One of the media needs to be congratulated for naming her ‘Nirbhaya’ (Fearless). The epithet not just describes her spirit but also what we want women to be in India. While writing in his famous poem (that he wrote in 1910), ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ (nirbhaya), Rabindra Nath Tagore, wanted his country, India, to awaken “in that heaven of freedom”. A hundred and two years later, India has not awoken in such freedom as envisaged in the poem. Worse, Indian women, cower and cringe in fear constantly and are as far from being nirbhaya as can be conceived. Indeed, I had questioned in an essay two years back in this blog: ‘Is There Reason to Celebrate Women’s Day in India?‘ And, I continue to ask this question year after year.
With the brutal gang-rape of this 23 old girl in the capital of India and her subsequent tragic death in a Singapore hospital two days ago, once again our national consciousness has been agitated enough to demand capital punishment and stringent laws. The emotionally charged atmosphere in the country in general and in the capital in particular gives hope that perhaps a change through peaceful revolution is just around the corner; and the Nobel Laureate Tagore would finally have his dream come true and “the clear stream of reason” would once again find its way “through the dreary desert sand of dead habit”.
Nothing wrong in this; it is traumatic and intensely sad to be raped. It is equally abhorrent to think that there are people in our society who can think of raping someone and kill someone’s life and happiness for a few minutes of utterly selfish and vicarious enjoyment. However, stringent laws and capital punishments are never a cure; unless we dupe ourselves to believe, for example, that with the Jessica Lall murderer having been brought to book, lives of women at their job places became more secure.
For making women nirbhaya in our country we have to hit at the cause and not just tinker at the symptoms. We have to understand how did we reach this stage of social and moral depredation and degradation? Unless we understand this, we shall once again be wanting to achieve with laws and penal action that we should achieve through awareness, realisation and understanding.
What is the problem with the laws? Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 would give a ‘legal’ definition of rape which is intended, with the assistance of other laws in Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), and Indian Evidence Act, 187vv2, to being the guilty to book. The main pillar behind the Indian Law is: Let a thousand guilty get away but let not one innocent be punished. Hence, every accused has to be tried out in a court of law and his guilt established beyond “reasonable doubt”. Unlike the courts in China, whereat the Judges have been given freedom to ask any questions to the accused to establish ‘the facts’ having bearing on his or her guilt or innocence, Indian judges have to go by the evidence as presented in the court. Hence, a judge cannot be a prosecutor. Many cases, therefore, however strong they are held in the public eye or the media, fall flat in our courts “for want of evidence”. This can be due to the inefficiency and/or vested interests of the police and the prosecution.
Besides, due to the underlying principle of an accused to be treated as innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt, every accused is provided with the best defence possible (Remember Kasab?). It would be a travesty of justice if any accused in the country is to be hanged or given any punishment through mob or media trials. This often results in the defence exploiting every loophole in the law to secure the acquittal of the accused including such technicalities as whether ‘penetration’ took place or not as defined in the law. Understandably, the rape victims and their families have to go through this ordeal, which is often as traumatic, if not more, as the act of rape itself.
I noticed in the debates in the electronic media that the women panellists, suddenly sensing an advantage through mob response – an advantage that they never had – are not prepared to listen to anything coming in the way of immediate dispensation of justice for all women. Those essaying to vent any arguments that appears to them as specious or delaying justice are quickly pronounced as sad spectacles of typical male mentality and hence worthy of social scorn. Six years back I was a victim of an assault by a woman in my home-place, which is two thousand kilometres from my place of work, in the Indian Navy. She was trying to achieve through force what the courts had decreed as encroachment on my widowed mother’s land; my mother living there alone after the accidental death of my father 28 years back. They broke through the fence after we left out the encroached portion and I went to repair the fence. The woman charged at me with a stick. And when she was arrested it came out that there were five able bodied men in her house who were waiting to charge at me if I would hit back in reflex action. The police, media and the courts would then believe her story immediately and I could see the headlines: Uniformed Navy Officer, on Leave, Tries to Outrage Modesty of a Woman in his Village. My training stood in the way of their design. I did nothing of the sort as predicted by them. I merely informed the police. She was arrested and produced in a court. The prosecution’s (my) case automatically fell through after six months due to my non-appearance (I had already taken leave twice that year because of their antics). She filed a counter private complaint and for the last six years I am called every now and then to the court to appear as accused at considerable expenditure and agony.
If you think this is an isolated case, there are several I can relate where innocent men are victims of what has come to be known as ‘reverse dowry’. A few years back, in President Hotel in Mumbai, a lady judge accused the Chief Justice of South Africa with Rape after she visited his room at 2 AM. After the Chief Justice spent a night in the Cuffe Parade jail, it came out that the charge against him was palpably false.
Hence, there is no question of the courts letting go of principle of fair-play simply because in one or two cases (as in Nirbhaya’s case) there is overwhelming evidence against the accused. Hence, however stringent we make the Rape Laws and however hard the punishment may be, the rape victims and their families will have to go through this procedure, which may be quite humiliating and agonising to them; just as it has been to me having been wrongly and deliberately framed by a woman in connivance with wrong-doers. Even the retribution of humiliating the accused publicly would not be able to heal the wounds. My plea is that in this emotionally charged atmosphere lets not forget these harsh and practical realities.
Therefore, after having exhausted easy answers that our society sometimes seeks (for example in the case of corruption), sane voices would tell us to look within to make our society respect not just female rights but all rights better. And make our society less intolerant and less violent than it has become lately.
Besides the legal definition of rape, my request is that after the immediacy of Nirbhay’s case has died down, we have to consider two things:
- Don’t be like Indian drivers who drive safely for about ten kilometres after seeing an accident.
