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A Report on a Convention on Strategies for Struggle Against Rape, Sexual Harassment, held on 5 January 2013

The meeting was called by the Krantikari Naujawan Sabha. The KNS had prepared a draft resolution, with an analysis and a set of demands. The analysis argued, in a refreshing tone, that women’s oppression was the result of a mix of patriarchy and capitalism. It looked at a number of specific ways in which women’s oppression can be explained adequately ony if one takes the concept of patriarchy seriously. As one speaker at the meeting explained, this was a big step forward from looking at all oppression of women (that could not be explained by capitalism) as “feudal”. At the same time, there was also an attempt to relate the oppression of women to the ferociously expanding capitalism, by arguing that commoditisation of women was also something that needed to be analysed and combated.

The draft resolution, which was endorsed in the main by everyone present, began by opposing demands which stressed death penalty for rapists, or castration/chemical castration, and an increase in police surveillance. It went on to argue that the law and legal processes were flawed, so that rape victims faced tremendous difficulties from lodging FIRs to ensuring the trial being held. Especially, when the rapist was politically or economically strong and the victim weak, fair trial was practically impossible. Right now in India there are some one hundred thousand unresolved rape cases, and the proportion of convictions is just around 27 per cent. So it is necessary to demand that the law and the legal system should be more sensitive and speedier. But the issue of rape, the resolution warned, was not a matter of the body of the rapists so that killing or making a particular body incapable of rape would solve the problem. Rape is inscribed all over the state and society. Those who want to increase police surveillance and stop rapes by helping to build up a police state, should be reminded about the innumerable charges of rape and violence against women by those forces. They should remember the many rape charges, the case of Soni Sori, the torture of Archana Guha by Runu Guha Neogi in the 1970s, who was promoted after the Left Front came to power; they should remember Thangjam Manorama of Manipur and many other unknown women all over India tortured and raped daily by the Indian army and police. Here one cannot explain rape by talking about the perversion of the rapist. Rape is a weapon to establish domination, terrorize opposition, and smash and crush them. Without questioning and challenging this viewpoint, the anti-rape movement cannot go forward.

The draft stated that while rape is not the only way that patriarchy is expressed, without discussing patriarchy any discussion of rape remains incomplete. Hence one has to oppose patriarchy all along the line, including campaigns against the killing of new born girl children, payment of less wages for the same work to women workers, the social ostracism of rape survivors, the use of the threat of gang rapes by khap panchayats to women, slurs on same sex love in the media, the reduction of a woman’s identity to that of a mother or a wife, etc. When these questions are raised they are questions addressed to all, including those taking part in progressive movements. That is why, the slogan of defending the honour of mothers and sisters that sometimes come out in demonstrations, tend to take on the same ideological colour as ministerial comments that claim rape is caused by improper dresses worn by women.

The draft then goes on to look at the economic structures. It argues that the same media that is willing to attack khap panchayats however turns women’s sexuality into a commodity and even preaches that this alone is the way to real women’s liberation. That was why Ananda Bazar Patrika (West Bengal’s dominant media group’s flagship Bengali daily) hailed a Brazilian young woman’s announcement that she was putting her “virginity on auction”. This right, the draft asserted, was not full control over one’s body but merely the limited right to sell one’s body. That is why the anti-rape movement also has to speak out against the culture that turns everything into commodities.

This analysis was followed by a set of demands. On rape, there were demands for fast track courts, transparency in how FIRs are taken and punishment if police refuse to take FIRs. There were also demands around how rapes are represented and how victims/survivors are treated – featuring salacious stories of rape, blaming the victim for “improper dress” etc.

One set of demands looked at conditions making many women vulnerable and sought changes – such as the need for hostels for women, better public transport including at night, medical treatment for rape victims. Another set demanded action against people in positions of power who rape or sexually harass women, including sexual harassment by police and army, as well as sexual harassment by politically powerful people. Other demands took up sexual harassment at workplaces, female foeticide and infanticide, rape of sex workers, etc. Demands were also made regarding people of alternative sexuality and sexual violence on them.

All this made this draft an extraordinarily radical and unusual document, considering its emergence within the Indian Far Left, the bulk of which originates in Stalinism and Maoism (though many organisations can no longer be classified in either of those terms nowadays) where these issues have been seldom taken up.

