Why don’t we seek justice for raped Dalit, Kashmiri and Northeastern women in the way we do for the horrific gangrape survivor?

By Ajaz Ashraf

Power play: Protesters at Raisina Hills, New Delhi. Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Power play: Protesters at Raisina Hills, New Delhi. Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Among the most frightening aspects of power is the ability of its wielder to create a veritable hierarchy of sorrow, influencing people to feel outraged at a tragedy befalling some and blithely ignoring its visitations on others. Considering Delhi is dubbed as the rape capital of India, with 572 cases reported in 2011, it is simultaneously bewildering and inspiring to find thousands of people, particularly the young, take to the streets in protest against the brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student and the merciless beatingof her male friend, a 28-year-old software engineer.

Perhaps Delhi was goaded into action because the tragic, gut-wrenching incident underlined to its denizens their own vulnerability. The circumstances in which the couple became the victims of bestiality are typically what most in the bustling metropolis encounter. The couple had seen an evening movie in a spiffy multiplex and taken an auto-rickshaw to the point from where they could take a bus home, combining two modes of transportation to, quite obviously, save money. On the bus they encountered a nightmare from which Delhi and India have not stopped getting the shivers.

Had Delhi been a city with a conscience quick to prick — had its people been habituated to waging battles for others, the depth of their rage sharp enough to coax even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to deliver a nationally televised speech — the protests would not have demanded scrutiny and comprehension. As the 23-year-old woman continues to battle for her life, it may seem impolite, even callous, to assert that Delhi’s outrage at her plight emanated from the hierarchy of sorrow we have created. In the physiotherapy student and her friend the young see themselves: they too go on dates, see movies in plush multiplexes, and take buses. The older among us are furious as we can easily imagine ourselves to have been the parents of the hapless couple.

Yet we didn’t see ourselves in Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old Manipuri woman, into whose house the personnel of 17 Assam Rifles broke in on July 11, 2004 and dragged her away. Her body was subsequently found, scantily clad, bearing nail marks and bullet wounds. The family alleged she had been raped and killed. The spokesman of Assam Rifles contradicted the family, saying she was a member of the Peoples Liberation Army and was shot dead as she tried to flee while taking the soldiers to the militant outfit’s hideout. You could say a story with contradictory versions is typical of all those areas where the army and secessionists are locked in an armed conflict. Why shouldn’t we believe the army?

Yet we should have seen ourselves in the hundreds of Manipuri women who stormed the Assam Rifles Headquarters in Imphal, scores of them stark naked and holding placards which read: “Indian army rape us”; “Indian Army take our flesh”. How many of our mothers or sisters or daughters would walk naked to protest against rape if the allegation had been doubtful? The only visible or voluble protest to emanate from Delhi against the Manipur incident was the weeklyTehelka placing the protesting naked women on its cover.

It is the hierarchy of sorrow which inclines us into disbelieving the narratives of those protesting against rape outside Delhi and other metro cities. On May 30, 2009, Nelofar and her sister-in-law Asiya were found drowned in the Rambi Ara stream in Shopian, Kashmir. The locals accused the security forces of raping the women and then drowning them. To pacify roiled emotions, the state government appointed the Justice Muzaffar Jan commission of inquiry to probe the allegations. Justice Jan did indeed conclude the two women had been raped but said it could not identify who the culprits were. The case was subsequently handed over to the CBI, which declared the two women had drowned. The family members of the victims have now appealed to the J&K High Court for reopening the case.

The Shopian incident wasn’t an isolated instance of contradictory narratives on cases involving rape in the Valley. Way back in 1991, the Indian army was accused of gangraping 23 women in Kunan Poshpora village, in Kupwara district, Kashmir. The accusation was dismissed as a hoax of militant groups. A Peoples Union for Democratic Rights statement condemning the Shopian incident had referred to a 1994 United Nations human rights report implicating Indian soldiers in 882 rape cases between 1990 and 1992. The PUDR noted, “The targeting of ‘enemy’ women is a way of stamping national authority on the region, often indulged in by security forces and allowed by the Indian state through its repeated crimes of omission.” Obviously, we the conscionable haven’t ever taken to the streets against the depredations of the India army, for we fervently believe the sin of secession is the gravest of all human violations, rape included.

Let us not scratch open congealed wounds or turn back the pages of history. In 2011, Haryana, which neighbours Delhi, registered 733 rape cases last year; in the first six months of 2012, there were 367 rapes. Many of the victims were Dalit women, often gangraped. Delhi did not quiver at their plight. Nor are we unduly perturbed at reports of sexual violence the tribals are subjected to in the regions where the state and Maoists are engaged in a desultory conflict.

It is inevitable for an extremely hierarchical society to spawn a hierarchy of sorrow, privileging the grief of some over others. It is also natural for people to empathise with the suffering of those who share our circumstances. It is a phenomenon not confined to India alone. America mourned the death of 20 children whom a deranged gunman slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut. Have the Americans ever agonised over the estimated death of 168 children killed in its drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, or tried to imagine the suffering of their parents? Those 168 children, from the perspective of the Bush and Obama administrations, were mere collateral damage.

Such is the manipulative skills of the powerful that it persuades us into believing some are deserving of the tragedy we otherwise find despicable. It is true of the Indian state as well. It has taught us to treat people waging war against it as an extension of a dangerous idea devoid of flesh and blood. It is easy to kill and rape them. As for our bustling metros, we do not become furious as long as rape and other heinous crimes are confined to the slums. This is the reason why the 572 cases of rape last year did not provoke Delhi into besieging the bastions of power. We forget that an increasingly dehumanised society, with its forever widening gulf between the rich and poor in this era of rising aspirations, can only produce killers and rapists whom draconian laws can’t bridle.

Perhaps there is no reason for us to be perennially pessimistic. The future need not always resemble the past. It is possible those protesting on the streets of Delhi can understand through their own experience the pain and anger of the marginal, including the Dalits. Hopefully, they won’t accept the tendentious narratives of the state or the exploitative culture the socially powerful preserve. In smashing the hierarchy of sorrow lies our redemption.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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