In India we don't know to talk about rape

Political noise drowns out conversations on rape

Grotesque details are emerging about the gangrape of a Spanish vlogger in Dumka, Jharkhand. We know, based on a first information report filed by the woman and her husband (both bikers), that she was threatened with a dagger, kicked, punched and raped repeatedly by a group of seven men for over two-and-a-half hours. Her husband was assaulted and tied up according to the FIR.

While all incidents of sexual violence are horrific—and while women battling for space inside and outside of the home is a universal fight—the responses to this gut-wrenching incident have been disappointing and tone deaf from the get-go. Within hours of the couple releasing a video detailing what had happened to them, the issue erupted into a political war.

The chief of the National Commission for Women—while promising justice for the Dumka rape survivor—got into vociferous arguments on social media over what she called an attempt to tarnish the image of India. Others brought up the grave complaints of sexual abuse in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal, to underline a doublespeak in public debate.

Imaging: Deni Lal/Ai Imaging: Deni Lal/Ai

Once again, women’s bodies were reduced to a battlefield for competitive politics. Yes, the initial attempt to protect Sheikh Shahjahan, the TMC strongman at the epicentre of the Sandeshkhali storm, should be criticised. As should be what unfolded in Jharkhand. Most Indian women—and men—look at the horror of abuse and violation in a clear-eyed way without the foggy lens of party politics. Unfortunately, the public discourse is captured by politicians who shout and scream at each other, dicing and slicing crime data to wag fingers at each other.

There has not been one case of sexual violence or rape in my memory that has been discussed without it being reduced to the lowest common denominator of leftwing vs rightwing or Congress vs BJP or some other framework of competition.

From Nirbhaya to Bilkis Bano, Dumka to Sandeshkhali, our politicians have pitted women against women. And we have watched this, participating in this trench warfare if we are politically aligned, cynically silent if we are not.

We, the women, have failed to unify on the same side—our own.

While we wait for the day when sexual violence can be discussed beyond politics, the final moment of tone deafness was the ‘compensation’ of Rs10 lakh given to the victim-couple by officials, down to a photograph to record the moment. The idea that sexual abuse can be monetarily ‘compensated’ is a revolting one. Making a photo-op of the moment is abhorrent. And the couple’s decision to accept this money is problematic. Their friends tell me that they are foreigners who were robbed at knifepoint. Given that the seven men have been arrested, the police could have pushed to have their material belongings returned. Throwing money at rape makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

Whether it is judges who have on occasion asked rapists to marry the women they abused, politicians and officials who hector survivors of violence, or, worse, reduce rape to an electoral battle, in India we have not yet learnt how to talk about rape with sensitivity and quietude. And the political noise drowns out the conversations that need to be had and heard.