14 Sep 2013

Finally - Justice for Jyoti?

It was late on a wintry Sunday night. I do not remember what I was doing at that time. But what I know is that I was oblivious to what was happening in my city at that very moment. I guess I was lazily flipping channels on TV when I came across a newsflash. A girl had been raped in a moving bus. Another rape. Another girl. Another vehicle. Another routine news. I shivered. But I knew it was not from the cold.

The days that followed saw something unprecedented in the history of India. People across the country were out on the roads - without a care in the world - for a nameless and faceless woman in Delhi.

What was so special about her? Nothing. She was any one of us.

I believe that was precisely what was so special about her. She was any one of us.

For the first time in the history of India, people were talking about rape. RAPE - that which could not be named. That unspeakable word which was always hidden deep beneath terror and dread. That unspeakable word synonymous with shame. That unspeakable word which spoke about how it ruined lives - not only of the victims (who were as good as dead, or worse) - but also those of their entire family and the society en-masse. That unspeakable word which was more - so much more - than merely a crime.

Not any more. All of that changed that night.

Change. Of everything that the people on the streets wanted in those days, they wanted this the most. Change in the law. Change in the mindset. Change in the system. Change for the better.

It would be utopic if I could say that everything changed that night. But it would not be an exaggeration either. Everything changed that night for a woman. Everything changed that night for a family. Everything changed that night for a friend. Everything changed that night for a city. Everything changed that night for a nation.

But did it, really?

Rapes have continued since. With the same alarming frequency. With the same alarming brutality. With the same alarming shamelessness. With the same alarming malevolence. What, then, has changed?

What did change is the tolerance threshold of people. We have gone out on the streets of the nation demanding zero tolerance for rape, zero tolerance for slackened laws, zero tolerance for delayed justice, zero tolerance for leniency. We have demanded change for the better - better security, better laws, better law enforcement, better rate of conviction, better speed of trial.

But in all this, we have demanded something else the most. Retribution. Revenge.

Was that what we wanted? No, we set out for justice, not revenge. So are justice and revenge synonymous? I do not think so. Then why this change? This is not the change we wanted to bring about.

We wanted stricter laws and stricter punishments. We wanted the conviction of safety and the guarantee of our most basic right of freedom. We wanted revolution in the way we thought and behaved.

But what did we achieve on September 13? Revenge. Not change.

We have not achieved change because we are still the same. Rapes happen a dozen a day. We still blame and shame the victim (or the latest term - 'survivor'). We still think rape is all about sex. We still believe castration - physical or chemical - is what will stop rape.

We could not be farther from the truth.

Lately, the voices in favour of vigilante justice (a politer synonym for 'mob justice') have been growing stronger by the day. Every new rape that we hear of elicits the same responses, only with increased intensity - hang him, lynch him, kill him, burn him, castrate him, disembowel him, dismember him, drown him in acid, throw him to wild animals, have him gnawed by rodents and insects, cut him up one limb a day, let him slowly bleed to death, give him pain in equal or more measure. So much, that now the incident does not generate as much fear in me as the responses to it do.

What is it about rape that makes us want to mete out such brutality to the perpetrators? Is it some new-found 'respect' for women which was hitherto undiscovered? Is it that we have finally acknowledged that women are equal humans who feel pain as much as anyone else does? Are we finally beginning to 'see' women?

It is hardly about women, yet all about them.

It is because we as a society see rape as the worst thing that could happen to a woman - even probably worse than death. And a gangrape even more so. They are heinous crimes, no doubt. But that is not what we see them as. For us, whatever we think or say or do, rape is still what is has always been - the loss of a woman's 'honour' and 'dignity'. Those dreaded terms that horrify me more than any rape ever could.

What is it about a woman's honour and dignity that she is robbed of when she is raped, and which turns her from a woman into a 'zinda laash' who should be avenged in the most blood-thirsty and brutal way possible? Why does only rape arouse that vengeance and that anger in us? Is it because we somehow connect rape to sex - something that is shameful and unspeakable if you are a woman?

