Shades of Darkness—And Now A Sliver of Light – The Feminist Wire

Shades of Darkness—And Now A Sliver of Light

Today, January 26, 2013, marks India’s 64th anniversary as a republic. It is not an old republic if seen in “nation” years but definitely old in “human” years. My mother is 64, which means she was born in the year India was declared a republic—she was one of the many millions of Indians to whom the nation and its constitution (and its pledge to making their lives free) was dedicated. A republic is, as we know, “for the people, by the people, and of the people.” While one can understand “by” and “of” the people since a republic is often a democracy where state officials are elected not appointed, often the same state officials forget to operationalize this democracy “for” the people who put them there. Democracy becomes a legitimate way to grab power in order to exercise it illegitimately and with zero accountability.

As I watch the republic day parade on TV, I feel emotionally torn. It is so familiar and takes me back to my school years when we had to watch the parade in order to write a short report on it. So parade watching was a task to finish and because it was a task we watched it intently in order to do this task well. I am watching this same parade after 16 years and it looks so completely familiar that I am left feeling uneasy, to say the least. I can feel my eyes wet as I hear the national anthem play while the state level dignitaries and guests arrive for the parade. I feel a tear escape the corner of both my eyes as I watch state floats glide down a glistening asphalt of the most famous road in India—Rajpath. I feel the need to get up and walk away to control my emotions as I see my mother stand in attention as the national anthem plays again. When it ends she starts talking animatedly about the time she and her siblings went to watch their first parade and shook hands with free India’s first prime-minister and premier statesman, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. At the same time, I am left feeling angry. I am watching how a post-colonial state rolls out its might in the garb of innocuous pageantry and, in getting emotional over this pageantry, how we, the “new subjects,” accept the performance of our colonial pasts marked by the institutionalization of a modern state that celebrates itself more than anything else.

I am also feeling angry that this republic, this allegedly post-colonial republic-state, continues to fail its people at so many levels. The recent rape-murder in Delhi and a slow-to-react administration, constitutes the grossest failure of this republic in recent memory. Even as the Delhi case is currently being heard in the fast-track courts, every day new incidents of sexual brutality against women and girls smear national newspapers. What does it mean then to sit courtside and watch a post-colonial state celebrate itself on the same road and by-roads where it recently brutalized peaceful, anti-rape protestors with water-cannons and tear gas? Where is the people’s republic in this particular modeling of the colonial state that is anti-people and most horrifyingly misogynist? Whose republic is it if it is clearly not a republic for women? When my mother sat courtside watching her first republic day parade at the age of four years and Pandit Nehru came by to speak with her, I am sure neither imagined a misogynist republic. My mother, even at four years, had been granted constitutional rights, rights that had been enshrined in the world’s longest written Constitution by statesmen like Pandit Nehru. I am sure as he and others sat through legislative assembly debates about freedom and free citizenship, they did not think of my mother and others like her as undeserving of this freedom and citizenship. It was a given, it was natural, and it was inalienable.

At 64, my mother and her republic are clearly at odds with each other. At 64, my mother’s republic has turned on her and her daughters. At 64, my mother wants nothing to do with this republic that has the heart of a field mouse and, like the field mouse, tears through its moral fabric, if there is something called a “moral” fabric of a nation. At 64, my mother wants this republic replaced by a dictatorship that is Saudi style, no less. She wants the rapists hanged unto death or chemically castrated without due process of law. She is angry. I am angry. Women and girls who stayed home today or refused to watch the parade even on TV without meaning are angry. And even as the parade winds its way through the heart of Delhi, it is just that—a parade that you watch while eating an ice-cream or a bag of potato chips and when it leaves your side, you go home, take a nap, and forget about it. The meaning of this parade—to celebrate a republic—is lost in its ritual. And often rituals are performed for their own sake til someone points out that such rituals need to either stop or be re-evaluated, especially if human sacrifices accompany such rituals with horrifying regularity.

