders.

This racist rhetoric, thinly cloaked in the discourse of “women’s rights”, has not gone unchallenged. In a letter published in the London Times, several academics and activists called Purves’ essay an exercise in “chauvinist finger-wagging” that presented “the West as an advanced culture in relation to a backward and savage India”.

Such selective feminism of the global ruling class — which allows them to bomb Afghanistan for the “sake” of Afghan women or institute Islamophobic laws in France in the name of “freedom” for Muslim women — should be resisted in all its forms.

Any real change in gender justice in India can come only from a strong popular movement from below. For that movement to be able to sustain itself long enough to withstand state repression and wrest change will require intense international solidarity, not racist moralism.

Who is protesting?

For the above reasons, it should be clear that the protests in India against rape and sexism are about rejecting the culture of misogyny and moralism imposed by the Indian state and the global free market alike. They are not about the narrow interests of any particular class of women.

It would be wrong to condemn these protests as “middle class”. Unfortunately, that is what Indian author and radical activist Arundhati Roy recently did, stating that the outrage and protests in India occurred, in large part, because the victim in the December 16 case belonged to the “middle class”.

First, Roy is factually wrong about the victim, who, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, was the daughter of an airport worker on a monthly salary of 7000 rupees (about US$130). She was also “the first from her family, which hails from a caste of agricultural workers, to have a professional career. She was on the cusp of achieving it. She had enrolled in a year-long physiotherapy course in a city in the foothills of the Himalayas. To afford it, she worked nights at an outsourcing firm, helping Canadians with their mortgage issues.”

Roy would be wrong, however, even if the woman did come from an affluent family. Mass movements need to be seen in their full course of development, in which numerous factors come together to produce confidence and mobilisation. It is not a matter of checking whether these protesters were there to stand in support of Neelofar, Manorama or any other individual rape victim, but to see how these past cases were part of a slow build-up of anger that finally came to a head in the aftermath of December 16 in Delhi.

According to Kavita Krishnan, women at the protests were very open to arguments about the state and army upholding structures of violence. “People here are not just talking about the rights of middle-class women”, said Krishnan. Indeed, she said that “loads of young women spoke to me about the complicity of the police in cases of rape of Dalit and Muslim women”.

Some activists have been horrified by the efforts of the Hindu right to co-opt the protests, others by the demands for death penalty made by some protesters. As with any movement rooted in largely spontaneous mobilisations, there will be different views on these and other questions. While it is important to debate these issues within the struggle, we cannot afford to stand aside from it.

Soma Marik, a historian and long-time activist in the women's movement in Kolkata, put it excellently:

“‘Middle class’ and its association with ‘Westernized’, dress-code-violating, ‘permissive’ women has been part of the stock imagery used by right-wing forces in their attempt to trivialize and dilute rape cases. There is no reason for anyone on the left to join that chorus. What has been significant is the scale of protests, and their persistence. Lacking, in many cases, political experience, anger and emotion has led to demands for hanging … That has to be discussed, but only by participating in the struggles.”

This is why it is an urgent task for the left to intervene and try to shape the movement — and the broader struggles for a future society free of rape and women’s oppression.