[Published in the Counter Currents]
There was something very unnerving about that photograph. The feeling came from its location. It could have been anywhere else in the newspaper, from that envied Page 3 to anywhere else, but not on ‘Remembrance/Obituary’ page where it actually was. It did not belong there. Knowing that the pretty girl with those sparkling eyes was dead sent shivers down my spine. Suddenly, the newspaper turned into something like a grave, with the girl buried within its pages.
There was something more unsettling about that picture. The face looked very familiar. So familiar it was that one could do nothing else but to look for a name to the face, one from one’s own social universe. Maybe this was what stopped the fingers from flipping over the page one rarely reads. Eyes followed the picture and settled down on the text accompanying the photograph and everything became clear in a flash. The picture was of Soumya Vishwanathan, a young journalist whose life was sacrificed at the altar of famed law and order machinery of the city that claims to be the national capital of the biggest democracy of the world. Add to this the recent aspirations of the city of turning itself into a world-class city.
I have no idea how this megapolis negotiates the dubious distinctions of being both the rape capital and the national capital of India. I am certain, though, that this fact does not trouble its current Chief Minister much. One remembers with indignation the concerns raised by Sheila Dikshit after Soumya’s murder. She was far more bothered with the audacity and ‘adventurousness’ of the woman for being alone that late in the night (what if she was returning from her office that too in her own car) than the deteriorating law and order situation in her state. She had the guts to offer an unwelcome suggestion to the women telling them not to be that ‘adventurous’.
It brought back reminiscences of all the middle class anger that was born out of that gruesome crime. There was hatred simmering within people’s hearts for both the murderers and the failures of those who are collectively referred to and feared of as administrators. The anger was bound to be there. After all, Soumya was not a tribal girl from some dark and distant corner of the country appendaged to the margins of our ‘democracy’. She, instead, was one of us, a middle class girl full of potential. And if she could be fated to such a brutal death, none of us was safe.
None of us is safe. This realization is bound to send a second bout of shiver down our spines. The shiver that got translated into all those heated debates on prime time television. All those familiar faces, perennially angry with something or the other, were now angry at the threat to our lives and were holding, rightfully, the government responsible for the murder. They were lending their voice in support of all those candle lights vigils to be held at India Gate, inspired by the Rang De Basanti brand of activism. Faced with this middle class anger, the government was bound to respond and so it did. It assured the people, as it always does, that stern action would be taken and the perpetrators would be brought to book.
And then, both the anger and the promise fizzled out.
This is what middle class anger is destined to. It boils up and then fizzles down in no time. It has a life of its own, a life that makes it search for the reasons to let it manifest itself. It ensures, though, that the reasons remain confined to individual cases, or the faces of victims. It has some strange aversion to dig deep and find the sources of the anger leading to a sustained movement for redressing the issue. The aversion emanates out of its discomfort with politics, something that the middle class finds a place too dirty to engage with. How come, then, it look for a sustained movement that would be political by default, even if it’s the politics that defines our present and shapes the future. This is why it finds a Soumya, an Arushi or a Jessica to express our anger against the injustices intrinsic to the system but never addresses the root cause. All such anger can do is catharsis, isn’t it?
This brings us to a dead end, a dead end that offers no way out without confronting the issue central to this whole thing. This dead end is what produces and sustains the vicious cycle of gendered violence. The dead end is defined by a central question, that why do we get angry when, and only when, it’s the women of our own class that get victimized by those who are either not from our class, or are unidentified? Why do we maintain a stoic silence on atrocities committed on women from the ‘lower’ classes? Why do we don’t have prime time anger directed at those who violate, say a Bhanwari Devi, a Soni Suri or scores of countless women from the underprivileged groups? Why no candles are lit, no vigils held for any Mathuras, Imranas or Gudias?
Forget being sad or angry for what happened with them, I am sure most of the English speaking urbane middle classes would not even know these names. Despite the fact that this is indifference to the plight of these women and the absence of volcanic eruptions of ‘our’ anger against such injustices against the ordinary women is what produces the perennial fear the middle class or even elite women are destined to live with.
The reason behind this is simple, that all these cases of violence against women emanate out of the same fountainhead, the one called patriarchy. It is patriarchy that is the premodern foundation serving as the base for our modern and democratic system. This is the system that not merely justifies these assaults but also blames the women, or the victims, for them. This is the system that demolishes all class divisions that segregate women and reduces them to their universal identity of sexuality. This is the system that converts a heinous crime of rape into ‘a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’ as Susan Brownmiller points out.
This may sound a bit farfetched, yet the sentence hints at a disturbing fact. All of us, especially men, may not be actively engaged in gendered violence yet our silences on any such incident make us not only complicit in the same but also accomplices of the criminals. More so when the data from the National Crimes Records Bureau records 489 cases of rape, 550 of Sexual harassment and 1379 of kidnapping of women in a single year. That single year was not one in some dark and distant past but 2010 is beside the point. The writing on the wall is clear. The capital of the biggest democracy of the world witnesses a rape every 18 hours, and an incident of sexual harassment takes place here every 14 hours. Unfortunately, the data hints at the mere tip of the iceberg. Just think, faced with social stigma and the fears attached how many victims of such assaults would muster courage enough to get these cases reported?
We, on our part, have the moral courage of feeling angry and violated for just three or four cases in a year or more. That too, when we find one of our Priyadarshinis, Jessicas, Soumyas, or Arushis figuring as victims in the yellowing pages of the files kept in police stations. We keep mum rest of the times. We do not feel violated when we see women getting molested in all modes of public transport. We don’t feel angry when we see the ladies compartment of metro taken over by the rowdy males, security personnel included. We treat the cases of domestic violence as ‘family issues’, not worth any action therefore. We may treat all these instances as nonissues, but the fact is that the seeds of ‘bigger’ crimes against women are sowed in these cases only.
When we remain silent while seeing a ‘house help’ getting harassed we ensure that no Soumyas will ever get justice. When we flip the over the pages of a newspaper without even bothering as much as reading about what was done to a Soni Suri, we ensure that all our Arushis would turn into dry statistics confined in the files that would never ever be opened again. When we do not feel enraged about one Meena Khalakho getting brutally killed in a staged encounter somewhere in the forests of Dantewada, despite protests and walkouts by the same Congress that is the ruling party at the centre in Chhatisgarh assembly without any results; we lend ourselves and our lives for the similar brutalities. Let me reassert, till we ensure justice for all our house-helps, we aren’t going to get any for any women.
P.S.- I have not given details on any of the names, or victims, on purpose. If we really feel anything about them we may do at least as much as googling their names, can’t we?