While the 2012 Nirbhaya case led to country-wide protests and, eventually, a tougher law on rape, the Motihari rapes have, so far, led only to some localized protests
Because we love lazy shorthand epithets, we are calling it Bihar’s Nirbhaya incident. The reference point is the gang-rape, torture and eventual death of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in December 2012. Her parents have reiterated that they want her to be remembered by her real name, Jyoti Singh. We chose instead to crown her with martyrdom, calling her Nirbhaya, the fearless one.
Three-and-a-half years after that long, cold winter comes news that a 21-year-old woman has been gang-raped by five men in Bihar’s Motihari district. We are informed by news reports that the woman was “not only raped at gunpoint, but the accused inserted a pistol in her private parts". She was left naked and for dead by the roadside. We are told that she has been admitted in a hospital, where her condition is critical.
In a separate incident, also at Motihari, we learn that a 12-year-old child is also in hospital following a gang-rape on 15 June by two men, both of whom have been arrested. The girl underwent surgery a week later and is reported to be recovering.
Given the brutality of these crimes, the comparison with ‘Nirbhaya’ is perhaps understandable but misplaced for one obvious reason. While the 2012 crime led to country-wide citizen-led protests and, eventually, a new and tougher law on rape, the Motihari rapes have, so far, led only to some localized protests. There have been no candlelight vigils at India Gate for either of the two girls; no anguished marches; no crowds facing teargas and water cannons by the police.
Perhaps we have become immune to the depravity and brutalization of rape. Perhaps our sympathy reserves and outrage levels are simply depleted. But it was a very different reaction when, barely days earlier, actor Salman Khan made an idiotic comment comparing a gruelling shooting schedule with how a rape survivor feels. TV channels led the outrage brigade and the National Commission for Women has demanded an apology. It’s ironic then that with a few exceptions, the actual reported rapes coming out of Bihar seem to have missed the headlines.
Part of the silence is to do with how we as a society cherry-pick survivors ‘deserving’ of our sympathy. Without in any way undermining the enormity of the crime against her, Jyoti Singh was someone middle-class India could identify with: Young, hard-working, ambitious, the daughter of a luggage loader who wanted to be a physiotherapist. Aspirational India seized upon her as a symbol of its own unfulfilled dreams.
There are other factors. Location is important; a rape in Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru will get more headlines than one in Rohtak, Thane or Mysuru. Class and caste are other factors. The rape of Dalit women is routine in India and rarely merits attention, leave alone outrage. The rape of a child in a slum in Delhi almost never calls for national attention.
Inevitably and sadly, when a rape occurs, the attention is on the survivor, not the perpetrator. In no other heinous crime—murder, burglary, kidnapping—do we obsess as much as we do about victims of rape: what she was wearing, who she was with, did she provoke it, was she out late at night?
Victim-blaming is a worldwide phenomenon. In the US, judges acquit rapists or let them off with light sentences because their teenage victims “look older" than they are, have a sexual history or were drunk.
In India, people in positions of leadership, people who influence mainstream thought, people who ought to know better, show themselves up as appalling apologists for rape. This is why Salman Khan’s offhand comment deserves outrage. This is our anger with leaders who will excuse boys for being boys, and is not out of place. This is why politicians who blame “adventurous women" or women who step beyond the borders of “tradition" must be condemned because they prop up rape culture.
Rape is the extreme end of a long shadow of violence that women and girls are subject to, starting from birth and female foeticide. But violence is also inherent in the way we often bring up our daughters to be submissive and obedient, to spend, on average, three-quarters of an hour more than her brother on household work, to be less educated, less well fed, less likely to receive medical attention than him, to marry men we pick for them and live a life of sexual servitude because we are yet not prepared to criminalize marital rape.
We need to recognize this institutionalized violence against our daughters in order to bring to an end sexual assaults that only seem to grow more gory and brutal. We need to question tardy judicial processes that embolden rapists with impunity. We need to understand our own moral positions when we question the survivors of rape and sexual violence. To dismantle rape culture, we must first look within and expand our sympathy and outrage. There can be no room for fatigue or, worse, indifference.
Nearly 100 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi launched his satyagraha movement to alleviate the plight of indigo farmers from Champaran. We need a new satyagraha against the systemic violence against our daughters. Motihari in East Champaran is a good place to start.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare
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