Speaking at Central Hall, Westminster in London on 18 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was much more voluble on the subject of rape than he has been in recent times on Indian soil, despite calls over the last two weeks demanding a meaningful statement from him on the political reactions to the Kathua and Unnao rapes.
Whilst speaking at an “unscripted” public meeting called Bharat ki Baat, Sabke Saath (if we roll our eyes any harder they may fall out and re-surface halfway across the world) Modi revealed the secret of his “fitness” — consuming two kilogrammes of criticism daily (har har har ya Modi). Among other random things (like parents should ask their sons where they are going when they go out, presumably to stop them when they announce their intention to rape?), he also made a very telling statement that had everything to do with the times.
He said that “rape is rape, be it now or earlier”, and that rape shouldn’t be politicised.
Unlike the December 2012 Delhi gangrape, the reason these two cases blew up in the media just now was not their horror, the unfairness, the minority status of the victims, or anything else. The Kathua gangrape and murder took place three months ago in January 2018 while the Unnao case took place way back in June 2017. It didn’t take us all these months for the horror to sink in or anything: the massive public outpouring of disbelief and rage right now is a reaction to the uniquely political reactions these rapes spawned.
India’s “rape problem” is often a lot like the USA’s “gun problem”. After every school or mass shooting in the US, politicians there act as if an inexplicable force of nature has swept through the area, a tsunami that can merit no tangible response or solution other than morosely chanting thoughts and prayers. When politicians say, “Don’t politicise the incident,” they’re neatly washing their hands of any responsibility for perpetuating the laws, the patterns, and the systems that allow for gun violence to happen, and of the expectation that politicians will do something meaningful about it.
This is pretty similar to how politicians usually deal with rape in India: like a tsunami that no one can reasonably account for, rape cases have swept through the nation. But you see, in the cases of Kathua and Unnao, we suddenly had BJP politicians praising, congratulating and supporting the tsunami, harbouring it among their ranks and doing gymnastics to save it from evaporation or arrest. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh clearly did everything in his power to stop or delay the arrest of MLA Kuldeep Sengar, even conferring with him privately in his office the day the victim’s father was murdered in police custody.
Several sitting BJP ministers publicly spoke out in favour of Sengar, while the prime minister maintained an admirable silence on the issue until after the accused had finally been arrested with great difficulty (making Modi’s late-Lateef statement that the culprits would be punished totally redundant, non-controversial and fairly obvious).
Kathua famously saw month-long protests invoking nationalism and the national flag, held in support of the alleged rapists with two sitting BJP ministers in attendance. After they were asked to step down from their posts, they told reporters that they had been told to attend the protest by party higher-ups. One of the police officers investigating the case also told reporters that the supporters of the rapists appealed to her caste and religious identity, and those of the victim and accused, to convince her not to pursue the case adequately.
So, the reason the public is performing the taandav on these rapes is not because of how deeply we registered the horror, but actually because no one could believe that a political party, particularly the Hindu nationalist one in power at the Centre, was doing so much to appreciate, protect and harbour rapists based on their religion and political affiliation. This was not a case that was politicised by the public. It was the various politicians and their supporters who politicised the case in the first place.
That being said, what does it mean not to politicise rape? Can rape ever be apolitical, and what are we trying to achieve by saying that it isn’t and shouldn’t be?
It’s not just about the 1960s second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political (a phrase about which Gloria Steinem once said that any one person claiming authorship to would be like someone claiming responsibility for World War II).
Rape is inherently political because, as feminists riding across the waves starting with Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 work Against Our Will, have been saying over and over, rape is not about sex, but about power. It’s inequalities between the sexes, between religions, castes, classes and within families and social structures that create the situations in which rape can occur. And one academic (and when you think about it, really utterly logical) understanding of politics is that it is simply the exercise of power.
It’s various manifestations of power that allow for rapists to get away with what they do, or, that make the path of different rapists different from each other. Jyoti Singh’s rapists, for example, were swiftly hanged thanks to a decision by a speedily formed special court; the chief minister of Kerala actually once made a thinly-veiled statement in support of Malayalam actor Dileep when his name started to (correctly) crop up in reports around the abduction and sexual assault of a Malayalam actor in February 2017; and the rape and abduction case against Swami Chinmayanand has been withdrawn by Yogi Adityanath’s government in Uttar Pradesh. Clearly aware of where the tides could change from, the victim in the last case has written to the President to raise objections against this move by Adityanath. Rape and the treatment of rapists are often clearly both about power and politics.
Power, or the sorting of society on the basis of who has it, is also why some rape victims are treated entirely differently from others. Many people say that the December 2012 Delhi rape case struck a chord with a country because the victim was a young Hindu woman. The reaction (or lack thereof) to the rape and murder of the Dalit student Delta from Rajasthan, in comparison, does give you reasons to think this may be true. It speaks volumes that the Kathua rape and murder case victim, an eight-year-old Muslim girl who hadn’t yet lost her milk teeth and didn’t know the difference between right and left, wasn’t the “perfect” rape victim in the public imagination. If the rape of an eight-year-old girl (who was chosen as a victim by Hindu men in order to drive the rest of her Muslim nomadic tribe out of the area) can prove contentious to many, and it did prove so only because of her religion and that of her rapists, you can be sure that rape and the reactions it breeds are about power and power differentials too.
The Kathua rape and murder case, of course, isn’t the only time rape has been used overtly as a coercive or political tool. Far from it: people from any war zone across the world, and within our own country, like the states in which the notorious AFSPA is in place, will tell you that rape has always been a political tool, wielded with impunity by those in power to lay claim over the bodies of the women they’ve conquered.
It’s one of the terrifying aspects of Islamic State’s actions in West Asia and its beliefs about Yazidi women, and also the whole premise of the randomly controversial movie Padmaavat. The name for the act in its specificity is “wartime sexual violence”. It’s expected (and proven) that rape shoots up in militarised zones where power is perhaps the most unequal and skewed, and, is the reason why we read about UN Peacekeepers committing mass rapes in the conflict zones they’re deployed in.
So, when we are asking for rapes not to be politicised? What are we getting at, what are we trying to achieve with this noble-sounding objective? Power and politics (is there even a real difference between the two?) are inherent to a comprehensive understanding of rape, from what allows it, to the way the victim and perpetrator are treated afterwards. While the reactions to the Kathua and Unnao rape cases have been quite uniquely political, thanks to the actions of several members of BJP and right-wing groups linked to it, perhaps, we’re missing the bigger picture here when we think rapes shouldn’t be politicised. Rapes are already political, and it’s up to us to engage with it in terms that will actually address this at the root.
Co-published with Firstpost.