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Anatomy of rape protests in India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-07-2017 Ashwaq Masoodi

New Delhi: At the heart of every protest is the collective grievance of a people, and a feeling that has stemmed out of a strong perception of injustice. So, when a group cutting across class, gender and caste come together, it is an indication that most believe that this cathartic collective expression will help in bringing about some change. But why is it that not every perceived injustice, particularly in cases as gruesome as rapes, bring people out on the streets and what is it that mobilizes people to participate in social protest?

Early this month, a 16-year-old was gangraped and murdered in a village in Kotkhai tehsil, Shimla. The class 10th student went missing on 4 July and her naked body was recovered from a forest on 6 July, with marks of being savagely bitten and maggots crawling out of her body.

As the pictures of her body and another with her wearing the school uniform circulated across social media, public anger swept through Shimla, and protests and candlelight marches were held. But as gruesome as the details of the rape were, the protests did not gather any momentum outside the state.

From 1972 (rape of a tribal girl Mathura by two policemen) to 2012 (Delhi gangrape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student), several rapes happened in India and many women were sexually assaulted. A few cases like the 1992 Bhanwari Devi gangrape or 1999 Jessica Lal murder received some attention. But it took four decades since Mathura to shake the collective conscience of the nation yet again, for people to come out on the streets to express their anger in the form of protests. The 2012 protests were historic in the sense that these led to the change in the rape law of the country, and gave a strong message that people wanted justice for the 23-year-old, and an assurance that they were safe. The protests across India also spearheaded a debate on the women’s rights and freedom.

After 2012, several cases of rape have been reported by the media, with gory details and pictures coming out following all such incidents, but none has resulted in such a scale of protest as the Delhi gangrape.

Closely observing the large-scale rape protests in India, there is a pattern in terms of which some rapes get more attention than others.

Moral shock: According to American sociologist James M. Jasper, “moral shocks are often the first step towards recruitment into social movements, (they) occur when an unexpected event or piece of information raises such sense of outrage in a person that she becomes inclined toward political action, whether or not she has acquaintances in the movement.” As details of the Delhi gangrape came out, because of this moral shock, people began internalizing the incident and perceiving it as a personal experience. As Ranjani K. Murthy, Chennai-based researcher and consultant on gender, points out, “In the case of the Mathura rape, people were shocked because it was new for them to imagine a security personnel as a perpetrator, as a rapist. Now, similar cases happen in northeast, in Chhattisgarh, but people are not outraged, because they have become immune and insensitive. In the case of Nirbhaya, it was the shock that something like this could happen in a city like Delhi.”

Proximity: The most obvious reason is proximity of the incident to the national capital. The closer the incident is to Delhi or a cosmopolitan city, the better coverage it gets in the media, and more people are likely to come out to protest against it. “The incident magnifies if it happens in Delhi because of all the media attention. It isn’t the same in a small town. Media can make or break any news,” says Reicha Tanwar, director, Women’s Studies Research Centre, Kurukshetra University, Haryana.

Identification and protest: For an average Indian living in Delhi, it was much easier to identify with the victim of the Delhi gangrape as compared to cases like Badaun rape and murder of two teenage sisters (who were hung on a mango tree), or the rape of four girls from Bhagana, Haryana. This identification is accompanied by a feeling that what has happened to the victim can happen to you, or someone you know. “Usually, when people come out on the streets, it is a highly emotionally charged act. Look at the Anna Hazare movement or what happened in 2012. It was emotions that took the lead, not an ideology,” says Renuka Singh, sociologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Education and social class: If the victim belongs to a middle class household, is educated, has migrated to a city with a hope to fulfil her dreams just like many other Indians; has used the same public transport as an average college goer (the victim in the Delhi gangrape was commuting in a bus when she was raped), it is easier for people to connect, to be shocked and to outrage.

Family support: In the case of the Delhi gangrape, the parents of the woman came out and demanded justice. In fact, instead of hiding the identity of their daughter to “protect her honour”, the parents named her openly. Whereas in cases particularly in small towns, there is hesitation to speak, and so the cases end up being hushed up.

Organizational backing: Sociologists Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Bert Klandermans in their paper ‘The social psychology of protest’ write that “anger is seen as the prototypical protest emotion.” Even though there is no denying that any such violent action results in collective anger of a people, these movements need strong organizational mobilization to gain strength. In case of the Delhi gangrape, from universities to feminist groups, all were on board. For cases like the Shimla gangrape, or the rapes in other small towns, there is a lack of a proper organizational backup to channelize this anger in a way that would force the authorities or the governments to act.

Hope for change: Even though largescale protests took place after 2012 gangrape, and there was a brief sense of hope, since then, many cases of rape and sexual assault have been reported in the country. “Despite all that happened, what has changed? Nothing. Now I believe there is a feeling of pessimism, that no matter what we do, nothing will change,” says Tanwar.

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