By Ila Ananya
“It was a courageous step, no doubt about it,” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reportedly said, when he heard that a 23-year-old woman had almost castrated self-styled godman, Sreehari on Friday, May 19, before she ran out of her house and called the police to tell them what had happened.
By now, everyone knows this story of a young woman in Kerala who was sexually assaulted for eight years by Sreehari.
On Friday night, Sreehari had reportedly visited the woman’s house as he had done multiple times before, and the woman had, in self-defence, attempted to cut off his penis when he tried to rape her. He was then rushed to the Medical College hospital in Thiruvananthapuram in critical condition.
When Vijayan was asked what steps the government intended to take against the accused, he reportedly laughed, and said, “What more action do you need?” Vijayan is just one of the many people who have flippantly responded, conveniently forgetting the eight years of sexual abuse the woman had to go through and her subsequent complaint after the incident, in a single dismissive statement.
What we seem to know so far is that Sreehari had political ambitions, and that the survivor’s family knew him well — they were followers of the “swami”, and according to some reports, he would visit their house to pray for her ailing father. According to others, the woman has said that her mother had known of the sexual abuse, which happened since she was a minor in high school. Those who have looked into Sreehari’s background say he had connections at the Panmana Ashram (which in turn says they have nothing to do with him), and knew Kummanam Rajasekharan, the leader of the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Rajasekharan was the former president of the Hindu Aikya Vedi, a Sangh Parivar outfit where Sreehari had good contacts.
Since the incident, media houses (apart from appearing overjoyed that they can say that a woman had “chopped off a godman’s penis” in their headlines), have been more interested than usual in collating what everyone has had to say.
The responses fall into two categories — either lauding the woman for her bravery, or wondering why she didn’t complain to the police (unlike Shashi Tharoor’s Facebook post that was more cautious) — neither of which even briefly addresses the many barriers women face when they complain about sexual assault.
For instance, after Vijayan finished chuckling over the incident, politicians including J Mercykutty Amma, Minister of Fisheries in Kerala, had also called the woman “brave”. Congress leader Bindhu Krishna reportedly said the incident was a “big warning to all sexual predators”.
On the other hand, men like Rahul Easwar, a right-wing activist and member of the Kerala Sabarimala temple Thanthri family told The News Minute rather ignorantly, “Our girls should learn to react quickly and inform authorities at the earliest. From their young age, they should be taught to do so. If this girl had done that, this pervert would have been behind the bars long before”. Perhaps he didn’t realise that in the process of eloquently describing what women should ideally do when faced with sexual assault, he had also added that this woman wouldn’t have had to survive eight years of abuse if she just had the presence of mind to complain about it when she was in school. But what about the fact that her mother had known what was happening?
Another version of media response was also to play this up as revenge — Indian Express ran an article with the ridiculous headline, “Tired of rape, Kerala woman nearly cuts of swami’s penis”, as though rape is something you get used to and then get tired of, like when you get the same bad food at a hostel every day. Essentially, the case transformed into giggling about the castration and saying, “You go girl” to the woman for her courage and for being an “inspiration to all”, rather than addressing what the woman had gone through by looking closely at the system that very glaringly failed her.
Some, like Deccan Chronicle, felt the need to compare it to a Malayalam movie and say, “strangely, the girl’s act is eerily similar to a Malayalam movie sequence called 22 Female Kottayam where the heroine apparently castrates the hero for betraying her”.
Even if Easwar doesn’t know the first thing about what stops women from reporting abuse (immediately or after), or the exhausting and moralistic barriers that come up once they have complained, Vijayan doesn’t see the need to address this at all. In his mind, justice has been done.
Vijayan’s comment is simply a less blatant reminder of Raj Thackeray’s demand last year for a Sharia-like law to deal with rapists — he had wanted the hands and legs of those who molest women and children to be cut off. Or perhaps the more apt comparison would be when Ajit Pawar, as the former Maharashtra deputy chief minister, had said that the more permanent solution to stopping rape would be to simply cut off the genitals of rapists (as the Madras High Court had once said too).
It’s much easier for these men to hide behind macho statements that push women to terrible limits and put the onus on them, than to do some actual work — like making it easier for women to report rape and to ensure their safety when they do so, having faster and less traumatic trials, and a conviction rate that doesn’t reduce further and further every year.
When the news of this case first broke, the Kerala police, without any qualms, announced that the survivor had said she’d been sure that nobody would have believed her if she had accused the godman of raping her. He was, after all, well-known and highly-regarded; and we’ve seen how long cases of rape against men like Asaram Bapu have dragged on for. We also know of how a 25-year-old woman, who had been fighting a rape case against the godman Govindanand Teerath (he had never been arrested) was killed when she was arriving in court to give her statement against him. But her words are also a depressing example of what she has gone through, and both the kinds of responses have simply failed to grasp this as usual.