Disgrace: on ‘tribal courts’ and the Birbhum gang rape

Bengalis tend to look down upon much of northern India for being a tad barbaric. Ask a Bengali why Bengalis are better than other north Indians, and invariably they’ll talk about how women have been traditionally been given more respect, greater access to education etc in Bengal. So it’s a little damning that in present-day India, Bengal has the highest incidence of crimes against women (as per statistics, 13% of crimes against women in India are committed in Bengal. This article offers some explanations for these numbers).

IMG_2157[1]The reports of gruesome crimes against women come swiftly and regularly from Bengal, and this week we read about a gang rape in Kolkata and then a gang rape in Birbhum. There’s no picking one over the other for its horror value. While the crimes are technically the same, the reasons the rapists were able to carry out their horrific acts of violence are a little different in the two cases. In the Birbhum case, which becomes more soul-destroying with every additional detail that’s reported, the gang rape was a “punishment” meted out to the young woman by a “tribal court”, which is a variation of the infamous north Indian “khap”. I wrote this piece yesterday on this alternative power structure that thrives non-urban India and enjoys far more authority than the country’s legal code. There’s such terrible irony in the fact that these “courts” are technically illegal and yet exert an enormous amount of power and influence while government sanctioned agencies like the National Commission for Women are, despite governmental support, effectively toothless and irrelevant.

“These councils are not exclusive to north India. They exist all over the country. In Bengal, it’s a “tribal court”; in Tamil Nadu, it’s a “katta panchayat”; in Haryana, it’s the khap. They have retained their power over their communities partly because they offer settlements much quicker than the legal process can provide, but also because they have the tacit support of the political establishment. And so, honour killings are ordered and executed. Women are humiliated, abused and raped as punishment. Men are beaten up and butchered for shows of resistance. These kangaroo courts, confident of the grey area they occupy legally, get away with ordering and enacting criminal actions. The state and the police will, at best, try to help the victims, but the system of khaps and such councils remains untouched. They’re not just allowed to survive, but thrive even.

You can read the whole article here.

Incidentally, the name Birbhum probably comes from the term “land of the brave”.

On the Tehelka case: Stand by the victim

Photo: Mine.
Photo: Mine.

For the past week, the story of Tarun Tejpal being accused of sexual assault has been a raging topic of discussion. Tejpal is the editor in chief of Tehelka, a news magazine with a solid reputation for hard-hitting journalism. The accusation against him is that he sexually assaulted a journalist who works with Tehelka during an event called THINK, which is organised by a company owned by Tejpal, his sister Neena and Shoma Chaudhury, who is also the managing editor at Tehelka. As things stand now, a criminal case has been lodged suo moto against Tejpal. (Suo moto means that the legal process has been started without any case being filed by either the victim or anyone else involved in the case. The victim has, however, said that she will cooperate with the investigation.)

I wrote this piece on the limitations of the Vishaka guidelines before the criminal case started or before Chaudhury started tying herself up in knots of “different versions”.

It’s worth noting that although there is now a law that deems sexual harassment a criminal offense, it isn’t yet enforce-able (the rules under it haven’t yet been framed).

Usually, the cases of sexual assault and harassment that appear in the media and get discussed freely are those in which the perpetrator is a stranger. It strengthens the illusion that women need to be protected when they’re out in the big, bad world when the reality is that the overwhelming majority of sexual crimes against women are committed by people who know them and are familiars. They’re committed by relatives, family friends and other people that women and girls are conditioned to trust. People like Tejpal, as it turns out.

The Tehelka staffer’s decision to not suffer Tejpal’s unwanted attentions in silence has brought to light some very uncomfortable facts. One is the assumption that women will show solidarity with other women who have been victimised. However, empathy on the basis of one’s gender isn’t a given. In this particular case, it seems some of the journalist’s male peers have been more helpful than her female superiors. More problematically, the Vishakha judgement sounds good on paper, but in reality, it can be reduced to a toothless directive. As a result, regardless of how privileged a position you may be in, if you’re a victim of sexual harassment, your actual chances of getting a fair hearing and justice may be limited.

Read the entire piece here.

There’s a lot that’s very disturbing about this case, and one of them has been the response of those who have with a staggering sense of irresponsibility disclosed personal details of the victim and her experience on social and news media. Madhu Kishwar went so far as to actually tweet the victim’s name (though she did delete the tweet soon after). There’s been a strange sense of self-importance with which many have tried to defend their decision to put the emails from the victim to Chaudhury out in the public domain. I don’t think that I could put my point of view any better than Supriya Sharma has in this post.

If you’re interested in the topic of reporting responsibly, take a look at this Tumblr and this conversation on Genderlog.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the mood for some black humour, I’m compiling a Dictionary of Misunderstood Words via Twitter and Storify. Tweet or leave a suggested entry in the comments to this post, and I’ll add it if it makes sense.

Links: Fictional Elysium and real Mumbai

Photo: Mine, with a little help from a Flickr filter.
Photo: Mine, with a little help from a Flickr filter.

Long time, no update. So here we go. These pieces are from last month.