But rape is not about sex. Nor is it about lust. Nor is it about a man losing control due to a woman's provocation (and that 'provocation' is permitted to be anything - her dress, her behavior, her lifestyle, her smile, her laughter, her words, or merely her sight). If that were true, rapes would never have been used as a means to 'punish' or 'put her in her place' or 'assuage his hurt ego' or 'teach her a lesson' or 'assert his manliness'. If that were true, infants and children would not have been raped. If that were true, elderly (or really old) women would not have been raped. If that were true, 'modestly dressed' women would not have been raped. If that were true, 'unattractive' women would not have been raped.

But they are.

What, then, is rape about? It is about the same thing any crime against a woman is about - control. It is a means of controlling a woman's destiny - because in India, that can only depend on her 'izzat'. If someone loots her 'izzat', there is nothing she can look forward to any longer. It is what can destroy not only her but her entire clan - for a woman's 'izzat' is also her family's 'izzat' and the society's 'izzat'.

I fail to understand how rape - a crime - can result in the loss of anything (at the very least 'honour' or 'dignity') for the person it is propagated against. If at all it has to result in any kind of loss, it should be for the perpetrator(s). But of course, that is when you think rationally without the appendages of 'culture' and 'tradition' which teaches us that 'lajja hi aurat ka gehna hai' and that 'aurat ghar ki laaj hai'. In a way, by treating rape as THE most heinous crime ever against a woman, are we not propagating the very mindset we are intending to change?

If we were so outraged by rape because it is a crime against women, then we forget two key things.

The first thing we forget is that rape is a heinous crime against women but it is NOT THE ONLY ONE. Why do we not feel the same outrage when female foetuses are eliminated in the womb? Why do we not feel the same outrage when girls and women of any and every age are beaten inside their homes by the men they trust the most - their fathers, their brothers, their husbands - for any number of reasons ranging from sleeping late to no salt in the daal to talking to a man to answering back to not bringing enough dowry to not giving birth to sons? Why do we not feel the same outrage when millions of girls are denied the education or food or healthcare because they are not boys? Why do we not feel that outrage when women are leched at or catcalled or touched inappropriately or called names or felt up or groped or molested? Why do we not feel that outrage when the law tells us that there is no such thing as marital rape? Why do we not feel the outrage when women with no husbands (read dead husbands) are denied respect and acceptance in our homes and during our celebrations? Why do we not feel that outrage when women are blessed with 'akhand saubhagyawati bhava'? You tell a woman to die before her husband does - and you feel no outrage?

How can we even think that justice has been done to women en-masse (or even to one woman) by hanging 4 random men who are accused in 1 case out of who knows how many? Also, I am shocked at the manner people are comparing rapes. What is this 'more brutal' rape and 'less brutal' rape? This was brutal, no doubt about it. A young sprightly woman had her innards ripped out by hand and was left to die. It is inhuman - if nothing else. But tell me - there are people all around us treating girls and women in the most inhuman ways imaginable. Some of these have been cited in the paragraph above. But how can crime be comparable? A 9-year-old child had her private parts cut up with a blade a fortnight back in Delhi. Is that not brutal? A 3-year-old child was raped by her own father a month back, all because her mother refused to be raped by him. Is that not brutal? A 2-year-old was raped two days back in Jodhpur. Is that not brutal? Soni Sori was gangraped and had pebbles inserted into her private parts. Is that not brutal? Aruna Shanbaug was raped, asphyxiated with a dog collar, and has been left a vegetable for the last 40 years? Is that not brutal? Hundreds of nameless faceless females of all ages are gangraped - and much worse - during religious riots. Is that not brutal? Women are randomly and routinely gangraped as punishment for acting 'out of character' or trying to be 'larger than their caste' in order to 'show them their place' and 'teach them a lesson' - all with the approval and blessings of panchayats and other such kangaroo courts. Is that not brutal?

What makes people bay for the blood of the rapists in this case, but not in the other cases? Revenge, not justice. Because if justice comes in this way for the Delhi case, then it comes in the same way for all other cases. We may say we were not aware or conscious earlier, but have suddenly become so. I ask us this - if that were the case, then there have been countless number of rapes since, and many have been equally or even more 'brutal', so why have we not asked for everyone else to be hanged. Also, if only equally or more brutal punishments were to solve crime or deter criminals (which is the rationale we have been giving), then there are actually nations which mete out such punishments, and worse. But crime does not cease to exist. Saudi Arabia still sees theft, robbery, dacoity, rape, and murder.

