Can one understand the how and why of the rape of the young woman in Delhi and its brutality?



EPW, Dec 29, 2012

The horrifying sexual assault that took place around 9 pm
in a private bus plying in south Delhi on 17 December has
shocked the nation, provoking widespread outrage, protests
and intensive media coverage. Politicians like Sushma
Swaraj have predictably demanded the death penalty for rapists
yet again. As the victim continues to battle for her life, this
murderous act unleashes its most paralysing effects on other
women, spreading fear, anger and helplessness.
Rape invokes the primitive and reminds us that the veneer of
our civilisation remains thin and fragile. That is why there is
always some aspect of rape that is beyond the reach of our
understanding. But almost everything seems inexplicable in
this case which is so extreme that it defi es our comprehension
comprehensively. Gang rape by a group of drunken men is hardly
unknown, but how do we “understand” the mind-numbing fact
that the victim’s body was not just violated but mutilated and
maimed with iron rods, blades and other such weapons? The
nature and extent of her injuries is such that it has baffl ed the
doctors trying desperately to save her. The gruesomeness of
this case invites comparison with the pre-planned attacks on
women during communal or caste riots. But unlike the rape and
murder of Muslim women by Hindu mobs in Gujarat in 2002, or
the attacks on dalit women by upper caste men (most recently
in Haryana), there was nothing premeditated here. According
to one report, the accused declared that the whole incident was
triggered by their anger at the defi ance shown by the woman in
defence of her male friend.
It was during the re-emergence of people’s movements in
the 1970s and 1980s that women’s groups in cities like
Hyderabad, Delhi and Bombay protested against the harassment
women faced on roads and in buses. The term used then –
“eve teasing” – sounds quaint if not sexist today. Along with
this came the fi rst national campaign against rape, provoked
by cases where the perpetrators included policemen. As
women’s organisations discovered to their shock, the country’s
rape laws, dating from colonial times, had not been revised for
more than a century. Since the 1990s, the umbrella term “violence
against women” has become commonplace. Sexual harassment
and sexual assault are now the correct termino logies,
and a number of bills are in various stages of consideration
in the hope that the law can better respond to the range of

violence women have to suffer, from unwanted attention to the
most heinous of crimes.
Despite the understandable clamour for immediate and drastic
action, we must resist the temptation to treat this extreme
case as the norm against which our response must be measured.
It is also necessary to go beyond umbrella categories like
“violence against women”. Apart from its sheer brutality, it is
the identity of its perpetrators that makes this an exceptional
crime. The attackers were not just strangers to the victim, but
socially marginal men. At times like this it is easy to forget that
by far the most common sexual assaults are by people known
to the victim – neighbours, relatives, even friends. Such rapes
are rarely reported. Another common type of assault that
needs to be emphasised in this context is the so-called “power
rape”, where the perpetrator is in a position of power over the
victim, whether as landlord, boss, or police/army offi cer. The
very identity of the perpetrators makes it likely that such
crimes will never come to light. In sharp contrast, this rare
case is one where the accused come from a marginal location
in metropolitan society, whether in terms of their occupation
(driver, fruit vendor, petty criminal, gym assistant…) or their
place of residence in a slum.
Some experts quoted in the media have described the
accused as psychopaths probably provoked by pornography.
Such casual explanations are unhelpful to say the least. Psychopaths
tend to be loners; they do not band together drunkenly,
fi rst to steal from a carpenter (who had boarded the bus earlier
and was then let out), then to vent their anger on the male friend
of the victim before doing what they did to the woman herself.
It may be more useful to focus on the increasing incidence of
vehicle-borne assaults, including cases of rape and gang rape
reported in Delhi. The capital has the largest number of vehicles
for a city, the highest vehicle density and the best roads in
the country. But what makes Delhi distinctive is the peculiar
combination of power and impunity that it both exudes and
offers up as routine public spectacle. The desire to experience
this heady mixture is contagious, and the closest that subaltern
groups can get to this is the feeling of control and power in a
moving vehicle. It is this desire that the men in the bus were
perhaps giving vent to, and the city and its obscene inequalities
deserve to be treated as accomplices in this brutal crime.

The exception may prove the rule but it must not shape the
law. Fast track courts are welcome, but certainly not the death
penalty, which is not a just form of punishment in principle, and
in practice will, legal scholars say, only lower the conviction rate
further below its dismal current level of 2%. Of course, responses
to such violence must go beyond the legal. Women and men
must recognise the rarity of this particular crime. Women need to

overcome their fears and occupy more rather than less public
spaces, the streets, the buses, whether during the day or at night.
Striving for a different public culture is part of the larger battle
against forms of power, both everyday and exceptional.
But above all, we must continue the struggle to understand
that which defi es our understanding – however tentative,
incomplete or frail our reasoning may seem.