The Water Cooler

The problem is apathy. Not activism.

News has four cycles.

There is, first, the child, flapping its arms and legs and yelping in excitement at having been presented with a brand new shiny object, wondering what to do with it: toss it in the air? Kick it? Try and stuff it, whole and entire, into the mouth? (Think of days one and two of the aftermath of the Delhi rape, when 'coverage' was a series of increasingly shrill freeform yelps without coherence or substance but with lots of lung powering it.)

Then the teen, as volubly excited but with a greater awareness of his peers. (That channel had the Home Minister on the griddle and called for the resignation of the police commissioner? We need to ask for someone's resignation too. Oh and that other media house? It gave the victim a symbolic name - that's so cool; we need to give her a name too!)

Then the adult, who has outgrown the follies of youth and, cleansed his palate of the metallic aftertaste of adrenalin, discovers maturity, and fairness, and balance. (We reported the police version and the protestors' version, didn't we? Huh? Didn't we? What do you mean, which is the truth?! Duh!)

And finally renunciation wherein, having sat under the tree of knowledge and been shat on by pigeons, he slips into a zen stage and waxes philosophical. Here is the perfect example: an opinion piece by Harish Khare that at least one prominent TV host endorsed as an argument meriting serious consideration. This is the bit that gave me pause (parts italicized for emphasis; parenthetical interjections are mine):

"In any fast changing society and economy, resentment and anger against an insensitive "system" is bound to find an expression; and, in our current discourse, empowered citizens are made to feel that they have a licence to defy, disobey and disrupt. A crowd is seen to be an ipso facto morally superior gathering in its collective democratic representativeness and hence is deemed to have sanction to resort to unorthodox methods of protest against presumably corrupt and crumbling power arrangements."


(Wait - these "unorthodox methods" - that would be gathering peacefully in a public space to give expression to the collective sense of helplessness, of anguish?)

"And, now, when the crowd gathers there are television cameras. Our liberal sensitivities are naturally offended as powerful moving images of police lathi-charge, teargas, and water cannons get beamed into our drawing rooms. No less stirring is the sight of ordinary citizens bravely standing up for this or that "cause," demanding "justice" and insisting on instant solutions. Every story becomes a battle between good and evil. Any attempt, say, to contextualise police action is instantly put down and derided as justification of khaki high-handedness."


(I could at this point link to dozens of videos of young girls and young men standing still, hands at their sides, while police beat them up with rubber truncheons and lathis; the video of a girl walking the other way when a policeman grabs her by arm and hair and throws her to the ground, and so on - but those images were already 'beamed into our living rooms' to tickle our 'liberal sensitivities', so I desist. However - is there a way to "contextualize" this incident?)

"We seem to have arrived at a new, deeply democratic moment in our republic. There is a heady feeling in the air that we can make our "rulers" squirm, smoke them out of their comfort zones, disrupt and dispute their monopoly of defining content and substance of national aspirations and dreams, and, indeed, force them to listen to "our demands" and make concessions on our terms."


(And all of this is bad, why? A "deeply democratic" moment is a bad thing how? And in what way is it preferable to let our "rulers" remain in their comfort zones? And why exactly should these rulers monopolize the "defining" of the "content and substance" of our national aspirations and dreams? And oh my goodness, what a verbal water-cannon this is to train on a group of sad, anguished, outraged young people who were only asking for the right to live and study and work and go watch a movie in their own land without the ever-present risk of being mauled, groped, stripped and raped many times over, without the risk of having iron rods stuck up their vaginas and their intestines drawn out!!)

Fair warning: what follows is apt to rub those liberal sensibilities a touch raw. That said, here is a snapshot of what else happened during the past 24 hours:

1. In the same newspaper and on the same day as the Harish Khare piece, a story was published about policemen who refused to register a case of rape for five whole days, and kept their superiors in the dark about it, despite the father of the victim repeatedly approaching them requesting that a case be filed. Related, we learn that of the thousands of rape cases registered but not followed up on, there are over 250 instances(and these are the instances we know about) where the police (in Patna) have not bothered to file charges.

2. In Ghaziabad, a jailed rapist on his release attempted to kill his victim. "Leave it, friends," the Senior Superintendent of Police is quoted as telling inquiring mediapersons. (This presumably is how officials "define the content of our national aspirations and dreams".)

3. In Kolkata, a 40-year-old differently-abled woman was sexually assaulted inside a stationary bus at a spot close to a police station. He was caught by locals and handed over to two policemen. He managed to 'give them the slip' (presumably the 'slip' refers to currency?) and fled.

