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India’s great sickness

An upsurge in sexual assault and harassment is being boosted by those who, instead of caring and protecting, often end up shaming the victim, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Dec 02, 2012 11:59 IST

It began with the media. Supposedly responsible national newspapers identified the nationality of a student — she is not Indian — of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), one of the nation’s most prestigious law schools, after she was abducted from a friend’s car and raped on the NLSIU’ wooded campus by a gang of hoodlums in Bangalore earlier this month.

The reactions from those vested with bringing her justice indicated why India is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.

The media were given supposedly confidential details by police investigators, who then proceeded to do everything that displayed their insensitivity, boorishness and hostility to women.

The official response at police press conferences was guarded and politically correct: We will wait for the medical report to confirm gang rape before commenting. But the leaks that followed almost immediately indicated that many investigators had made up their mind about one thing — the woman, somehow, was at fault.

“Once the mikes are switched off and pens sheathed, the officers and administrators launch into a barrage of innuendos (sic) and insinuations against the victim,” the local edition of The Times of India reported. Other media, without questioning the police, reported more allegations.

Here are some of the anonymous comments from the police:

The girl said she was gang-raped, but her clothes are not torn, and she has no injuries (this, as the Supreme Court has previously observed, is nonsense).

She had a previous relationship and was with another man (on whom the police proposed a virility test), when she was abducted and allegedly gang-raped.

How did she walk back after being raped by eight men?

She was short of attendance (the Times checked, she was not), so she staged “this drama”.

A senior Bangalore University official may have hired hoodlums to abduct the girl and divert attention from its scandals and infighting.

“It’s a new trend,” a jurisdictional officer told the Deccan Herald. “Varsity higher-ups (sic) are behind such incidents, to settle scores with their rivals.”

There is a great sickness in the heart of India, and there appears to be no cure in sight. The virus of — though it is a strong word — misogyny infects Indian men, manifesting itself in varying degrees, depending on whether they are street toughs or authorities responsible for protecting women. Single, confident, working women may appear to be special targets, but no one is safe from sexual harassment and rape, not a grandmother, not a toddler.

Over the past two years, men, and some women, in authority have been candid with their disregard for traumatised women. They blame rape on everything from “heaty” Chinese food (a khap, or clan, leader in Haryana) to the salwar kameez (the Andhra Pradesh police chief); from men and women meeting more freely (the West Bengal chief minister) to the contention that “prostitutes form a major chunk of women who visit bars and night clubs” (the former editor-in-chief of a Guwahati news channel).

There is something immutably tragic about such attitudes from those who are supposed to care and protect. When such sickness contaminates the top, those below take their cues more readily than ever, imbuing them with the confidence that there will be no retribution.

So it was last week when the 13-year-old rape victim and her two sisters in the Haryana town of Fatehabad were expelled from a government school for, well, being raped. This in a state beset by female foeticide, an epidemic of rapes — about two every day in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) — and twisted, patriarchal notions of honour vesting only with a woman, whatever the circumstance.

As Balwan Singh Nain, farmer and khap member, told the New York Times’ Neha Thirani: “Women maintain a family’s honour. Not men. If she cannot keep her honour, it is solely her fault.”

Consider the statistics that arise from such an outlook. In the five years to 2011, the most recent statistics available with the NCRB, crimes against women rose 23%. Kidnapping and abduction were up 74%; rape was up 17%; and cruelty by husband and relatives was up 31%. It is important to consider a statistic that demolishes the common she-asked-for-it argument, which accuses women of wearing provocative dresses or staying out late. In 94.2% of the rape cases in 2011 the rapists were known to the victims, says the NCRB (as I write this, an Indian army official in Ahmedabad is accused by his 20-year-old daughter of raping her and filming the act).

One indicator, however, was down: Sexual harassment reduced 21% between 2007 and 2011, but this statistic, as any woman will tell you, is because such crimes are now so common and retribution so hard that women, usually, do not complain. As ‘Hollaback! Chennai’, the local arm of a global movement against street harassment, noted last week on Twitter, the police, “often advice a girl not to ruin her marriage prospects”.

Sexual harassment, many women, note, is often regarded in India as harmless fun, an approach embodied in the florid, flirty term “eve-teasing”. If India cannot even recognise its sickness, a cure will be harder than we realise.

Post script: As this column went to press, the Bangalore police declared they had found the law student’s assailants, men of a nomadic tribe who were illegally cutting wood when they chanced upon the woman and her friend. Her descriptions, such as the fact they were carrying axes, fit the suspects, said the police commissioner. So why did the police question the rape itself, now confirmed, and the victim’s story and character? As always, they would rather ignore that question — and the sickness in India’s heart.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal