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Rape: National And international

By Valson Thampu

Deccan Herald
29 October, 2003

The recent rape of a Swiss embassy staff member in the car park area of Siri Fort, where the international film festival of India was in progress, has activated an avalanche of indignation. Indeed this regrettable event eclipsed the film festival itself. That is understandable. But what is neither acceptable nor understandable is the fact that tens of thousands of other rapes are simply glossed over. Those in the capital city of India sit smugly over the alarming fact that sex-related crimes in this city have increased three-fold in the last five years alone.

Each new day, crimes of lust attain a new peak. It rankles still in our memory that last year a medical student was raped brutally in broad day light in a barely secluded place in front of Maulana Azad Medical College. Beyond the media sensation that such events provide, nothing much is done to engage meaningfully this lurid symptom of our social illness.

It does not help to deem some rapes as horrendous while thousands of others are considered legitimate and even honourable. For far too long rape has been an acknowledged weapon in the arsenal of humiliation in our society. Communal riots are deemed incomplete without multiple rapes.

Gujarat riots

The face of a young woman that I came across in a refugee camp in Godhra, in the wake of the Gujarat riots, continues to haunt me to this day. Aged 23 and the mother of a two-year old boy, she was caught and gang-raped repeatedly. And then, as if to sharpen the edges of their perverse pleasure, her tormentors beat her brutally with lathis breaking her hand and legs. This caused her to faint.

Satisfied that she was dead, they left her. She survived miraculously and was rescued a day later by police. When I met her she was pregnant, carrying the fruit of her subhuman violation. This was one of the several rapes that comprised the background to the Gaurav Yatra (the march of pride) organised in the wake of the Gujarat riots. Rape, to be sure, was a matter of pride then.

'Honour rape" in Punjab is another version of rape as punishment. If a dalit boy dares to court a girl above his caste, his sister stands in peril of being raped by the girl's indignant male relatives. This practice is alarmingly widespread and socially tolerated. Its underlying logic imitates the logic of the assumption that because some Muslims practise terrorism in Kashmir, Muslims in Gujarat need to be targeted and taught a lesson. Social scientists who have studied the custom of honour rape have been amazed at the zeal with which women - the actual victims of this practice - defend and justify this abhorrent practice. It proves yet again, if proof indeed is required, that social conditioning can whitewash the blackest of deeds into legitimacy.

Sexual exploitation

It is a well-known secret that sexual exploitation is integral to Indian politics. Politics is widely believed to be a dishonourable career for women, except for those who have the advantage of clout and connections. Women are known to be unsafe among politicians. Amarmani Tripati, Mayawati's colleague in the previous UP government, is an illustrative case study. This gentleman allegedly murdered a young poetess with whom he reportedly had an illicit relationship. At the time of her murder the lady was six-months pregnant. That, however, was nowhere near the conscience of Mulayam Singh Yadav, who accorded Amarmani fulsome praise for "saving UP" by defecting in time to help form an alternative government.

Rape is rapacious consumerism. It treats partners as items and instruments of pleasure. Rape is a dramatic metaphor of the violence latent in consumerism. It insults human dignity to sanitise coerced prostitution -in actual terms, crude sexual slavery - as "commercial sex work". The so-called commercial sex work is the only industry in which human beings are at once the raw material, workers and the finished product of consumption.

Their work is to offer themselves as consumer items to prospective clientele. An overwhelming majority of these "sex workers" live and work in servitude, forced either by poverty or by the rapacity of their fellow human beings. The weaker sections of a society, especially women, are bound to be victims of exploitation in a consumerist society.

The rape of the Swiss embassy staffer hogged the limelight only because it brought infamy to our country in the global village. Of course, we must do all we can to bring the culprits to justice. That, however, is only a part of what needs to be done. There is an even more important and radical task at hand. And that is to create a national culture in which women are safe and free to move around, especially in our cities. This is a task that cannot be left to police or politicians alone. Building a safe and sane society must be deemed a fundamental aspect of nation building. And that calls for the eradication of ideologies of hate and customs of violence.