Trapeze Artists in a Public Square

Published: January 2, 2013 - 18:24

The protests in Delhi and elsewhere have become a collective catharsis, a cry for help, an angry assertion of the right to free movement, a life of dignity and freedom from fear of rape. But what will it change?

Rahul Roy Delhi 

On the evening of December 23, 2012, as I walked back from India Gate towards Copernicus Marg, I saw something that can only be described as surreal — a  20-something girl walking on the slim divider in the middle of the road, balancing herself like a trapeze artist, her arms raised, oblivious of the police vans whizzing past, groups of boys hurrying away from stick-wielding cops. I saw her walk like this, all alone, from Baroda House until almost the end of Copernicus Marg at the Mandi House circle. She was obviously on a high, the carnivalesque mood sustained despite the police having managed to clear all the protesters from the vicinity of India Gate.

This carnival, like all carnivals, seemed likely to end in a few days. With it, will expressions of freedom neatly fold back?  Will ‘normalcy’ return on Delhi roads and women be rudely reminded that the carnival is over? Will the girl ever walk again in the middle of a deserted road all alone on a foggy winter evening of Delhi and feel safe?

The spontaneous outburst of protests in Central Delhi, so close to India’s power centre, by mostly young people after the gruesome gangrape of the 23-year-old student and the assault on her male friend have, as expected, elicited a range of responses from the media, women’s groups and other commentators in newspapers, social media sites, email chains, TV channels and blogs. However, unlike the participants of these protests, who insist that they will change the system, get justice, and so on, the commentators have shied away from engaging with what may be the most important question — what will emerge out of this sudden collective catharsis?

One way of attempting to answer this question would be to compare the response, both from the public and the State, to this assault with some other cases that did manage an entry into the national consciousness. The first case that comes to mind is the infamous ‘Mathura rape case’ in which a 16-year-old tribal girl was raped by two policemen in the police station compound in Chandrapur district
of Maharashtra.

Masculinity is a policing system that ensures the clock work functioning of all hierarchies. It comes in khakhi, it comes in saffron or any other colour, but it comes with the threat of violence, always and without fail

The case came up for hearing on June 1, 1974, in the sessions court. The judge found the defendants not guilty because Mathura was “habituated to sexual intercourse”, her consent was voluntary; under the circumstances only sexual intercourse could be proved and not rape. On appeal, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court set aside the judgment of the sessions court, and sentenced the accused to one and five years imprisonment, respectively. The court held that submission due to fear generated by serious threats could not be interpreted as consent or voluntary sexual intercourse.

However, the Supreme Court of India again acquitted the accused policemen on the grounds that Mathura raised no alarm, there were no visible marks of injury on her and this suggested that there was no struggle and therefore it could not be concluded that she was raped.

The case proved to be significant on many counts. The struggle to get justice for Mathura provided an impetus to the emergence of a collective women’s movement. As significantly, the case nailed the obvious truth that the law doesn’t replace violence but that violence is at the heart of the legal. 

The Mathura rape case clearly demonstrated that the law and the legal are pitted against those who are socially and politically marginalised. In Mathura’s case, the fact that she was a tribal and a woman made it that much more difficult for her to extract justice from procedures that are geared to serve those more powerful.

The law and legal procedures assume that individual petitioners are autonomous and equal in all respects to their opponents but in reality their ability to negotiate the procedures of justice are determined by their social circumstances and factors like class, caste, gender, and so on. These factors have a direct influence on access to justice. The law and court procedures are based on an intricate and elaborate play of investigations, evidence, interpretations and arguments and the assumption that all those who stand before the courts are equal does not bear scrutiny in cases like that of Mathura. The case not only created a place for the use of a gender lens on law but also demonstrated how practices of justice had been thwarted by the operations of law.

Subsequent protests by the women’s movement led to several amendments to the law. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983, has made a statutory provision in the face of Section 114 (A) of the Evidence Act, which states that if the victim says that she did not consent to sexual intercourse, the court shall presume that she did not consent.

The second case that created a place in the public consciousness, especially in Delhi, was that of the two hardened criminals, Billa and Ranga, who kidnapped a young girl along with her brother and raped her before killing  the siblings. Billa and Ranga were caught and subsequently tried and the death penalty given to them was carried out in 1982.

The case evoked widespread protests by young people from universities. The demands raised were of safety for women and justice for the two young students killed. Eventually, the case got focused on the criminal psychological profiles of the two assaulters and the larger concerns around making Delhi safer for its women, and men; the issue of rape and violence got sidelined.

