Friday, 8 March 2013

Don’t Make Nirbhaya an Industry

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that was published in Firstpost. Giving the link to that here.
So Delhi’s December 16 gangrape victim who died in Singapore is to get a “Women of Courage’ award from the United States government. This is in addition to the Nirbhaya fund that the finance minister announced in the 2013-14 budget, a MIG (middle income group) flat from the Delhi government for her family, refund of her fees by the physiotherapy institute she studied in, a science institute being named after her, the ancestral village which she didn’t like visiting being promised a primary health centre and probably a job for one brother and scholarship for another.
All this makes me uneasy. And this uneasiness overrides the horror, anger, fear and despair I still feel over the incident.
Notice that I say “Delhi’s December 16 gangrape victim” and not Braveheart or India’s Daughter or Nirbhaya or Amanat. That is because but for the brutality of the incident, she would have been just another number in Delhi’s rape statistics. The brutality grabbed the headlines, hyperactive television news channels and social media networks fuelled protests, and these had an irrational snowballing effect, resulting in the rise of what I call the Nirbhaya Industry.
Lost in all this are the stories of other rape victims – including the three-year-old who was raped in her playschool even as crowds protesting the December 16 rape laid siege to Raisina Hill. Does anyone even know what happened to that case? Does anyone even care?
The victim of the Dhaula Kuan abduction-cum-rape case has been sacked from her job, has got no government aid and her case has not made much progress. Read this interview of hers to understand the unfairness of the attention being showered on the December 16 victim.
Also completely ignored is the plight of the young woman’s friend who was with her that night. He also fought the rapists and sustained serious injuries. But even as the woman’s family is being gifted a Rs 50 lakh flat and her brother being promised a job, no one is helping him with his medical expenses or ensuring that he won’t lose his job because of his frequent trips to hospital and to court to give evidence. This came to light in an interview with Firstpost. His testimony as the sole witness will be crucial in deciding the fate of the case. What if he decides that this fight is not worth the toll it is taking on him and says he doesn’t remember anything? All of us will rush to condemn and ridicule him and then feel smug about ourselves, just like we did when Shayan Munshi backtracked in the Jessica Lal case.
The US State Department has said “for millions of Indian women, her personal ordeal, perseverance to fight for justice, and her family’s continued bravery is helping to lift the stigma and vulnerability that drive violence against women”. Today’s Times of India has a front page interview with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying he is inspired by Nirbhaya’s determination to bring her assailants to justice.
The State Department and Kerry probably do not know about another young girl who went to Buddha Jayanti Park with her boyfriend one afternoon in 2006. They were assaulted by a group of the President’s Bodyguards and the girl gang-raped. She wasn’t left half dead. She didn’t die. The young couple could have gone home quietly and left the matter unreported (and thus avoided raised eyebrows and unwelcome questions about their relationship). But they went to a police station and reported the case. They persevered till the accused were sentenced.
Equally brave was the student of Maulana Azad Medical College who was raped in a tomb on the busy Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. She too could have gone home quietly and hushed the matter up. She too did not. Her rapist too was sentenced. There are several other rape survivors who have persevered and brought their rapists to book. Or the Dhaula Kuan victim who is persevering but not getting anywhere.
Aren’t these examples of perseverance? Don’t their families deserve a salute for not let letting the fear of stigma overpower them and supporting their daughters’ fight for justice?
Would the victim of December 16 have persevered like this had she lived, without the case having grabbed the headlines the way it did? Would her family, commended by the State Department for its `continued bravery’, have allowed her to? Two media reports make me doubt this.
One, soon after her death the family lamented that only a few immediate neighbours and relatives knew their plight and that the visits of VIPs had revealed their identity to everyone. To me, that’s a sign that for the family, the incident was something that needed to be hidden.
Two, in another interview, the father dismissed stories that she was planning to marry her friend. The boy was of a different caste, he said, so where was the question of them marrying. His daughter, he said, was a good girl and would have married someone the family chose. Would someone who couldn’t countenance his daughter marrying someone from a different caste have let her fight a rape case? We don’t know for sure and we never will.
The December 16 incident undoubtedly shook all of us up in a way that other rapes have not. But showering awards on the victim and goodies on her family does disservice to countless other rape victims.  By constantly praising the way she fought her rapists, aren’t we implying – and assuming – that other victims did not fight strongly enough? Is that fair to them? Why shouldn’t each one of them – and future rape victims – be given similar compensation in cash or kind?
Quite parenthetically, in her interview, the Dhaula Kuan victim, says she was quizzed about how hard she resisted. So now, is Nirbhaya going to be the touchstone of the way women resist rape? If they are not left half-dead, they will not be seen to have resisted enough?
If Braveheart/Nirbhaya/Amanat is to be immortalised, let it be in the form of better laws, better enforcement of these laws, better policing, improved social attitudes, safer public and private spaces. Let the voices that spoke up for her also speak up for the Suryanelli rape victim and the three sisters in Bhandara and for all future victims of rape. A church in Kerala has banned the Suryanelli rape victim's family. Why is no one protesting about that? Let those who kept vigil for two weeks in central Delhi keep similar vigil on other cases and on laws being drafted and passed.
Let Nirbhaya not become an industry but a catalyst for change.

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