The second thing we forget about is MEN. Yes, contrary to popular imagination, whether or not we wish to open our eyes to it, MEN ARE RAPED TOO. Why, then, does that not outrage us as much? We have heard of young boys and even grown men being sodomised and brutalised. Why have we not felt that outrage for them? Is it because men in our understanding have no concept of 'izzat' that can be looted or 'honour' that can be lost? Do they not feel the pain of rape? Or is it that we have stereotyped our men to not feel pain - because then they will be not 'strong enough' and hence not 'man enough'? Why did we not ask for the BJP minister Raghavji to be hanged? He had been raping another man - and that too over a prolonged period of time. Did that not stir our collective outrage? Why did we not bay for Raghavji's blood in the same way? Why were we not out on the streets when he was given bail?

There is another thing about the Delhi case which horrifies me as much as the actual crimes does. It makes me surer of something I have always had an inkling about but wanted to dismiss it as only a cynical thought - India has so internalised the utter disrespect and obvious abuse of women as a part of our collective lives, that only the most graphically grotesque and gruesome crimes seem to stir us from our apathetic slumber. Just a tad. And even then, it has to be worthy enough of our collective outrage. Most importantly, the victim and the circumstances have to meet our approval - she is from a higher caste, belongs to the middle or upper class, is from a 'decent' family (because what good is a family that cannot 'control' its daughters and sisters), has an urban lifestyle (but not too 'modern' or 'open' because then she is definitely 'asking for it'), is preferably single (because single = virgin, else what 'honour' or 'dignity' does a non-virgin have to lose), was out of her house at a collectively agreed and approved 'decent' hour (because anyone out after the unspoken 'lakshman-rekha' of time for Indian women can be up to no good), was at a collectively agreed and approved 'decent' place (because why would she visit a pub or a disc if not to get laid), and of course, is not living alone (because then she is out of the 'control' of her family and obviously does not stir our outrage). Oh, and she HAS to be someone's sister or daughter or wife - if she is not identified by the male family members she belongs to, she does not deserve our attention, much less our empathy.

Shame on us.

With all of the above, are we not propagating the very mindset that we initially set out to change? When we associate rape with the destruction of a woman's very being - something that is the zenith of her existence and the epitome of the worst that could happen with her, are we not promoting the same patriarchy that we so wish to eliminate from our collective conscience?

Should we not instead think of rape as a crime nonetheless, but something that only probably strengthens the victim and everyone around her? Why should she be made to feel any lesser than she was before the rape? Why should she be made to feel as if she has 'lost' something she possessed before the rape? Why should she not be encouraged to move on and live as normal a life as she would have, had the rape not happened? Why should she be reminded of it every single living moment - by our questioning stares, by our pointing fingers, by our unspoken comments, by our misplaced outrage?

The case of December 16 has resulted in death penalty for the adult accused. Maybe because the rape was coupled with the clear intention to kill and her body was brutalised in an unimaginable way. Maybe because it was a pre-planned and cold-blooded crime done with the full awareness of its consequences. Maybe because the criminals were out to do just that and were ready for the first unsuspecting target that came their way. Maybe because this was the only way the wounds of a family who helplessly watched a part of their very beings painfully die in front of their very eyes would be slightly, very slightly, assuaged. Maybe...

Or maybe, just maybe, it was to appeal to us. Maybe it was to assuage our own guilt for being, in some indirect way, a contributor to the very mentality that led to this crime and others equally or much more worse. Maybe it was to provide some utterly misguided release to our collective frustrations about not just rape but all that is wrong with our country today. Maybe it was to project a certain ruling government in a positive light before the most important elections the country will see. Maybe...

Today, I am not sure what scares me more. Is it the frightening possibility that we will see this as the only cure, or a magical cure that overnight solves everything? Is it the risk of this letting us calm down, maybe enough to distract us from the real problem? Is it the chilling mood of 'celebration' that is alive on social media for this act of retribution which we have confused with redressal? Is it our dangerously short-sighted approach for settling for a temporary panacea rather than working towards a permanent cure?

In all of this, I find myself thinking - where is justice for Jyoti?