On the evening of 16 December 2012, a young female student on a Delhi bus was gang-raped.
Less than a fortnight later she died of her injuries. After new reports came out, something extraordinary happened: a layer of young, urban, educated, middle class people protested, others joined, and the demonstrations sustained, evolved and escalated.
The early response of the Indian government was active disengagement, force — batons, tear gas, water cannons — and more conniving efforts to crush the protesters’ spirit (the woman was moved to Singapore, her funeral was hastily managed).
But, after the woman’s death, as the protesters persisted and international media picked up, the Janus-faced leaders attempted to co-opt the demonstrations and publicly promised change.
Why now? Why this case?
Some might speculate (with healthy cynicism) that the outrage happened because the victim was part of the “respectable middle class”; after all, no similar response was likely to have been triggered by the rape of a Dalit or tribal woman.
And yet this misses something rather crucial. Yes, perhaps in some minds there was a gulf between “Us” (the protesters at Raisina Hill) and “Them” (four of the six accused came from the Ravi Das slum area), thus mirroring India’s political and social consciousness, imbued with class and caste stratification. Nevertheless, the anger from this Delhi gang rape has also ruptured the standard hierarchy of judgement.
In other words, for a lot of people her background did not matter.
What’s more, the “participation in these protests has cut across class barriers, something seldom seen in the country’s public spaces”, Vaishna Roy comments, and:
“Reviled for its elitism, its disconnect from the grassroots and its insularity, the middle-class is finally being seen as willing to dirty its hands, to join the fray…”
The protests surrounding this tragic event have become a tipping point in India. The point of historic significance is that a space has been opened up by an unprecedented wave of public demonstration in which to name, challenge and debate rape and the wider societal issue of oppressive gender and sexual relations.
This space is fragile and momentary, but it contains vitally important steps forward. Neha Dixit observes:
“For the first time, we heard words like ‘patriarchy’ being discussed on the streets and in the mainstream media. In juxtaposition, the machismo of certain men was manifested in the forms of protests, where young boys displayed stunts on moving bikes with ‘hang the rapists, save our sisters’ placards… It is then, young girls displayed placards in opposition saying, ‘I don’t need to be someone’s daughter or sister to move freely on the street.’ This at least created a space to ask uncomfortable questions.”
Returning to the issue of why now, the political economy of India gives us one answer.
Political economy, patriarchal culture
“The men (and even some women in positions of power) who lead India are successfully able to de-link the celebratory stories of neoliberalism, militarisation, nationalism, growth and development from the toleration of sexual violence as a sport, a commodity, as collateral damage, or a necessary technique to suppress women’s autonomy … Alas, the brutality that Delhi witnessed is the effect of the toleration and celebration of rape cultures in India.”
There is some merit to the feminist academic Nancy Fraser’s understanding of capitalism as “specialized economic relations that are relatively decoupled from the relations of kinship and political authority”, such that the link between the accumulation of surplus value, on the one hand, and the mode of sexual regulation, on the other, becomes reduced in force.
She concludes that “contemporary capitalist society contains ‘gaps’: between the economic order and the kinship order; and between the family and personal life; and between the status order and the class hierarchy”.
It seems to me that, in one sense, the victim of the 16 December Delhi gang rape tragically represents the precarious attempt to simply exist within the gaps, or spaces, opened up by the development of capitalist social relations, which violently come up against pervasive patriarchal, misogynistic culture.
As Ratna Kapur argues, “with the opening up of the market, women are more visible in the workplace”:
“That they are entering male bastions of power has challenged the sense of superiority and entitlement of the traditional Indian male. This idea of a woman as a fully formed human subject remains a difficult concept to embrace … Son preference simultaneously erodes the possibility of respect for women, as girls are seen as unwanted or burdensome. Such inequalities produce the very hatred against women in the public arena that we are witnessing throughout the country.”
What makes the Indian political economy and its relationship to global capital particular in nature is its collision with religious traditions and kinship practices and caste and status stratification.
If we define globalisation as time-space compression, then 21st-century India takes this definition to a new level, since its space occupies several centuries at once.
Son preference, under-age marriage, arranged marriage, dowry demands, gender unequal malnutrition, female foeticide, female infanticide, sex-trafficking, violence against women, rape — all form part of a legitimated and normalised patriarchy. As such, much opposition to rape has tended not to come out of a primary concern for the victim but rather out of the deep-seated idea that a woman’s body is the repository of family honour.
Nilanjana Roy states, there is an epidemic of violence against women in India: “This culture where if we can’t kill off our girls before they are born, we ensure that they live these lives of constant fear.”
Owen Jones is a well-respected, high profile socialist political commentator. His audience is pretty sizeable so what he says matters.
On 30 December 2012 he published an article in The Independent titled “Sexual violence is not a cultural phenomenon in India — it is endemic everywhere”.
He later stated, on his Twitter site, that the title was not of his choosing. Fine. Let’s discuss the substance of his actual words:
“It’s always comforting to think — despite everything that the 20th century should have taught us — that those who commit vile acts are sub-human, are not like us, so we can create emotional distance from them.”
Owen is cautioning against an Orientalist-type racism in which “Us in the West” feel superior to “Them in the East”:
“It’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation. It is an assumption that is as wrong as it is dangerous.”
“Shocked by what happened in India? Take a look at France…” “Shocked? Again, let us Brits not get all high and mighty, either.”
Owen doesn’t want people in the West to be complacent, he wants men to show solidarity with women and to “challenge prejudice in our ranks.”
Fair enough, I agree.
However, what Owen downplays is the distinctiveness of Indian patriarchal culture — fused with and fuelled by growing religious fundamentalisms — and its intersection with capitalist social relations.
Patriarchy, misogyny, rape, violence against women, yes, all of this is universal, but we must also recognize that in countries across the world (north, south, east and west) the natures, degrees, differences and specificities are a big deal.
Hasan Suroor in The Hindu assesses the arguments made by Western-based academics against (what they deemed) culturally superior British media coverage on this case. Hasan concludes:
“Poor though Britain’s record on punishing sex offenders may be, the fact remains that the streets of major British cities are much safer for women than Indian metros. What happened in Delhi on the night of December 16 will not happen in London. And that’s a big deal. Ask any woman.”
On Owen’s geography, on his East-West dichotomy, I actually wonder about the Indian diaspora here. Does he?
I vividly remember the British Sikh protesters back in 2004 who succeeded in banning a play due to be shown at the Birmingham Rep written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. The play was called “Behzti”, or “Dishonour”, and it depicted a rape in a gurdwara.
On the Left, the cultural relativists supported the play’s cancellation “out of respect”. It seems to me, Owen’s response in his newspaper column was a knee-jerk inversion of cultural relativism drawn from the same source: postcolonial guilt.
It is worth remembering that India’s political religious leaders are united in a common prejudice against women, and, as M J Akbar astutely cautions:
“When they blame the West, they are not fearful of geography; they are terrified of modernity. Modernity is not singing English songs and wearing jeans. That is a cartoon view.
“Modernity is equality, political and social. India has taken only the first steps towards that horizon … Change is visible, but the long war has merely begun.”