Inscribed in the tragedy are rapacious systems of dominance.
As the pictures of the two young Dalit children, gangraped, murdered and hung from a tree in Badaun, circulate in the media, the despair and anger of the Dalits, women and children who are part of this spectacle of violence singes our everyday lives. The spectator-consumer of television and print media, however, is invited to participate in a familiar script, used each time an atrocity hits the media.
Our anger is directed at the language of the political class, which vacillates between sexist and statist responses. While one set of politicians defends rapists and rape cultures, the other set speaks of death penalty, stronger policing and awarding compensation.
We note a reluctance to acknowledge custodial rape as targeted caste atrocity, and gangrape as caste atrocity. The AIDWA fact-finding report tells us that the accused policemen have only been charged with abetting violence. There is a refusal to acknowledge that the rapacious bodies of police officers and their dominant caste bhai-bandhu targeted the bodies of Dalit children and produced a spectacle of terror for all Dalits to witness. This is how our children inherit caste — by watching mutely the lynched dead bodies of raped teenagers. To be a Dalit and working-class parent means never to recover from such a trauma. It means being told not to trust those police officials who act on behalf of the rapacious system of dominance.
Custodial rape as a specific form of rapacious state violence was named as a crime in 1983, in the aftermath of the Mathura rape agitation. Yet media debates fail to inform their anguished spectators that custodial rape rarely results in conviction, if the survivor lives to testify. The criminalisation of custodial rape has failed to challenge that culture of policing which is based on the premise that state power gives men a licence to rape with impunity and immunity. This culture is entrenched by the political class, which uses the police to shield rapists for the sake of competitive politics, gaining political power or deploying rape as a tool of terror. The use of and support to policemen, as perpetrators of sexual violence and torture, is the outcome of a series of systemic and systematised political arrangements.
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First, policing is embedded in local contexts of dominance, where the dominant group stakes a claim on the monopoly over the use or abuse of law. When women, Dalits, tribals or other minorities try to challenge this monopoly over the use (or abuse) of the law, they are “taught a lesson” — be it in Khairlanji in Maharashtra or the courts of Tis Hazari in Delhi.
Second, sexual violence is a routine technique of terror. In other words, rape is an instrument to stifle, deny and prevent gender-based equality. It is used to quell dissent or social movements, deter social mobility, maintain social hierarchy, restrict access to public spaces, deny safety at home, create unsafe work environments, punish the incarcerated and destroy the sexual or reproductive futures of hated communities. It is used to produce sexual humiliation, which is necessary for the reproduction of the patriarchal social order. The cultures of policing are shot through with the exercise of sexual humiliation as a specific mode of state dominance, which routinely produces spectacles of sexual violence.
Third, policing reinforces rape cultures which characterise certain kinds of bodies as rape-able: working class, Dalit, tribal, minority, children, queer, habituated, promiscuous, and so on. Hence, we are repeatedly told that the understaffed and overworked police force cannot file the complaints of all women or children who experience rape. These are exceptional subjects — for them the law must be suspended since their lives do not matter. The law must only be upheld for the minuscule minority whose lives matter.
Fourth, testimonies of rape become pornography and rape is staged for the camera to produce pornography. The production of pornography, as we know from the lacerating accounts of sexual abuse and torture from a shelter in Pune, is materialised through staging actual rape. The consumption of pornography and its enactment for the camera rests on the toleration of the careers of rape pornographers and their markets.
The state is erected on trafficking in the informal economies of desire and violence. Not only are these lucrative markets, these constitute the nervous system of a rapacious state, a state that must conserve the desire to rape as an expression of male power.
Why then would the state waste its resources on allocating gender budgets to prevent sexual violence? Why would policemen, army officials or politicians be convicted of rape? Why would women who testify against rape be granted protection? Why would the state not raid women suspected to be sex workers? Indeed, why would the state fund studies to understand the expansion of cruelty with rape, such as the increased incidents of burning, mutilating, torture or lynching of raped women? Surely it is more profitable to maintain a threshold of sexual violence?
The commentaries on national television, while important in bringing visibility to specific atrocities, do not depart from the script of pinning blame on the sexism of specific public officials or moving to the comforting promise of reforms. This form of anguished commentary barely addresses the systemic and systematised aspects of rape as an expression of power.
For instance, there has been little consistent reporting on the changes in various professions, including journalism, to make the workplace free of sexual harassment or sexism. Nor has there been enough thinking on the kinds of public emotion generated by sensational modes of reporting, and whether these challenge the everyday formations of rape cultures. We are not invited to reflect on the politics of forgetting, which blinds us to the connections between everyday and extraordinary forms of caste or communal violence.
Perhaps the Indian polity is not humane enough to challenge the politics of forgetting, on which celebrations of democracy rest. It requires a great deal of commitment to transform social suffering into dignified ways of life. Alas, the contempt towards visions of transformative constitutionalism is writ large in our polity.
The writer is associate professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University