4. Oh, and a two-year-old girl child died in a hospital in Panchmahal district of injuries sustained during rape. The rapist, presumably worried that the baby would fight him off, had tied her hands and legs down before raping her.

5. A district judge - a member of the 'establishment' that "defines the content" of our aspirations - has ruled that a wife has no right to refuse sex with her husband and if said husband forces himself on the wife sans consent, that is not rape.

That was a very short, but by no means exhaustive, tour of 24 hours in this 'heaven of freedom' that Tagore sang of - a heaven wherein the honorable Home Minister, mute in the immediate aftermath of horrific rape, appeared on television a week later to mourn how the unruly protestors had blackened the image of the country. Now to pull back for a wide-angle view:

Do you remember Aruna Shanbhag?

Do you remember Kiliroor? Mathura?

How about Jalgaon? Thangjam Manorama? Anjana Mishra? Shopian?

Do you remember Suryanelli? The story of a 16-year-old girl who was abducted from a bus, raped by the conductor, then handed over to a couple who, over the next 40 days, transported her like a traveling circus all over Kerala and pandered her to 42 different men, all of whom raped her?

The story has an instructive coda. A Special Court was set up three years after the incident (the first time in Kerala history that such a court was set up to fast track a case of rape; it happened because of massive public protests). In September 2000, the court handed down major prison terms to 35 of the accused. Dharmarajan, an advocate and main accused, was absconding at the time; he was subsequently arrested and, in 2002, sentenced to life in prison.

All good, right? Not. Two weeks after the Special Court verdict, the Kerala High Court gave bail to all 35 accused and let them out of jail. And in 2005, the aforesaid High Court acquitted all 35. More, it deemed that Dharmarajan, the man who had along with his lady friend taken this minor girl the length and breadth of the state and facilitated her serial rape, was guilty only of the crime of "sex trade" - and sentenced to just five years and a fine of Rs 50,000. There was, the honorable judges deemed, no evidence of any "conspiracy" to commit crimes against the girl - like, you know, Dharmarajan was just sort of accidentally escorting her around Kerala, and accidentally, some things happened, too bad, so sad. Oh, and the judges also had some acerbic comments to make about the "character" of the teenager and her "motive" in filing a complaint.

That young girl - in keeping with the Joneses of the media, I'll name her Mayoos, the hopeless one - who, last heard from, was employed in a menial job and attempting to get on with her life, daily lives with the trauma of the multiple rapes she endured for over a month and the knowledge that the authorities she turned to for succor deemed that all that happened to her was somehow her own fault.
In passing, keep this in mind when you hear ministers speak of establishing Special Courts to try the latest atrocity.

The point of all this?

The signal rapists have been consistently getting down the years is that there is no consequence to their actions. And these signals come from every tier of the establishment.

From the police who refuse to register cases (and are derelict in their crime prevention duties - remember that the bus the Delhi girl was raped in passed through five different check-posts manned by police while inside its darkened interior, her rapists were thrusting iron rods inside her and pulling out her intestines);

From our elected leaders, who when rape hits the headlines repeatedly suggest that the solution is for girls to not venture out after dark, to not wear "provocative clothes", to not frequent bars, to stay within the confines of their homes (Makes you wonder - the baby whose hands and feet were tied and who was raped so brutally she died - which bar was she coming out of, and what was she wearing?);

From the judges who let convicted rapists out on bail and who say a woman does not have the absolute right to say no to sex or that a raped teen was somehow asking for it and that her plea for justice was "motivated"…

It is pervasive, this message of entitlement; it inoculates the potential rapist against the fear of consequences; it empowers him.

Do you know what happened after Suryanelli? Pandalam happened. And following a precedent that was established in Suryanelli, the sentences were suspended.

Kothamangalam happened. And the case is still wending its way through the appeals process. (One of the main accused is the minor girl's father, by the way - so much for being safe at home.)

Thoppumpady happened. Calicut happened, where young girls who went to an ice cream parlor were drugged, raped, videotaped, blackmailed, and raped again and again. Two of the victims subsequently committed suicide; a politician allegedly involved first resigned from the then government, then was reinstated; the case continues to wend its way through the courts and the discussion, such as it is, is not about whether the crime was committed and what the punishment should be, but about whether one political party, in power at the time, was behaving in a 'vindictive' fashion towards its political opposition in ordering a probe.

Our problem is not that we protest, but that we don't protest enough.

Our problem is not activism, but apathy.

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