The fact is that masculinity is always in a crisis. Misogyny or hatred of women constitutes a critical building block of masculinities

Rape cases during episodes of communal violence have been reported and noted since the partition of India. However, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, masterminded and executed, with precision by the state government, threw up horrifying cases of not only mass sexual assaults on Muslim women but their systematic cover-up by the authorities. A detailed perusal of the gangrape case of Bilqees Bano, for example, makes for a hair-raising read of how investigations are deliberately botched up in communal violence-related crimes against women. Not only the rape itself, but its aftermath take the shape of political punishment meted out to women belonging to minority communities by the very arms of the State that are meant to ensure justice. 

The case saw a proactive role played by the National Human Rights Commission to ensure justice and intervention by the Supreme Court to transfer the case to another state on the grounds that a fair trial was not assured within Gujarat. The Bilqees Bano case went on to become the first communal violence-related rape case in independent India that resulted in convictions. A landmark case, it will continue to inform not only future cases of sexual assault during communal violence situations but is bound to influence any law to be framed to prevent communal violence and fix responsibilities.

Thangjam Manorama’s custodial gangrape and murder by the Assam Rifle jawans in Manipur on July 11, 2004, sparked a major protest that also saw a group of Manipuri mothers stripping in front of the Assam Rifle headquarters at Imphal and challenging the soldiers to rape them. The protests, besides demanding prosecution of the soldiers involved, also called for a withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

AFSPA remains in force till this day and the defence authorities have till date not agreed to a demand by the state government that the accused soldiers be handed over for prosecution. The case is lingering in the Supreme Court with the defence authorities arguing that AFSPA prevents their prosecution by state governments. So, it was rather ironical to hear of retired army chief VK Singh leading the protests along with Ramdev in Delhi and demanding the death penalty for the rapists.

The torture and presence of stones has been confirmed by a medical team in Kolkata. But the Supreme Court sleeps over the bail plea and Soni Sori remains in the custody of her torturers

The Kunan Pushpora mass rapes by soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles in Kashmir on February 23, 1991, and the strange case of the rape and murder of Nilofer and Asiya Jaan in Shopian, who, according to official reports, drowned in knee-deep water, yet again brings home the point often made that rape is an instrument of punishing, controlling and instilling fear among people and communities that are pitted against the State. In the former case, the charges were dismissed as baseless by the authorities in spite of the local district magistrate and a sitting judge of the Kashmir High Court having declared that the rapes did take place. Both the cases provoked largescale protests and public anger in Kashmir but nothing has been done until now to bring the culprits to book.

Before the latest brutality on a woman, or what will now be known as the Delhi gangrape case, another case that made the small columns of newspapers (never on major TV channels) and saw sporadic protests by human rights activists and conscientious citizens, was that of Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh. Arrested and charged with being a Maoist, she was tortured and stones inserted inside her anus and other private parts by the police. The torture and the presence of stones have been confirmed by a medical team constituted in Kolkata. Ironically, the Supreme Court is still sitting on the bail plea and Sori remains in the custody of her torturers.


All the cases recounted here point to the fact that rape has to be understood as war. It is a war declared on women to achieve a range of effects that include masculine supremacy, communal revenge, caste subjugation and securing of national cartographic imaginations. Rape is not just about sex, it is an assault with the intention of marking bodies with a set of messages that can speak not just through the personal trauma of what the woman will go through but also by what will be visible.

The inability of the phallus to live up to all its myth making capabilities requires the use of phallic replacements… The use of metal rods, guns shoved inside mouths, stones inserted into the anus, knives used to carve the skin 

Rape is the ‘memorialising’ of what can be achieved through the practice of masculinities. The inability of the phallus to live up to all its myth-making capabilities requires the use of phallic replacements, harder metallic instruments that are more capable of performing vicious feats that masculinities push men to achieve through their phallus. The use of metal rods, guns shoved inside mouths, stones inserted into the anus, knives used to carve the skin are all expressions that have erroneously been analysed as emanating from a crisis of masculinity.

The fact is that masculinity is always in a crisis, its manifestation may change historically, but its nature remains the same. Misogyny or hatred of women constitutes a critical building block of masculinities. Masculinity is a policing system that ensures the clockwork functioning of all hierarchies. It comes in khaki, it comes in saffron or any other colour, but it comes with the threat of violence, always and without fail.

It is utilised as much by patriarchy to punish errant women as by State authorities to subjugate protesting tribal populations in Chhattisgarh and Orissa. It is used to remind the rebellious people of Kashmir that they are a subjugated lot and it is used by men on Delhi streets to remind women that they are transgressing. And, tragically, even those who suffer under its influence fall prey to this policing by setting up their own version of it and thus casting themselves as the mirror image of those who oppress them.

The ongoing protests in Delhi and elsewhere have become an opportunity for a collective catharsis, a moment that is allowing for the quotidian violence that women face to get a voice, an ear. It is a cry for help, an angry assertion of the right to free movement, a life of dignity and freedom from fear of rape. But what will it change?

