India’s gang rape case has brought out the best and worst in people. Concern for the victim and refusal to allow the police or courts to sweep it under the rug has at the same time exposed the caste prejudice that pervades India despite its claims to modernism.
The Delhi gang rape case that rocked India with mass protests since December 16, 2013, has illuminated India’s spiraling struggle with violence against women. In the glitzy tourist packaged narrative that sells “India” as a prime vacation and business destination for the globe’s moneyed elites, India’s gender problems are imagined in the past tense — that is, “suttee,” violence against women, and caste oppression are now replaced by the yellow brick road of multinational-fueled, neoliberal progress inaugurated by cozy US-Indian bilateral relations.
In the fables of India’s Emerald City progress, the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey a 23-year old medical student, served as a rude awakening. Mass protests rocked the nation, as feminists, progressives, and others held rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins demanding that justice be delivered for Pandey. Initially, a steady stream of horrific details emerged about what befell the young girl, while her family resolutely kept her real name hidden in order to protect her privacy. When Pandey succumbed to her injuries, her grief-stricken father finally revealed her identity: “I am proud of her,” he said. “Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter.”
While in a Delhi hospital, the victim related what befell her, speaking in laborious whispers. After the ordeal in the bus, she and her friend were then tossed out onto the road naked, while the driver attempted to mow them down with the van. Her friend’s interviews provides further details: “I saved Jyoti by pulling her away in the nick of time,” related her friend. “We were without clothes. We tried to stop people passing by but no one stopped for about 25 minutes. “People were probably afraid they would become a witness to the crime.” The pretext given for this brutal attack—the fact that Jyoti was out at night clearly marked her as a “promiscuous” woman, and thus she was bringing rape onto herself.
Jyoti died on December 29 at a Singapore hospital to which she was airlifted from Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital in critical condition. When Jyoti’s friend visited her in the hospital, the 23-year old uttered the words that were to become the by-words for the protests that would rage throughout India on her behalf — mujhey sangharsh karna hai (I must fight). While India’s President Manmohan Singh and head of Congress Sonia Gandhi met her body when it arrived from Singapore, India’s political authorities have shown far less willingness to allow public space to the protest movement, preferring to “bury” the case in the courts.
The mass demonstrations sparked by Jyoti’s death illustrate that India is finally confronting its long, simmering social violence toward women. There are many different perspectives and angles on the discourse by Jyoti’s tragic fate, all of which seem to involve to varying degrees, India’s tortured relationship with neoliberalism — the issues of poverty, class, and ethnicity congealed around India’s race to modernize itself as a hyper-corporate “great power” that transforms South Asia into a political playground.
For instance, the BBC’s coverage frames the tragedy as the failure of the Dickensian dream of upwardly mobile, middle-class mobility represented by Jyoti. “Tragedy of Delhi Rape Victim Seeking Better Life” declared the heading, in which the journalist paints the victim’s bedroom as an allegory for the upwardly mobile lifestyle the victim nearly achieved for her family. “Neat stacks of medical text books, a sharply-designed carrier bag from a clothes store, an English novel and pairs of smart shoes in the draughty bedroom of the 23-year-old Delhi gang rape victim, tell the story of a woman determined to make the leap to a middle class lifestyle for her and her family.”
The journalist Andrew Morton points out the poverty-stricken Delhi ghetto in which Jyoti’s family resided (until last year classified as an illegal slum) showed that she shared the same socio-economic background as her attackers. In this narrative, Jyoti, represented the bright, precocious daughter in whom her family invested as a means of rising out of poverty and onto India’s economic highway, was cut down in her prime by accusers lacking the self-reliance and hard work necessary to achieve progress.
Other activists have used Jyoti’s tragedy as a way of delivering a socio-economic critique of the New India. Feminist activists have described the influence of media culture and the widening gap between the rich and the poor as an impetus on the rage and envy in the have-nots who are channeling their violence against even more vulnerable segments of society — poor, vulnerable women like Jyoti. In the past, the practices the rich encouraged were frugality, and hiding wealth so as to appear to belong to the norm. These days, however, India’s media culture is awash in conspicuous consumption, encouraging the wealthy and middle class to advertise their holdings and assets in the form of a brand-name driven lifestyle ranging from choice of clothes and cars to the colleges which their children attend. Bollywood helps frames this conspicuous consumption through lavish images of stars enjoying haute living, appearing to have stepped out of magazines such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, or Vanity Fair.
Counter to the BBC story, Jyoti’s tragedy doesn’t simply uncover the gender violence that has prevailed in India since prehistoric times — the rapidly escalating rates of gender violence speak to the growing social rage in those left outside of the high-tech, corporate islands of prosperity within India. Reported rape cases have increased more than tenfold over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone reported 572 rapes last year and more than 600 in 2012. Studies and surveys reveal that every 20 minutes a rape is reported in India while many cases go unreported. The government of India has recently appointed a judicial committee to review rape laws and recommended strict punishments for the rapists. However, Manmohan Singh, who has presided over India’s hyper-speed entrance into global neo-liberalism, would never deign to entertain solutions involving social equity and economic redistribution.
Nor can Jyoti’s story be separated from the gruesome political violence practiced by the Indian state and army against disenfranchised minorities and populations on a daily basis. As author and activist Arundathi Roy makes clear, Jyoti’s case is visible and politically “safe” to a certain degree, because it depicts the violence committed by lower classes/ castes against an upwardly mobile girl. “Why is this crime creating such an outrage,” she queries, “It’s because it is playing into the idea of the criminal poor.” That is, it materializes the elites’ distrust of those left outside of the corporate technocracy planted in the glitzy pockets of Bangalore, Chunnai and Delhi. What is being ignored is that what happened to Jyoti is perpetrated by Indian soldiers (with state blessing) against women in Kashmir and other locations on a daily basis.
Indian feminist activist Meena Kandasamy brings up similar questions. “Out of a hundred questions that come to mind, here’s the obvious one,” she writes in an Outlook India op-ed, “I do not believe in a hierarchy of victimhood, but why was such a campaign absent when the rapists were not the easily criminalised working classes, but feudal caste-Hindus, army, paramilitary or police personnel, or the rich and powerful? Does caste status, army uniforms, political clout and money grant immunity from media outrage?”
If anything, Indian state violence is far more invisible and ghastly. If Jyoti’s story strikes audiences with sympathy and terror, the nameless victims of soldiers and politicians enacting their “patriotic” duty to humiliate and degrade suspect populations within the state borders have no access to even a public identity. The neoliberalism that creates and criminalizes the poor, is also complicit in a hyper-national, hyper-ethnic definition of nationalism through which “renegade” elements of the social body must be cleansed and violently disciplined. Women in Chattishgarh or Kashmir or Manipur have been at the wrong end of weapons, instruments and bodies used as weapons for decades — and their anonymity is a testament on how the neoliberal state’s “progress” can only be manufactured from disenfranchisement and violence.