The news had sprung up from nowhere. All that I had picked up the newspaper for, was to kill some time on that long flight and here it was, tucked away in a small box, staring at me. Reading it had sent a shiver down my spine. No, it was not about some unseen horrors. It was not about gruesome murders, kidnappings or even collapse of yet another state exposing its citizenry, or at least minority section of that, to grave human rights violations.
The news was just about another advisory issued by United Kingdom for a section of its citizens travelling in India. But it was not the advisory that has made me this uneasy. As it is, western countries are quite used to issuing advisories to their citizenry travelling in the underdeveloped countries warning them about everything from food to fanaticism. Many of us, in fact, have often scoffed at these advisories located in the racist past of these countries that treated the natives as nothing more than barbarians unable to govern themselves.
Not this one, though. It was an advisory that the government of United Kingdom had issued for its women, yeah, not all UK citizens but just its women travelling in India. It has advised them to remain alert even when travelling in groups for saving themselves from getting violated, sexually and otherwise. I tried stealing a glance at my co- passenger , stuck in the economy class seat as cramped as mine and wished that she had not read this piece while aboard a flight to Delhi, the capital of the country at the receiving end of this advisory. To the very same Delhi which has earned the dubious distinction of being the rape capital of the country as well.
The news had opened floodgates of unsavory memories of similar horror stories told to me by my female, non-Indian colleagues, strangers and acquaintances alike. I remembered the very friendly owner of the wine shop I frequent on Fridays almost without fail. He had had heard about the Delhi Gang rape and was shocked. Knowing people like me, he had added, did not make him think that my country is home to such sexual predators. No, he was not being sarcastic; he was very genuinely sad and angry. There I was, thinking of all those ‘proud to be an Indian’ campaigns I had grown up on.
The advisory reminded me of a beautiful evening of partying around in Hong Kong with colleagues, a rarity in our line of work that begins with extrajudicial killings and ends with starvation deaths, with all other horrors stuck in between. It was after ages that we had let ourselves loose on that non-touristy beach we had discovered on one of our regular hikes. It was an evening of getting nostalgia fits and missing our countries, our homelands, with all the pains and agonies that the expats stuck up in foreign cultures live with.
I missed mine and recounted all that was great about it. India is not merely about Maharajas, magicians, snake charmers and Sadhus, I had told my friends. Of course, it is not, quipped Sofie, a Danish friend, cutting me short. It is also about sexually frustrated men thinking all white women are always available and can be taken against their will, she added. We were stunned, all of us, more on the matter of fact way she had said that than the comment itself. She, like the wine shop owner, was not angry. She could not be as she had lived in India for long stretches and had many good friends here, including me. She loved India and still does. Yet, her idea of Indian males was definitive and her friends, like me, came as aberrations and not rule.
Available! The word was haunting me on my way back to home that night. It reminded me of all those questions whispered into ears of any ‘foreign-returned’ Indian. Have we not been used to questions like ‘wahan to free sex hai na’? Did you do it? How many times? There were other words ringing in my ears too. They were the hymns celebrating goddess, or the feminine, as source of all power that had been drilled into our psyche since childhood.
One would try to wish away this sexual frustration, our national sickness, as something reserved for the ‘other’, white women. Can one? Not really, for even a cursory glance at public spaces would bring the truth that this national sickness is all pervasive. If white women are ‘available’ for Indian males, okay, most of them, then Indian women are either achievable or violable. This is the continuum they locate all women into, from being available to violable.
The violability, in turn, is reserved for the women from weaker sections of the society despite them having to bear the brunt of most brutal forms of violability. But then, it does not save the rest of them, Indian women, from getting violated. The thing is that the Indian male psyche fed on axioms like ‘ladki hansi to fansi’ (if a girl smiles, she is all yours) and ‘na bole to haan hai’ (rejection is in fact acceptance) does not differentiate much between achievability and violability. Any retaliation to their sexual advances, thus, makes them tread the thin line between the two.
This is why, for every Khairlanji that fails to stir the society, urban feminists and media included, one can easily find a Hotel Taj in Bombay seeing two of its women patrons sexually assaulted by a mob on the New Year eve. For every Bhanwari Devi in the feudal fiefdoms of Rajasthan there would be a Naina Sahni being burnt in a Tandoor, or a Jessica Lal getting killed in a posh South Delhi private party. And if the horror is not enough for you, for every woman being paraded naked in Uttar Pradesh, there would be one molested by a mob on national television in Guwahati.
Talk of these cases as a comment on our ‘national character’, and self appointed moral brigades would pounce on you while blaming the victims. They have, in fact, quite an expertise on pouncing on the victims, literally, as well. These self-designated ‘keepers of the sacred feminine’ (a friend coined this term though she uses a much more hard-hitting and little unprintable word for the feminine) would sexually assault women in Bangalore for the crime of going to a pub and the police would arrest and imprison the journalist recording the attack instead of the perpetrators. They, in the form of a senior Congress leader, sermonize the women not to wear indecent clothes and venture out at night instead of ensuring their safety and security. They, in the form of a senior BJP leader, would rubbish the outrage such attacks cause as a drama of lipstick wearing women. Quite understandable, as they would be watching porn clips on their mobile phones amidst an ongoing assembly session as well.
This is why the advisory should not have shocked me. I know, and have known, my country way too well to get shocked. It was not for nothing that the advisory had come before the gruesome gang rape of a foreign national in front of her husband in Datia district of Madhya Pradesh. It was not for nothing that the advisory had come before another foreign national was forced to jump out of her hotel room to thwart a rape attempt by none other than the hotel owner.
And it was not for nothing that the advisory had come after Delhi Gangrape but before Bhandara killings and suspected gang rape of three minor sisters which did not find even as much as a mention in national outraged-at-everything media. The girls, hailing from dispossessed background, did not mean much to it. The girls, hailing from the hinterlands, did not mean much to the urbane and suave feminists as well. But then, there rests the root cause of the problem.
If Bhandara girls are violable, no women of the country, or outside, can be safe. If the men out on prowl do not find such ‘easily violable’ preys, they are going to pounce at any other woman in sight irrespective of her status of being available, achievable or violable in their eyes. Yes, I know how painful it is to refer to a section of our own women as ‘easily violable preys’ but then wishing the reality away does not help much, does it? The reality is that we are ‘proud’ citizens of a country that lets deeply entrenched casteist and communal forces commit gory crimes against the marginalized sections of its population with impunity. We can either stand up and fight or hide in our cocoons tucked inside the gated communities, looking away is not an option available to us.
It is also high time for rewriting the grammar of shame and social stigma attached to such crimes against women. The perpetrators do it with impunity for they know that the shame of getting violated would be written on the bodies of these women and not over their own persons. Till then, we can hang our heads in shame and hide after every such advisory issued by any country.
I am afraid, in fact, of the day they would issue an advisory telling women to get alert as soon as they see an Indian man anywhere in the world. And if you find this fear unfounded, or farfetched, remember the acts of the Indian youth leaders’ delegation that visited China earlier this year. If you don’t, know that many of them sexually harassed every women in sight, Chinese as well as female members of their own delegation. The only way authorities could devise for stopping them for bringing more shame to the country was restraining a large section of them from going out and forcing them to remain in their hotel rooms for the rest of the visit.
The youth leaders are back with their honours intact. They would grow into the future leaders of the country. Need one say more about the exigency of an advisory warning against the presence of any Indian male anywhere in the world?
About the Author: Mr. Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food Programme, He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org