- Shun all attempts to make our society intolerant and violent.
The second point above merits some consideration here. Of course, Rape in the legal definition is a physical act against a female or male (in the recent definition). However, a sensible society should take a more holistic and inclusive definition: it is a mental or physical rape or both if a person or group of persons impose(s) his/her/their will on a person with the intention of killing, injuring, humiliating helpless victims or cause trauma to them.
This is a small essay and hence I am not taking you through my complete analysis of the present state of affairs in our country. However, I have reached the conclusion that conscientious law-abiding citizens in our country irrespective of their sex, standing in society, colour and creed, would never be nirbhaya; not in the near future, at least. We are now a certified intolerant and violent society both in our actions and in our thoughts. Not just stray aberrant elements in the society, the state itself could think nothing of arresting and putting behind bars a harmless cartoonist critical of the government: Aseem Trivedi (Read: A Dangerous Profession) under the draconian law on treason and sedition (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code). We cannot forget the arrest of Shaheen Dhada and her friend Renu under section 505(2) (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes), two Mumbai girls who questioned (on facebook) the state and people going into a tizzy post the death of Balasaheb Thackeray recently. Her facebook status was so harmless that one wonders if she actually had the courage to comment on the alleged lawlessness of his followers, whether she would have met a fate similar to that of Malala Yousafzai in Swat (Pakistan) at the hands of Taliban?
Of course we are in this miserable condition because of the selfishness of our elected representatives and indifference, inefficiency and corruption amongst our so called public-servants (Read: ‘How Proud Should We Be of Indian Republic at 62?’) and our ire is often directed against them in public debates, rallies and demonstrations. However, if we look within, we cannot escape reaching the conclusion that “in a democracy we not only get the government we vote for, we get the government we deserve”. There has been a general decline in our societal norms so much so that I wrote last year an article titled ‘Indians – Bartering Character for Prosperity’. The state and the people are fast learning to hold each other to ransom. Hence, against a rape or killing in Delhi, people goad the government to take immediate action; but, the government doesn’t have to do anything in a hurry against rape in the North East.
Within the national capital itself, approximately 5000 innocent Sikhs including women and children were killed, butchered, tortured (with burning tyres put around their necks) and all that the anointed Prime Minister had to say was, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” This one unfortunate pronouncement by the most responsible representative of the government laid seeds for and sanctified a violent society seeking immediate retribution through violence. What happened in Godhra a few years later was another manifestation of this mind-set; both these being with the tacit support of the state itself.
Not just collectively, even individually, Indians are now, forever, on short fuse. In Mumbai, a driver killed another with a screw-driver when the latter jumped the queue at a Toll Plaza. In Gurgaon, a driver killed the Toll Plaza attendant because the latter demanded change.
Religious and parochial intolerance is so much on the increase that we perpetually cower in mortal fear lest some remark or comment of ours should be viewed as offensive by those whose blind loyalty to religion, region, party or community is often manifested in burning people, buses, vehicles, vandalising, killing and looting.
It is, therefore, being suggested that we now have two India: one comprises a motley minority of people with liberal, progressive thinking; and the other who are relentlessly being encouraged by politicians and other vested interests to stay medieval, parochial, and seeped in retarded thinking.
In Orissa, a few years back, a man called Dara Singh, was so convinced of his extreme religious ideology that he and his cronies burnt alive in a vehicle a Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons Philip (10 years) and Timothy (6 years).
Biases, parochialism, deep-rooted suspicions and vengeful tendencies are, through individual and collective designs, are now prevalent in Indian society more than ever before. We have no patience and no tolerance of others’ views. We commit rapes, in one way or the other, everyday and every minute. And, when shown the mirror, even our intellectuals gloat over our being better than China, Pakistan or other countries taking several steps backwards just as they modernise; it is as if being somewhat pious is considered better than being totally immoral.
I grew up in the state of Himachal. In my school, because of my having inherited my parents religion (which almost all people do without making a choice) and since that was and is a minority religion, the other boys in my school (physically stronger than me), relentlessly teased me about my long hair and being different in other ways. Most of these abuses are unprintable but they had to do with what they thought of my mother, sister and other female members of my family. I was physically and mentally abused on an everyday basis. I should know what rape is all about.
We are very far from being nirbhay, the dream of Tagore and of one of the media. We should learn to be less exploitative and more tolerant and do not allow ourselves to become pawns in the hands of manipulative parochial interests that rape us everyday and every few years we go to the poll booths to vote the same criminals back in power; or, look helplessly when medieval, backward, parochial India votes them back to power.
I am sorry but there are no easy answers to rape; just as there are no easy answers to other national problems that are fast becoming endemic. We have to start at the grass-roots level and liberate our minds of all violence, intolerance, parochialism and medievalism. Yes, laws, deterrence, and other steps to make our women nirbhay are necessary. Yes, exemplary punishment for Damini’s case is necessary. Yes, male mentality has to become better, more benign and less partial. But, simultaneously, we have to take strong steps to make our complete society nirbhay. This cannot be done by people who drive carefully for ten kilometres after witnessing an accident.
To start with, one of my friends has suggested and I endorse his view that in order to express our deep remorse at Nirbhaya’s tragic fate (a fate that could be of any one of us), lets boycott the next Republic Day Parade that is held to showcase India’s modernity and cultural diversity. How can we showcase these virtues when we are seeped in medievalism? Where, as Tagore wrote: Where the world has been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Rapes are committed in the psyche and the minds much before these are physically done; Abhijeet Mukherjee should know, a Minister in Goa should know, MLAs in Karnataka assembly should know (Guardians of Porn and Morality), ND Tewari should know and all those engaged in contorted moral policing should know.
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