The fact that it is leaderless and hydra-like in its appearance had allowed for largescale participation by young people. The irony is that, if it had been organised and controlled by established political groups or even sections of the women’s movement, it would never have achieved the sheer numbers and passion on display. However, its unorganised nature may also be its stumbling block. With the media focusing on the radical demands of the death penalty for rapists and castration, all the less sensational but more pertinent and creative assertions and demands being discussed and shared on the stretch from Raisina Hill and Vijay Chowk to Jantar Mantar have faded into the background.

Political and social eruptions are moments of churning when the establishment suddenly reveals its nature; for protesters, the potential for political connections becomes that much more possible. However, we will have to wait and see if those connections were made by these protests.

Did the dots add up to join the 23-year-old student to Sori and Bilqees?

It is when these dots join that the real nuts and bolts of injustices that function systematically become apparent, just as it did in the Mathura rape case when it became clear to the women’s movement that law as well as the justice system were not factors that mitigate violence, but become sites for injustice, gender discrimination and violence. It is then that the dots reveal why the Hindutva brigade targetted Bilqees and scores of other Muslim women in Gujarat because their leaders believe that after a rape women are nothing but living corpses; this is a permanent reminder that ‘we’ subjugated and violated ‘your’ women.

Rape in conflict zones like Kashmir and Manipur carry the symbolic message of reminding local populations of who the rulers are and who the ruled. When Dalit women are routinely subjected to verbal abuse, sexual harassment and raped, it is a reminder of their social position and that they should not even dream of stepping out of local caste restrictions. When the 23-year-old student was gangraped in a moving bus in Delhi, it is a reminder to all women in Delhi that the city belongs to men.

Rape serves multiple functions within patriarchy: but they all have one common factor — men out to punish women. It is probably the oldest patriarchal sport.

 The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 masterminded and executed with precision by the state government threw up horrifying cases of not only mass sexual assaults on Muslim women but their systematic cover up by the authorities 

These moments also make apparent why masculinities have to be challenged because they nurture the practice of impunity. In the recent past, the impunity of the State and its functionaries in the context of conflict zones has come in for sustained attention and examination. However, what seems to have missed our attention is the fact that the training ground for impunity to be systematised and become part of practice comes from within the area of gender.

The early lessons of impunity are taught in most, if not all homes, to all the male members. The disenfranchisement of girls and women within the domestic sphere then spills into various other areas of our social life. Masculinities provide an ideological basis for impunity to be legitimised and practised. It makes it possible for men to think that they are the repositories of power. When that is the essence they carry, then crime comes naturally. And crime against women comes that much easier because, to be truly masculine, men have to carry both a fear and hatred of the feminine close to their heart. Fear, they say, eats the soul.

Women have been eternally pointing out the toxic effects of masculinity. It is about time men too realised what they are doing to themselves by being defenders of systems that are not really concerned with their well-being but instead use them as fodder to enforce discipline, punish errants, maintain status quo and act (in uniform or out of it) as front-line protectors of all forms of injustice. They get the right to subjugate and oppress women in the domestic sphere. However, it is difficult to maintain these borders between the public and the domestic and women outside too become targets of this assertion of masculinity.

The young men and women at India Gate, for a moment, have provided a glimmer of a different order of things just like a carnival does. They have affirmed that it is possible to be men and defend the rights of women to be safe and to stand shoulder to shoulder with women against an indifferent and insensitive administration. The protest has been significant because it has seen a large participation of young women, who, for the first time, have taken to the streets in such large numbers against rape and violence against women. Also, hundreds of young men have joined them in support and in empathy.

We can only hope that it has struck deep enough roots to make the public and domestic spheres of a country that throws up some of the worst gender indices globally, a more tolerable one. In the immediate context, we can pray that the protests grow in strength and also manage to isolate those, who, through their acts of violence, are pushing young women off the streets and back into the so-called ‘safe’ domestic sphere. Women’s groups and others have been quick to point out the problems of radical-sounding demands like the death penalty for rapists and mob justice; it is now for the protest to respond with a united front and a set of demands and assertions that will leave a much deeper impact, as was shown by
the women’s movement in the Mathura rape case.

Is it time for a permanent judicial rape commission that can keep an eye on all cases of rape across India? Isn’t it time the prevention of sexual assault became the focus through a public debate on the Criminal (Amendment) Law Bill pending before Parliament? Slogans, demonstrations and marches, coupled with concrete and real suggestions, could still make the current coming out of young people the most significant protests in independent India against gender-based violence. 

The writer is a Delhi-based filmmaker.

The protests in Delhi and elsewhere have become a collective catharsis, a cry for help, an angry assertion of the right to free movement, a life of dignity and freedom from fear of rape. But what will it change?
Rahul Roy Delhi 

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