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Opinion - News Analysis

Where women bore the brunt

By Raka Roy

Among the women surviving in relief camps are many who have suffered the most bestial forms of sexual violence — including rape, gang rape, mass rape, stripping, insertion of objects into their body, and molestations. A majority of rape victims have been burnt alive. — Citizens' Initiative, ``The Survivors Speak,'' April 16, 2002.

General Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. troops in the war against Vietnam, once infamously claimed that the enormous loss of life suffered by the Vietnamese was not really comparable to the deaths of Americans because ``Orientals attach less value to life than Westerners''. A seven-year-old boy said to a friend of mine the other day ``There are so many Muslims in India, so what if some of them die.'' How did he learn the lesson so quickly? At how young an age do we realise that some people are more human than others that they deserve to die less frequently, to be mourned and glorified in their deaths, while others don't? When do we learn that We belong to those who deserve to live and They don't?

It is not easy to rape a woman, to burn her, or to cut her foetus out of her body. It requires some effort. But in February this year, this effort was successfully and collectively achieved in Ahmedabad, as we learn from the report of the Citizen's Initiative fact-finding team of women. The report makes it clear that young Muslim girls, pregnant women, women with new-born babies were chased, caught, raped, cut, pierced, stabbed, and burnt. How did this come to pass? How did groups of men come to believe that such deeds could and should be done? Let us examine the steps.

First, you must have a people that are considered inferior by another people. It is achieved by years of hard ideological work, to turn the population into the deadly Other. This Other has no feelings, cannot be trusted, is dirty, deserves to be punished, and is not as human as We are.

Where does the creation of the inferior other in India begin? Does it begin with the organising principle of Hindu society caste? So successful has this principle of inherent and dehumanising inequality been that it appears to be rooted in our collective memory. Or does it begin with the servant in the middle class home who exists to meet the needs of a middle class child. It comes easily to us to slap someone we disagree with, to abuse those who are younger or lower on the totem pole than us, to consider outrageous any claim of a subordinate to humanity.

But the creation of populations of the ``other'' is only the beginning. The second step is the belief that women are not only inferior but also woman's sexuality has to be patrolled so that it is legitimately accessible to some men and inaccessible to others. Witness the spate of murders of women who dare marry outside their community. Young girls and boys learn early that a woman's body is to be monitored, controlled by, and accessible to a chosen few. A girl, in particular, learns quickly that her parents' honour and happiness is contingent on her conformity to appropriate dress and behavioural codes. But sometimes she realises too late that her body may be torn apart and destroyed because she has dared to love another human being without permission. A woman's body ultimately belongs to her community not to herself.

After we have learnt how to consider those who are not Us different and inferior, and we have learnt about the need to control and punish women, we must then take the third step and identify the target population and it's women. Well that is easily done in this case. As Urvashi Butalia,

Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin have shown, the Us and Them feelings of communities during Partition created protected and protectable women on one side and unprotected and rapable women on the other side. The populations were identified at Partition and then stored in the collective memory to be whipped into frenzy when necessary. The violence was kept alive by stories, jokes, implicit rules, and writings that swirled underground in the darkness of both Hindu and Muslim subconscious, until they dared to emerge in the public eye. Now, as the Sangh Parivar reigns, these feelings and hatreds are acceptable public discourse, particularly for the majority Hindu community. So Varsha Bhosle writes mockingly of ``Mosies'' in her unspeakable column in Rediff, and becomes a folk hero. To the West's focus on the figure of the dangerous Arab, we in India, delightedly throw in our prejudices. Muslims have always been different, their women are both deeply oppressed and licentious, and the men sexually depraved and cruel. Didn't you know?

For communal rapes on a mass scale we need still other conditions, the most important of which is a complicit state. This means we must have police who laugh or join in, leaders who blatantly discriminate and lie, and courts, which do not prosecute. The first and second conditions have been successfully achieved. The police at worst abetted the violence, or refused to lodge FIRs, and at best did nothing. Every government official who stood up against the violence has been harassed or transferred. The BJP MLA of one of the worst-hit areas of Ahmedabad explained away the violence by referring to the ``natural'' hatred (ghrina) of Hindus for Muslims, the Chief Minister of Gujarat similarly referred to the ``natural and justified anger'' of the people of his State, while the Prime Minister focussed his criticisms on the ``trouble-making Muslims''. The extent of the courts' complicity is still to be seen.

The final ingredient of this ghoulish recipe is essential — a nation full of people to either secretly gloat that these ghastly acts occurred, or even worse, to pretend it didn't happen. Equally complicit are those who shudder delicately that these things could happen in ``our country'', and assign blame to a group of people, that scapegoat of the upper classes, the ``anti-social element''. Not Us.

When all of these are in place, why then, we will have created not one rapist but a nation full of them.

(The writer is Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley.)

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