 

The organisers had asked five speakers to speak on different aspects of the draft and/or over the general issues dealt with in the draft. Soma Marik spoke about the long history of anti-rape struggles, ever since the Mathura Rape Case. She pointed out that this time, there was a step forward, because a huge number of young women and men were taking part in the agitations, not just convinced women’s rights activists or human rights activists. At a time when the older generation seemed tired as a result of having fought for decades with small though important gains (she pointed out that the conviction rate for rape cases had been 8 per cent as late as 2002). There was, she argued, primarily a positive dimension to this. Regardless of any other consideration, the fact that anti-rape agitations had shaken the Indian state was a positive development. At the same time, she stressed that there was a tendency to delink the Delhi rape case from all the other rapes taking part in various places – Barasat, or Jagachha, or elsewhere in West Bengal, no less than in other parts of the country. Delhi alone had 572 rapes recorded in 2012. She argued that therefore, it was necessary to take into consideration the warnings of Arundhati Roy, Meena Kadasamy and others, that the class-caste-community dimensions of rape had to be taken into consideration. Thsi did not mean casting aspersions on the agitators in Delhi, but in raising awareness so that voices were raised equally strongly over the case of Soni Sori, pver rapes in Kashmir, over cases like Khairlanji.

One central point in the role of the government was the way it had acted so quickly, this time, to set up the Justice Verma Commission to consider changes in rape laws, as well as to ensure that the chargesheet was filed rapidly. This contrasts with the usual experience. Nearly fifteen years back, the West Bengal State Commission for Women had organised  a workshop, in which many women’s rights activists including the speaker had participated. This had resulted in numerous recommendations. Most of them were still to be implemented by the Union Government. This reflected a failure of the women’s movement to develop a sufficiently powerful movement, and this was what made it imperative that the demands made then be taken into the current mass movement.

Supporting the draft, Marik said that in demanding law changes it was necessary to oppose death penalty and chemical castration on a number of grounds. The death penalty will simply ensure that even fewer people are convicted, in view of the mindset of police, administration and judiciary. In addition, the idea that death penalty is to be invoked in the rarest of rare cases will mean it is going to be invoked with a definite class, caste and community bias. Rapists in uniform, or those who rape with intent to threaten entire groups (dalits, minorities, unorganised workers) are not the ones who will be convicted. Instead, it is necessary to redefine the law so that rape ceases to be forced peno-vaginal sexual intercourse. Soni Sori, under the existing law, even if she succeeds in getting the state to bring charges against Ankit Garg, the then Dantewada SP who she has accused of having had her stripped during interrogation and then having sent in thugs to sexually assault her, can get at best a three year jail verdict, since even if every charge were proved Garg would only be convicted of Molestation and Outraging the Modesty of a Woman. These outmoded laws reflecting patriarchal bias have to be removed and all sexual assault brought under tougher law and enforcement.

Regarding the demand for fast track courts, supporting it, she added that till such demands were met, we should also demand that in every sessions court, one room should be set aside for rape and sexual assault cases. She also argued for special provisions for sexual minorities, children, and disabled.

She concluded by arguing that the anti-rape struggle had to take a clearly political stance, given the politics of rape. This involved on one hand the issue of resistance and forms of resistance, and on the other hand a clear distancing from protectionism and rightwing politics. Thus, various members of the Sangh Parivar have made comments about rape that need to be addressed clearly. Mohan Bhagawat, the RSS Supremo, claimed that rapes occur in India, not in Bharat. This is again an attempt to throw the blame on women, sayinv that rapes occur because women have become westernised, etc. This is a theoretically false proposition, as well as factually incorrect. Also, such a comment shows that for the RSS, the political rapes of Muslims, or of Christians, by its cadres – Surat 1992, Gujarat 2002, Kandhamal, are not rapes but legitimate retribution, as urged by V.D. Savarkar a long time back, in his Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History.

 

Bolan Gangopadhyay, speaking next, addressed an important concern. She noted that the focus of the movement had become punishment alone, especially in this one case. This has drawn attention away from other rapes, notably those by army and police. Secondly, she wanted the participants in the movement to feel why rapists were created in our society. This rape, she argued, had specific dimensions. It had happened in South Delhi, where the middle class has felt that therefore such terrible things can happen to them as well. At the same time, the rapists seem to have come from a background that shows them as completely alienated and powerless, which is why they see rape as one terrain where they can exercise power. Unless we can change this situation fresh rapists will be repeatedly produced, even if you hang a few. One of the accused has said you can hang me if you want. This utter lack of care shows a serious problem.

This is connected also to culture and how it reinforces certain values. Winning a woman was the theme of films even when we were young. But Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee, or the Hindi film heroes of those days, were not muscle bound He Men. Today, when Salman Khan woos and wins a girl, he has to display his martial prowess. This macho culture, promoted in so many ways, is strengthening the political culture that produces these thousands and thousands of rapes.

