The remarks and actions of various members of the state in response to the violent assault on Dr. Priyanka Reddy should be seen as a way to direct the righteous public anger to create a draconian state.
The anger of Dr. Reddy’s rape and murder is justified, as it is a signal of an unending battle the women of India have had to face. Enough is enough.
We should be wary of how the state co-opts our anger, as the outcome might be even more dangerous, especially at a time, where the state uses public anger to extend its power over the people.
Elites and states use public anger to push their own agenda. If we look at the history of sexual assault and law, there is a disturbing history of using sexual assault laws to create authoritarian, anti-minority systems that crush dissent and resistance.
How has law treated cases of sexual assault historically?
Throughout history, laws come from a mixture of religious and secular sources derived from faith and reason, but until recently laws have not given much emphasis on prohibiting rape or sexual assault. In fact, much more is prescribed about policing women’s sexuality, protecting the integrity of families, punishing “forbidden” sexual acts, and punishing sexual infidelity.
In ancient times, households were considered units of society, and laws revolved around households, not individuals. All of the major law-givers said that houses were unique and no prescription should be made, except that men should rule over women, elders over youngsters, and there should be a dominance of certain households over other households based on the local conditions of whether caste, slavery, or feudalism was practiced.
Even in modern times, rape has only recently been seen as a crime, in spite of the progress made in many spheres. As women were treated as property, rape was treated more like theft of property. Until the 1970s, rape laws primarily promoted the same principles of privileging people based on sex, age, and community.
In India, it took a long time to change the laws to accept male victims of sexual assault. Only ten years ago, did we get proper legislation protecting child victims of sexual assault, and rape by husband is still not a criminal offense, though it has been included under the Domestic Violence law.
How anger against sexual assault was used to promote lynching in America
In the United States, with the formal end of slavery, the freedom of the African American population was seen as a threat to the White population. A common trope to scare people was the “Mullatto,” who was black but looked partially white. These tropes were used to spread fear of a rapist, who steels white women and brainwashes them.
This fear led to widespread lynching in the United States. Even though most lynchings were based on property and wage disputes, a substantial number of lynch victims were women, and often lynchings destroyed entire towns, the stereotype of lynching being a legitimate way to protect White women was common.
Here, we can see that the dominant community, in conjunction with the state, used fear of sexual assault to suppress another community. Black activists had to work for nearly a century (from the 1880s to the 1980s) to see an end of lynching against the black community. The first 30 years required a lot of documentation and study of lynching cases. The next 20 years required a movement to create an anti-lynching bill, which never got passed. The next 30 years required movements to pass anti-segregation laws, which were the major systemic causes of lynching, and then lynching began to decline.
- Deviancy theory is a model for understanding crime and criminal behavior. The theory states that in certain instances, an act is seen as an aberration in society. This aberration causes a disturbance in people’s minds, and many parts of society come together to remove the aberration. Sometimes this happens spontaneously and sometimes there are systems that act to do so. When caught in the frenzy of this disturbance, people might exercise violent urges, as they have social sanction to do so. They may call for murder. They may riot. They may attack people, including people related to the event. They might victim blame because they are not guided entirely by morals, but by passion.
In such a context, elites might take advantage and try to change society to their desires. They might increase surveillance, promote arbitrary arrests, normalize custodial rape/torture/murder, etc.
How the Right is trying to use anger against minorities
In India, the Hindu right has been making concerted efforts to normalize violence against the Muslim community. Until now, they have used instances of terrorism, fear of demographic shift, and stories of conversion as examples of aberrations to target the Muslim communities. Recently, they have been trying to encourage citizens to attack Muslims.
First, sexual assault was used routinely as a tool of domination during the Godhra riots. Then, the normalized vigilante violence to police morality by attacking inter-religious couples. Then, they applied it to people who eat beef, which was code for religious minorities. Then, they started spreading it to child kidnappers. Now, they will use public anger against sexual assault to attack religious minorities.
As with the case of beef lynching, the moral issue creates a smokescreen. In America, even though lynching was usually not related to sexual assault, the myth of the black rapist was a cover to justify violence and racism. Many African American activists had to work hard, covering thousands of cases to fight that myth. Even today the myth is common, though lynching has stopped.
What we need to focus on
If the state were serious in ending sexual assault, they only need to follow their own advice.
The Justice Verma Committee report contains a plethora of unused recommendations.
- The report focused on the legal dimensions of sexual assault and showed that by our own legal system, we are not doing nearly enough, but it also concluded that corporeal punishments like the death penalty and chemical castration would not reduce cases of sexual assault.
- The report also recommended more surveillance for police to ensure proper registering of cases.
- Society discourages survivors or representatives of victims of sexual assault continue to bring cases to light, so unless major changes happen, the law only touches the tip of the iceberg. To combat sexual assault, we have to face the grim reality that it is not an aberration, but all too normal.
- Reforms that have come are also not given proper attention. The Nirbhaya fund remains underutilized. There exist resources, plans, and infrastructure for the state to effectively reduce instances of sexual assault, but these things are rarely used.
- Beyond that, there are many other structural features that need to be addressed, such as the representation of women, and marginalized people in the judiciary and police. As the case of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice showed, the problem is top-down.
Systemic features of sexual assault often do not find attention from those who see sexual assault as an aberration.
Caution against manipulation
Sexual violence is entrenched in the Indian system from top to bottom. Instead of acting on fixing the system, the state is using instances of sexual assault to further their own agenda. After years of using the death penalty and encounter killings to execute political prisoners, the state uses stories of sexual assault to legitimate state murder, both of the formal and informal variety. The Karnataka government tried to use sexual assault as an excuse to extend a registry for migrant workers. If we do not focus our anger to address the real problems, the state will direct our anger towards us.