Govt must do more to counter India’s rape culture, not target critics

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The Indian government seems to prefer to try to silence criticism of the country’s widespread rape culture than do anything to reduce it.

This is apparent from the Indian government’s latest reaction to a sarcastic tweet. Shah Faesal, an Indian civil servant from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, was issued with a formal notice by the Department of Personnel and Training, which controls his work. Faesal is no ordinary bureaucrat. He topped the difficult civil service entrance examination to join the much-coveted and elite Indian Administrative Service. Given that he is also from the conflict-ridden northern state, Faesl’s joining the civil service was seen as a triumph for inclusive national values.

In April this year, Faesal tweeted that a combination of factors such as patriarchy, illiteracy, pornography and alcohol have contributed to the creation of “Rapistan”. He said “Rape” was the Urdu word for “place” to denote that the land had become ground for sexual violence against women.

Although, he called it a ‘sarcastic tweet against rape-culture in South Asia’, Hindutva nationalists on social media saw it as an attack on the nation.

Faesal posted on Tuesday that,”If rape is part of government policy then I plead guilty for criticism of the government policy.”

Faesal is not far from the truth as the Indian government has shown little enthusiasm to tackle rising sexual violence offline and online in India. An increasing number of rape incidents and violence against women have marred the country’s image not just at home but also abroad. Indeed, a recent Thomson Reuters survey found India to be the most dangerous country for women.

The survey was vehemently criticized by a number of chest-thumping Indians who argued that there are other countries worse than India in regard to women’s safety. They didn’t take a minute to compare India to countries who fared well in women’s safety and wilfully ignored the country’s rape problem.

Had the same “proud” Indians taken to the streets to demand stricter implementation of laws, it would have been more helpful to an already grim situation. A rape is reported every 13 minutes and a sexual assault is reported every six minutes in India, according to the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau.

So, when a man tries to address these issues on social media, the government turns around and makes an attempt to silence him. What kind of a message does that send out to millions of victims of every day patriarchy, misogyny and sexual violence in India?

Instead of allowing a fair discussion on these issues, prominent politicians and police have been known to blame the victims, or westernization and dresses as factors behind rising incidents of rape.

Rape culture in India

Faesal’s tweet came in the context of a case where a “porn addict’s” son raped his mother in the Indian state of Gujarat. It was not an isolated case of perversion and rather, intricately related to the problems of sexual repression, lack of sex education, and a predominant culture of masculinity that sees women as nothing more than a bundle of flesh.

The civil servant’s analysis of rape culture, if not the most accurate about what leads to rapes, was an attempt to start conversations on the issue. Currently, in South Asia, we see silence being enforced on the issue of sexual abuse and deviant sexuality.

India’s youth have no credible source for learning about safe sex and consent. Their point of reference is pornography and erotic films, which often portray aggressive, non-consensual sex, perversion and even rape. So, the Indian government tried to ban pornography. However, studies have shown that pornography doesn’t directly cause rape.

Faesal also included factors like alcohol and illiteracy which may contribute to some rape cases. But these are definitely not the deciding factors behind rapes in general. Very prominent, socially respected and educated people commit rape as well. Stigmatizing the poor doesn’t help in this case.

However, as Faesal claimed, his tweet may have been totally sarcastic, drawing on the bizarre reasons, such as rising ‘population’, cited by political leaders as factors behind increasing rape cases.

Wrong approach to containing rape

The problem remains that this government wants to treat symptoms rather than the root causes that lead to a rape culture. Hindutva trolls, who are an integral part of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) core vote base, routinely abuse and threaten women on social media. They recently turned against India’s Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj. Instead of coming out to defend them, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a message of congratulations to “young” Twitter users for their “innovative use” of the medium. Not a word of support came out for his cabinet colleague, who battled them on her own.

In his tweet, Faesal identified “patriarchy” as one of the elements helping to create a ‘Rapistan’. He is right, because rape is not about sex, but about power and domination. It’s the urge to exercise power over the female body that feeds rapists and also gives way to a culture dominated by toxic masculinity.

The urge to restrict movement of women and moral policing of them in order to keep them “safe” is an offshoot of the same patriarchal mentality. For instance, recently, unmarried women were being denied entry into pubs and nightclubs at Gurugram in Haryana. The police had earlier staged a raid near MG Road for alleged solicitation and immoral trafficking. The bar owners thought it easier to eliminate single women to avoid such raids in the future. The onus and its consequences, once again, fell on the women.

The female body also becomes a battleground for patriarchy; a clan, community or patriarchal family’s reputation has historically been seen as enshrined in the sexual “purity” of the woman. Hence, when a man violates a woman from a rival community, it’s seen as a direct attack on the community.

The recent case of gangrape of an eight-year-old girl in Kashmir’s Kathua district is a classic example of this power exercise.

In a bid to eliminate any criticism of this dark side of the country, the government has taken action against Faesal under the All India Service (Conduct) Rules 1968 that bars government officials from publicly commenting on government action or policies. In 2016, the government proposed to extend the restrictions to social media.

However, in 1962, the High Court of Patna ruled that restricting a government employee from participating in non-violent demonstrations would be an infringement of his fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Indian citizens, especially women and families, deserve much better than this.

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