For the past few days, this horrifying story from the Badaun District of Uttar Pradesh in India has been dominating both Indian and Western media. The basic facts and some additional thoughts follow, but, first, watch this video. Warning: it has some disturbing visuals. So, let me say, upfront, that I am among those who believe that, sometimes, we need the shock factor to shake us out of our torpidity — as long as it’s not simply about sensationalism but serving a specific and relevant purpose.
— On May 28, two Dalit (untouchable caste) girls, aged 14 and 15, were found dead, hanging from trees in their village. Autopsies confirmed that they’d been raped and strangled.
— Their father had reported them to the local police as missing the night before, when they had gone together to the fields to relieve themselves (poor homes in such rural areas do not have indoor toilets) and not returned. A family relative had seen them near the home of an upper-caste man and his brothers and this had been reported to the police has well.
— The police had been very nonchalant, not wanting to search the upper-caste man’s house. They even kept putting off logging the FIR (First Information Report). Eventually, they told the distraught father to go find his daughters hanging from some trees.
— It took a crowd of angry villagers and constant coverage by broadcast media for the local government to finally intervene and put out arrest warrants for the two policemen as well as the three (or five, depending on which report you’re reading) upper-caste men implicated in the rapes and murders.
— Amidst all this, the Chief Minister of the State, Akhilesh Yadav, made bizarre statements when questioned by journalists, taunting them with, “But, you’re safe, right? You’re secure?” Interestingly, his father, the former Chief Minister, had recently opposed the anti-rape law, which called for a death penalty, saying “Boys will make mistakes. They should not be hanged for it.” Clearly, a case of some puzzling family values.
— In the meantime, three more rapes occurred within the state: a 17-year-old, a 22-year-old and a 3-year-old. Yes, you read that last one correctly. Elsewhere in the country, things haven’t stood still. The mother of a rape victim was beaten up badly for refusing to withdraw her daughter’s case — she remains in critical condition. Children aged 5-15 years were sexually abused and forced to eat faeces at a charitable shelter home by the founder and his assistant (a woman). A 29-year-old woman was raped by two men near Mumbai at gunpoint. A woman lawyer and her two male clients were assaulted by — wait for it — a mob of thirty lawyers, in full view of the courtrooms, for filing a sexual molestation case against a fellow lawyer. And, this just in: a 69-year-old woman was raped and murdered in her own home. This list keeps growing by the day.
— On May 31, news came that the five of the seven accused for the Badaun rapes have been arrested. And, the Chief Minister, though hardly contrite for his earlier media taunts, has offered the father compensation and promised to fast-track the case. [Note: The numbers for the men accused and arrested varies across media, so don’t hold me to them.]
— Politicians, from both the governing party as well as the opposition, have been steadily queuing up at the hut-like homes of the deceased girls promising justice, money, toilets etc. And, of course, providing plenty of photo opportunities and pithy statements to the media. Notably, the above-mentioned Chief Minister has yet to pay a visit. Although, as a show of doing something beyond empty rhetoric and crazy statements, he sacked a couple of his Ministers in the past two days.
— Finally, on June 1, the new Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, made a public statement about setting up special rape crisis centers in every district of the country to provide medical and legal help to rape victims. [The wonders of a highly-decentralized government, where those who have been voted/appointed to power cannot really do much good even if they wanted to.]
— And, on June 2, activists and political party workers were greeted with an attack of water cannons when they protested outside the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s headquarters about the many rapes in their state.
— Meanwhile, the bereaved family is terrified because the families of the accused are threatening an all-out war against them once the media and cameras are gone.
With me so far? Yeah, it knocked the wind out of me too.
How bad is it? Though many cases go unreported and marital rape is not considered a criminal offense, the Indian Government provided these recent statistics from their official reports: a rape every 22 minutes, 98% of them committed by relatives or neighbors. Uttar Pradesh is among the worst. In fact, this particular kind of “rape-kill-hang” case is not new either. In 2011, when the State’s Chief Minister was a Dalit woman, there was another similar case.
So, of course, the talking heads, politicians, journalists, social media activists, bloggers and many other concerned citizens have been questioning, again, how such things can continue to happen. There are several theories, ranging from flimsy to the deeply-entrenched:
— It is due to lack of indoor toilets and sanitation as “most women raped in Uttar Pradesh were defecating in the open“.
— There is the underlying complex caste dynamics between the lower-caste Dalits (untouchables) and the upper-caste Yadavs (Hindus). (Also see this related article.)
