DELHI — The words “Uttar Pradesh,” the name of the largely impoverished and rural state in northeast India between New Delhi and Nepal, have come to be synonymous with rape. More than 3,000 cases were registered last year, according to official statistics. Nobody can say how many go unreported, and the horror stories just keep on coming. Worse still, in the aftermath of the shocking gang rape and murder of two teenage girls found hanging from a tree on May 27 in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, there has been an alarming spike in crimes against women there.
It’s not like the rest of the country feels much safer. On July 11, a village council in Jharkhand, Bihar, ordered the rape of a 14-year-old girl as punishment for a crime her brother committed. And this is not the first time that the kangaroo courts of rural India have made such appalling judgments. Recently another woman was shot dead for resisting rape in Meghalaya. Since the highly publicized gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in 2012, such reports have become ever more common.
But even as the women of this country have been reminded again and again of their helplessness, the intellectuals and political class have taken to debating the nuances of rape and toying with definitions of feminism. A striking variety of reactionary voices that exercise influence—from the police force to politicians, the judiciary to journalists—combine to paralyze the discourse on crimes against women as the culture of rape is tacitly emboldened from the top, sometimes with unabashed denial and other times with apathetic silence.
In June, Nihalchand Meghwal, a minister in the cabinet of newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was accused of rape. Modi’s administration has remained silent, taking no action against him, not even a suspension pending an investigation. Last month a member of parliament echoed the views of the Jharkhand village council when he talked about killing the men among his rivals and raping the women.
But it is indeed in Uttar Pradesh that we see the deepest sympathy for this deleterious machismo. Instead of checking the lawlessness, the state’s chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, has mostly whined about the press picking on him. When three repeat offenders found guilty in an infamous 2013 rape case in Mumbai were sentenced to death, the head of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh (and Akhilesh’s father) went out of his way to object, suggesting boys will be boys and “men make mistakes.”
Uglier still, a day after the Badaun incident was reported, Naresh Agarwal, another member of the Uttar Pradesh ruling party, compared the victims to animals and suggested the victims went willingly with their attackers. “Today, no one takes away even a domestic animal of another person forcefully,” he said.
Outside India, many people have seen Shekhar Kapur’s 1994 film “Bandit Queen,” set in Uttar Pradesh. “Animals, drums, illiterates and women are worthy of being beaten,” it begins, citing a line from the Manu Smriti, a sacred and authoritative Hindu text. But Kapur, who went on to direct “Elizabeth” with Cate Blanchett, is not a typical Bollywood director and “Bandit Queen” was not a typical Bollywood film. (For something more commonplace, check out a widely viewed YouTube compilation, “No Country For Women.”)
“Bandit Queen” was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, a female gangster in Uttar Pradesh infamous for a massacre at Behmai in 1981 in which she was alleged to have murdered 22 Thakur (upper caste) men to avenge her gang rape by members of that community. Through the fictionalized biopic, a revenge fantasy, Kapur conveyed the truth about the setting: the deeply embedded caste system, patriarchal traditions and decadent police forces that plague parts of Uttar Pradesh, creating a cesspool for rape culture to thrive.
As the rape epidemic continues to plague rural India, albeit with more coverage in the press, the urban intelligentsia have been hitting new lows in their attempts to parse the complexity of women’s issues.
Last month, a discussion about a high-profile harassment case went awry on NDTV, an Indian news channel, when Talvin Singh, a veteran journalist, asked her fellow panelists to consider classifying crimes against women. The context was a debate about the legitimacy of famous Bollywood actress Preity Zinta accusing her former boyfriend and current business partner. As Zinta’s case received a lot of media attention in the responsible press as well as the tabloids, Singh had lambasted Zinta on Twitter:
"Shame on Preity Zinnia for making a molestation out of a tiff between ex-lovers. When little girls are raped and hanged for nothing.”
“Clarification: in a country with vile, daily crimes against women it is wrong for privileged women to file trivial cases.”
Singh contrasted the case with the Badaun atrocity and argued that Zinta shouldn’t be wasting the country’s resources—“the tax payer’s money” and police time—over a fracas wherein Wadia allegedly manhandled, verbally abused, and threatened her. Singh went on to say that Indian women should beware of adopting a western code of feminism. When a movie star like Zinta reports a case like that, Singh said, “real rape cases get trivialized.”
The other panelist, author and columnist Shobhaa De, accused Singh of encouraging women to bite the bullet if the brutality meted out to them was not truly egregious.
One of the most difficult cases for the country’s elite involved the investigative magazine Tehelka. In 2012 it published a groundbreaking a piece of reportage, ”The Rapes Will Go On,” which exposed the disturbing views of the Delhi police on crimes against women, and emphasized the dire need for gender-sensitization in the force. The sting operation showed that senior cops were suspicious of most women who reported rapes, and were inclined to believe that it was a ploy on the woman’s part to malign the man’s reputation.
Then in November last year, the press gorged on the evident hypocrisy when Tehelka’s editor-in-chief and co-founder, Tarun Tejpal, was accused of sexually molesting a colleague. Once again, we heard special pleading among the elites: some suggested that the victim could have resolved the matter privately and it was enough that Tejpal came clean and took a hiatus of six months from the publication. Indeed, when the news had just broken, the famous poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar vaguely ennobled Tejpal’s admission of guilt, via Twitter:
"It is a shame that someone with such impeccable values has committed such an act but unlike some, he has the guts to accept and repent."
The kind of absurdity that is entertained in the conversation about women’s issues in India is scary. In effect, well-meaning intellectuals are asking us to shorten our spectrum of crimes against women so that we can focus on extreme cases of rape and murder in parts of society they like to think are far away from their own.
In a country where crimes against women sometimes seem like an unconquerable epidemic, it’s best to take context out of the equation, and stick to the precision of the legal framework. That’s already bad enough: according to the Indian judiciary, in the “context” of marriage, forced sexual intercourse is not a cognizable offense. Singh calling Zinta’s grievance a “tiff between ex-lovers” also gets a nod of approval by the legislative powers that be. According to the law, the rape of a separated wife carries lesser punishment (two to seven years imprisonment) than the rape of any other woman (seven years to life).
When a crime against a woman is reported—and this ought to be obvious—any degree of violation should be taken seriously.