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Political apparatus of rape in India

Last week the Guardian reported, “A state minister from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party has described rape as a ‘social crime’, saying ‘sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong’, in the latest controversial remarks by an Indian politician about rape.”  While horrified by these comments, I remembered that a book from OUP India’s office had recently landed on my desk and the author, Pratiksha Baxi, might be able to shed some light on the issue of rape in India for Westerners.  Below is a post Baxi sent in response to my query following the story mentioned above. –Christian Purdy, Director of Publicity

By Pratiksha Baxi


In the wake of the Delhi gang rape protests in 2013-2014, a section of the western media was critiqued for representing sexual violence as a form of cultural violence. For instance, a white woman reporter said to a friend, ‘we are filming Indian women of all kinds. You look modern. Please, can you say—I am India’s daughter’. Not fazed by the angry refusal, the reporter found some other ‘modern’ looking woman to mime this script for the camera. The Delhi protests became a resource for a certain kind of racialized sexual politics, which looped back to a nationalist rhetoric decrying the tarnishing of the image of the country abroad. Indian politicians responded by blaming the media, feminists, and the protests for sensationalising rape, and producing the crisis now posed to the image of a globalising economy.

The national and international political debates ignore Indian feminists and law academics—who innovated new juridical categories such as custodial rape and power rape—leading the path to conceptualise rape as a specific technique of state and social dominance.  They do not cite the learning of subaltern or Black feminists of the Global South. Nor are different jurisdictions compared to raise more serious questions about the cunning nature of law reform in neo-liberal contexts. Although there has been feminist research on rape, feminist interventions in international law and several global collaborations to combat violence against women, there seems to be an inability to carry the complexities of these debates in the national and international mainstream media.

Protests at Safdarjung Hospital. Photo by Ramesh Lalwani. CC BY-NC 2.0 via ramesh_lalwani Flickr.
Protests at Safdarjung Hospital. Photo by Ramesh Lalwani. CC BY-NC 2.0 via ramesh_lalwani Flickr.

In India, the political rhetoric on rape continues to deploy conventional scripts: boys will be boys; sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong; alcohol causes men to rape. There is a political refusal to recognise that rape is central to dominance, a routinized expression of sexualised power. Nor is it in political interest to displace the use of rape as a form of social control. Rather rape becomes a means of doing competitive party politics or as a technique of consolidating power.

Sexual assault is used as a means to control dissenting bodies. Rape is a technique of terror that is used with impunity to control social mobility, stifle dissent, reassert social control, gain political control, and target ‘hated’ communities. There is no serious attempt to challenge this kind of rape culture, which inhabits the cultures of policing. It is a political apparatus of sexual terror, not to be confused with theories of male sexuality or as evidence of cultural predispositions. Rather this rape culture rests on a political apparatus, which has several organised features.

First, it rests on a system of policing and law enforcement, which makes rape look like consensual sex, and consensual sex look like rape. For example, the use of the rape, kidnapping and abduction laws to criminalize love across caste or community is rampant, whilst rape as a form of caste dominance is scarcely taken seriously.

Second, the political apparatus of rape deploys violence to produce the public secrecy of rape: while everyone knows that women are raped, we are told no one must talk about it.

Third, this political apparatus rests on a scripted representational regime that attributes the blames of rape to women, alcohol, literacy, poverty, public access and so on—everything but the structures of dominance in a globalising economy. It institutionalises a politics of forgetting—from the traumatic histories of mass sexual violence to caste atrocities—we are told that there is no connection between everyday and mass scale sexual violence.

Fourth, it denies the link between the dispossession of the marginalised from property or land, and the growing rate of sexual violence. In the Baduan rape and lynching case, the children went out to the fields of the dominant caste to relieve themselves. The subsequent demand for bathrooms for dalit women is an expression of this dispossession, which makes them vulnerable to brutal sexual violence, murder and lynching.

Fifth, such a political apparatus acts as a thought police. It denies the right to sexual autonomy and choice. And it rewards those politicians who rape, riot, murder, censor or humiliate.

All this means that there is complicity between state and society in privileging rape as the expression of male power. The state conserves and even stokes the desire to rape as the foundational tool of male power. This is a political trait, not a cultural trait. There is an ever-expanding indifference to sexual violence survivors, which seems to be in inverse proportion to the anti-rape protests. For instance, even today a spare pair of clothes is not provided to rape survivors when their clothes are confiscated as evidence in police stations or hospitals.

Sexual violence can be prevented and redressed if this political apparatus is disbanded. To destroy this political apparatus, the doing of politics—local, national and international must change. Rather than engaging in an aggressive and masculine competition over crime statistics, politicians must engage seriously with the nature of institutional reform and response to sexual violence.

In the context of the international laws and policies on violence against women, the new government must allocate generous gender budgets to provide essential facilities to rape survivors and institute measures to prevent sexual violence. This must accompany zero tolerance for rape of women, men, sexual minorities and children. The recommendations to criminalise marital rape; repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and legislate against rape as a mass crime must be implemented. Section 377 IPC, a colonial law criminalizing homosexuality must be repealed. In other words, sexual autonomy and sexual dignity must be respected. This means that the conventional notions of sexual morality, which regulate women’s sexuality, pathologize queer sexuality and celebrate violent masculinity, must no longer lay the foundations of the Indian polity. National and international politics must recognise rape as political violence rather than cultural violence; substitute the language of ‘rescue’ with repatriation and learn from languages of social suffering rather than vocabularies of power.

Pratiksha Baxi is Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and author of Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India (OUP India, 2014)

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