— Another longstanding issue is the endemic gender disparity in a deeply patriarchal society, which is also largely responsible for the high volume of human trafficking to and from India’s neighboring countries. Rape is hardly ever a sexual crime. It is, almost always, a power crime — even more so when the cowards gang together to attack a single victim.
— The lifelong stigma that rape victims are subjected to prevents many from coming forward to seek justice, so the perpetrators continue to gain confidence that they can get away with it. Here’s a recent account of a 12-year-old rape survivor who, after having undergone some twenty surgeries, is now living on the streets because the police, doctors, judiciaries and society at large do not want to associate with her or her family. There are also many accounts of how rape victims have either been raped further by the very policemen who they turn to for help or how they are further emotionally abused by law-enforcers who accuse them of “instigating the advances” or “asking for it”. And, society, too, treats them as pariahs because of persistent notions about a woman’s virginity or chastity symbolizing her or her husband’s or family’s honor and virtue.
— The ongoing objectification of women by Bollywood promotes misogyny and violence on a scale that the country has never seen before. In a country where Bollywood idols are practically worshipped alongside various gods and goddesses, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the movies that are seen daily by millions influence their values and behaviors. [Note: That embedded video is one of the most disturbing ones I’ve seen in a long time.]
— And, the fact that, despite all of this, the average citizen has a general apathy towards the sexual harassment of women (often called, risibly, “eve-teasing”), as proven in this social experiment in Mumbai and Delhi.
It is, of course, a combination of all of these things. And then some more.
Let me weave in a different set of strands now. These recent acts of savagery against women came within days and hours of news of Indian women from various walks of life accomplishing wonderful things. Like:
— 13-year-old Purna, who is now the youngest girl to scale Mount Everest
— 65-year-old Anuradha Koirala, the Nepalese woman who has saved 50,000 people in Nepal and India from human trafficking, often putting her own life in danger.
— 28-year-old Anshu Jamsenpa, a mother of two who just scaled three Himalayan peaks in six days, braving a deadly avalanche that killed several others just above her camp site.
— 16-year-old Neha Gupta, a truck driver’s daughter, scored nearly 95% in the Central Board Exams through sheer hard work and despite the odds stacked against her (as she’s from a low-income family).
It is heartbreaking to see how, in a country filled with such brave, bright women like Purna, Anuradha, Anshu and Neha, we still have this kind of savagery against women — many of them still innocent children.
How many other potential Purnas and Anuradhas and Anshus and Nehas are sitting cowering inside their homes, afraid that they will become a Nirbhaya instead — despite the recently-passed stringent anti-rape laws?
[A side-note: Indian broadcast news media has been doing, surprisingly, a rather decent job of staying focused on this particular rape case by running almost hourly updates on TV, websites and social media. The pressure this has put on politicians, lawmakers and law-enforcers is evident. Certainly, this kind of media coverage was the tipping point during the Delhi 2012 rape case and pushed the anti-rape law changes mentioned above as well as maximum penalties for the accused. Still, it’s like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted, right?]
Let’s weave in just a couple more threads. Just a few days before Badaun happened, a young American, Elliott Rodgers, went on a shooting rampage because he believed that women had rejected him sexually. There was a 9-minute Youtube video where he ranted about retribution (taken down now) and an entire trail of writing across the internet of his angst. Now, rapes are not as frequent in the West as they are in countries like India. Yet, women came out in droves all over social media to share how they’re impacted by the “rape culture”. Many men, too, spoke up — see this interesting article by a man, Zaron Burnett III, about “A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture“. Sadly, this kind of widespread raising of voices is not possible in many parts of India for all the reasons mentioned above as well as a lack of basic literacy or communication platforms.
Rodgers’ barbarity was also a kind of power crime. He came from a good family, was well-educated and moved in privileged circles. None of this stopped him from posting misogynistic and racist content all over the internet and killing six people in cold blood. Within hours of the news, it was widely-communicated that he was mentally ill (though speculations and refutations are still running amok on this matter) and had been in and out of therapy. Again, sadly, in many parts of India, rape culture is so embedded that, in all the daily rape reports, the mental health of a rapist is rarely, if ever, questioned. Not that I’m suggesting mental illness is the root cause. But, it is interesting to note how, in the West, a heinous crime is almost always attributed to mental illness while, in developing countries like India, we know that the criminals are not mentally ill but enacting the values and behaviors that they’ve grown up with.
What hope is there for a country’s progress, evolution and humanity when boys are raised with an animalistic appetite for violence towards the vulnerable? When they believe it is normal to brutalize women and children every few minutes, whether emotionally or physically? When there seems to be little value placed on a human being’s life?