My mother and I both read the headline news today in the Times of India, India’s premier national newspaper—about the new rape law put forth by a committee headed by the Supreme Court Justice Verma that is also being described as the “new charter of rights for sexual offence victims”—an unprecedented development in the history of this 64-year old republic. Can this be that moment when a broken republic attempts to repair itself and live up to its promise of an egalitarian society? The 10 new rights, according to the Verma committee, include the following[1]:

1) “Right against marital rape even if the wife is above 15 years of age” (currently, marital rape is punishable only if the wife is underage). As per this new proposed right, consent will no longer be presumed in a marital relationship under legal scrutiny.

2) “Right of private defense, to the point of killing a man if there is reasonable cause for apprehending grievous attack from an acid attack.” This is in addition to the existing right of a potential victim to kill her attacker.

3) “Right against voyeurism—to seek prosecution of someone who, without her consent, watches her in a private act.” An offender, if prosecuted, may be punished with imprisonment for 3 years for the first conviction and 7 seven years for a subsequent offense.

4) “Right against stalking—she can lodge a case against somebody who follows and contacts her despite clear indication of disinterest from her.” An offender maybe imprisoned for 1 to 3 years.

5) “Right to call it a rape even if she did not offer actual physical resistance to the act of penetration.”

6) “Right to call it a rape even if there was no penile-vaginal penetration. With this right, the Verma committee is broadening the definition of rape to include a range of penetrative acts by a man using either parts of his body or objects against his victim.

7) “Right to silence over her character or her previous sexual experience with any person.” The committee is saying here that evidence relating to the personal of a person “shall not be relevant” to determining the defense of consent in all rape and sexual assault cases.

8) “Right to seek prosecution of a police officer who does not register an FIR on a complaint of rape, molestation, or sexual harassment.” If prosecuted the officer is liable to be imprisoned for up to five years.

9) “Right of exemption from government’s sanction to seek prosecution of a member of the armed forces for a sexual offense in ‘disturbed areas’ governed by the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act.” This is an attempt to bring public servants, including the armed forces, within the purview of the new charter of rights and the law. To-date no public servant could be prosecuted without the government’s consent.

10) “Right to invoke the principle of command responsibility under which senior officers of the police or the armed forces are proposed to be held accountable for sexual offenses committed by their subordinates.”

This new charter of rights, then, is meant to empower women against a misogynist culture and to the extent this new charter becomes law, it will help transform a political , legislative, and judicial culture that is anti-women into one that is not. This new charter simultaneously recognizes the failed promise of a republic in the Delhi rape-murder case and attempts to uphold this promise in its descriptive license about “rape.” The charter is a valiant step forward, one that is made possible by a vigilant and fearless judiciary, especially its interpreters like Justice Verma. It might be worth mentioning that this new charter by the Verma committee is partly the function of a social media in this neoliberal context that records, transmits, and continuously circulates moments globally. It applauds as much as it shames people and histories through such a recording and its incessant circulation globally. Surely, in recording and circulating the events relating to the Delhi rape-murder case in virtual spaces everyday, the social media shamed a nation and in shaming a nation that continues to struggle to identify its post-coloniality, it shamed its guardians/ its administrators.

While the administrators responded to this shaming with silence and in the face of massive protests with force, the “other” administrators, especially the judiciary, took notice of this shaming and responded with show-cause notices to errant police officers and the Delhi government for gross dereliction of duty, and now with this new charter of rights meant to empower women. What remains to be seen is whether this charter will become law and if it does, then how might this law be enforced effectively towards ensuring liberty, equality, and security for all women of this 64-year old republic. If this happens, then my 64-year old mother might consider reclaiming this nation and this republic as her own. She might even consider bequeathing this republic to me, her daughter, and her granddaughters with a smile on her face and her heart. She will then remember her four-year old self sitting courtside watching her first republic day parade with fondness rather than sadness. This republic owes her . . . and me . . . and her.

[1] “New Charter of Rights to Empower Women” Times of India, page 1 and page 19, January 26, 2013.