Today, women have obtained some rights. They areas intelligent as men, many have forged ahead in jobs, in different walks of life. So the one area where they are vulnerable, that is where power is being used more and more. Hence the rise in rapes. This basic cause has to be addressed. The political culture of rape, which has been repeatedly talked about, has to be taken up, challenged, and changed. The central issue is not just how much punishment to give to the rapist, but how to create a society which does not produce rapists. We are concerned with stopping rapes, not exacting vengeance after rape is perpetrated.

 

Saswati Ghosh congratulated the youth organisation for having produced such an excellent document and said she felt people of her generation, who had failed to achieve this turnaround, had no business giving long speeches. She spoke briefly about the specific follow ups needed. Apartfrom the general demands, she felt some concrete tasks should be taken up. First, one did not have to go to Manipur, or Kashmir, to see how the state treated women, how rape and sexual assault happened. Such cases had to be taken up locally. It was one thing to talk about rapes in distant places. It was much more relevant if in each locality or province the local cases were systematically followed. For example, the Park Street or the Barasat cases, other local cases.

Ranjita Biswas began by taking up the question of masculinity. What is masculinity? How is rape related to cultural definitions of masculinity? She stressed that sexual violence takes place most within the family. If chemical castration was the answer, then every family would end up with a couple of chemically castrated male members.  This is not to dispute that the Delhi rape case was a terrible, gruesome case. But sexual violence occurs every day. We tend to see ourselves as totally distinct and the rapist as a category apart. But we are actually complicit whenever we remain silent. If we do not want to get into trouble and therefore move away, we are helping the rapist.

Another dimension she touched upon was sexuality and freedom. A whole range of political and social conservative forces are using the debate over rape to push for less freedom, to demand that sexuality be brought under tighter control. So we must carefully think out our demands and campaigns. Rape must not be thought of simply in terms of peno-vaginal forced intercourse. We need to think about same sex relations and rape, about trans persons and rape. And we need to think about protecting freedom. If women are told not to go out at night for fear of rape that is a curb on their freedom. If people have to conform to dress codes that is a loss of freedom.

Finally, if we are seriously campaigning against rape, it is not enough to take to the streets. It is also necessary to look inwards, to address the gender violence in our own homes.

The last speaker, Santanu Sarkar, spoke about the politics and the language of rape. Sarkar argued that there is a link between capital and the cultural construction of women and their rape and commoditisation.

This was followed by some thirty or more out of an approximately 100 strong audience taking part in vigorous discussions.

A few points of debate arose. One was over the use of the term beshya rather than jouna kormi (prostitute rather than sex worker) in the draft. Defenders argued they wanted the abolition of prostitution. Critics argued that we also want the abolition of wage labour. But as of now, we need to look at the reality and recognise this as a form of exploitative work by women, instead of taking the kind of moralistic position associated with the rightwing forces.

Two criticisms can be made of the draft. In recognising the existence of patriarchy, in rejecting the traditional mode of designating women’s oppression as feudal, the draft has taken a geat step forward. But it has not been clear enough in relating the structures of patriarchy with class and caste. The other issue is, the convention was held basically among far left activists. For them, the long term goal may be clear. But if these demands are simply taken and presented in a mass movement where the far left is a small component, then they can appear simply as a set of reformist demands which do nothing to highlight clearly the class nature of the Indian state. Demands will then be made to a state that is inimical to these demands, while creating illusions of the possibility that these demands can be met. The alternative to this was to look at the method of transitional demands, create demands that start from the current consciousness of the masses in struggle, but take them to a point where the exsting state cannot accept the demands. One very obvious point is, every major mainstream party has supported criminals, rapists, or have even used pogroms and rapes. The Congress is tainted with the crimes of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, which included rapes. Ten Commissions later, the principal criminals are even now not charged. The BJP’s role in Gujarat, in Madhya Pradesh, in Orissa, are well known. The SP has put up as candidates people with sexual assault charges against them. Without full realisation of the links between capitalism and patriarchy in today’s India, many of those who are out in the streets hate these parties. We need to direct that hatred. Otherwise, advocates of anti-democratic politics like Anna Hazare will again try to do so. A useful starting point could be, to connect the anti-rape campaign with the campaign for a I don’t support any candidate button in electronic Voting machines, and agitating that if in any seat this polls the highest votes, then all candidates who stood are disqualified. This can be a starting point for turning the anger against politicians into a political discussion about the nature of Indian democracy. A second, obvious issue, is to relate rapes and sexual violence against women in Kashmir and the North East to the general political situation in those areas.

Class-gender relations also need to be examined, not simply in terms of culture of commodities, but in other ways. For example, the condition of SEZs, and specifically of women workers in SEZs. Or, by tackling the issue of sexual harassment at workplaces in a much more systematic manner.

It is to be hoped, that this initiative by KNS will be the beginning of a more widespread transformation of the far left youth in West Bengal and more generally in India.