Travelling in Mumbai, the one thing you keep seeing are hoardings and a lot of them are for fancy real estate. All these hoardings sell us one basic idea: we’ll give you an artificial world that will keep out the real one. Then I saw the trailer of Elysium. Et voila:

“People have asked me if I think this is what will happen in 140 years, but this isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now,” said Blomkamp in an interview to the British newspaper The Telegraph. He got the idea while on holiday at Tijuana in Mexico, where Blomkamp and a friend were arrested by the Mexican police (for drinking beer on a stretch where it’s not allowed). …
In India, if you’re rich, you create a personal Elysium and distance yourself as far as possible from the unwashed masses that make up the rest of the country. As more and more cities and small towns look to create these artificial realities, there are now different worlds that Indians inhabit depending upon their buying power. Look at the advertisements for new real estate projects, and all of them promise the buyer a contained world of artificial luxury, modelled upon a foreign ideal.  … The foreignness of the design, instead of being a problem, is what makes these homes and offices desirable. They emphasise a sense of distance between those within from those without. Walk in through the secure doors and step into the lift, and the building is intended to be a cocoon that drowns out the sounds from outside. Inside, there is the space that you don’t see outside. Here, there’s someone keeping everything clean and shiny, in contrast to the dusty jaggedness outside. From the colour palette to the very air you breathe, everything is not just different inside modern office and residential complexes; more often than not, they’re markedly alien to an Indian aesthetic, traditional, vintage or contemporary. In the 2000s, we’re doing precisely what Blomkamp has imagined for the 22nd century in Elysium. The technology to set up a space station that would be as physically comfortable as life on earth is presently beyond us, so we’re working as hard as we can to establish that kind of metaphorical distance between the wretched and the successful. Our skyscrapers are much further away from ground reality than the number of floors that they comprise. Blomkamp’s Elysium isn’t really in the future. It’s all around us right now.

You can read the entire piece here.

Last month, a young photojournalist was gang-raped in Mumbai. Like pretty much everyone who works in Indian media, I heard about the incident that night itself, a few hours after it happened. Exit sleep, enter insomnia, rage and despair:

The dictionary defines ‘victim’ as a person who has been “harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” The journalist who was gang raped yesterday has been seriously injured, but she’s no victim. She’s given the police enough details for them to be able to round up suspects. She has valour and strength and all our prayers for a complete recovery of body and spirit. She is a survivor, I am a victim. As are thousands of women who aren’t safe in a country that demands of them patriotism, sacrifices and taxes.

It might have been better if we were numbed by the constant reports of violence committed against women, but I’m not immune to the toxicity of rape yet. So I have one question: where is a woman safe in India?

Statistics tell us the largest percentage of sexual predators in India lurk within family and close friends, so homes are dangerous spaces. The streets are unsafe even when it’s light and you have company. Public transport is the least secure because curtained by crowds, sexual harassment is painfully easy. Private transport is so fraught with danger that certain car models are popularly known as ‘rape-mobiles’. So where would you have us women go?

No, I wasn’t really raped yesterday. It was someone else, but I’m making this about me not just because I’m sickened by voyeurism masquerading as debate, but also because these crimes inflict physical suffering upon one woman but are committed against all women in this city and country. It is personal. It could have been any one of us. It happened to her, yes, but a tiny fraction of her experience was felt by all of us working women in India. What would you have us do to be and feel safe?

You can read the whole thing here.

In ELLE: On womanly anxieties

This was published in this month’s ELLE magazine. I’m not really sure how to describe “this”. An opinion piece, perhaps. ELLE asked me to write something on women in the context of the increased awareness of the kind of violence that is regularly inflicted upon women. I wasn’t sure about writing this. I remember thinking, when I started writing, if there was any point to writing this … stuff. There was so much being said and so little being heard. So few of us had real insight. Most of us were masquerading our despair as insight. But after dithering for a bit, I decided to sit down and write it anyway. Why? Because there’s been so much silence on all the unpleasant things that hover around women for so many years, perhaps a little noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Someone asked me the other day, in an attempt to crack a joke, “Is everything with your byline going to smack of feminism?”
I, however, was not in a particularly funny mood that day. So I replied with a earnest and growly, “I certainly hope so.”
“But why do you want to narrow-focus so much? Why can’t you go beyond women?”
“Do you go around asking male writers and journalists why they write about men?”
“Are you PMS-ing?”
“If I am, do you think it would really help to calm me down by asking that particular question?”

Marinated in exchanges like the one above, here’s the piece that I wrote for ELLE.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 9.52.05 AM

Ours is a sense of social order pivoted upon women’s fear. Is it possible to not be afraid of the looming threat of violence and intimidation that almost all of us face on a daily basis? Probably not. But it is possible to not let that fear paralyse us. Our outrage at incidents of violence against women should strengthen us, rather than make us weaker and more paranoid about our surroundings. Strip rape of its terrible psychological pincers and reduce it to a series of physical, bodily injuries – it will hurt, perhaps horribly, but the body can heal. Treat the violence and harassment as something that makes you more determined to claim your space, instead of shrouding you in shame and insecurity. We are not victims. We’re women, and we’ve held on to our pride despite centuries of misogyny and violence.