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A Broad Alliance Against a Narrow State

On the first anniversary of the 16 December protests, people from all walks of life came together to raise their voice against sexual discrimination and violence. But though sensitivity to gender issues is on the rise, the state and law lag far behind, writes Tanushree Bhasin

Tanushree Bhasin  21st Dec 2013

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik design

Hum kya chahte? Aazaadi!
Cheen ke lenge! Aazaadi!
Keh ke lenge! Aazaadi!

The narrow lanes of Jantar Mantar reverberated with this slogan last week as hundreds gathered to protest the re-criminalisation of homosexuality by the Supreme Court. In south Delhi, a few hours later, the same slogan was repeated at Jawaharlal Nehru University where another lot of people raised their voice against sexual violence against women. You might have heard this slogan before — in Kashmir where people have been resisting the Indian state's oppression; in Nandigram, where poor farmers resisted land acquisition; in Manipur where the terror of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act forced women to strip naked and protest against the army; or in Chhattisgarh, a region torn apart by indiscriminate State and Naxal violence. It is fitting that this slogan was raised last week too, for what the city witnessed on the anniversary of the 16 December gang-rape was an amazing coming together of all these voices and movements, standing together in defiance of regressive gender laws. We were no longer demanding that the state 'Hang the Rapists' but instead chose to question the very patriarchy embedded in ourselves and the state machinery itself.

Raat mein bhi Aazaadi! Din mein bhi Aazaadi!
Shaadi karne ki Aazaadi! Na karne ki Aazaadi!
Kashmir mein bhi Aazaadi! Manipur mein bhi Aazaadi!
Chhattisgarh mein Aazaadi! Aur Dilli mein bhi Aazaadi!
Mang rahi aadhi aabadi. Aazaadi! Aazaadi!

What do sexual violence and gender relations have to do with land struggles and secessionist movements, you ask? Everything, unfortunately. Control over our bodies and sexual choices is the ultimate assault a patriarchal State can make. It was only a few months ago that a protectionist agenda ('bahu bachao, beti bachao') was pitched in response to the idea of a fictional 'love jihad' that sparked horrifying communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. Women's bodies are repeatedly used as political battlefields, and they end up suffering the most.

Just as the ambit of gender struggle begins to expand, the State begins to oppress certain fundamental rights and refuses to acknowledge progressive gender laws. All newspapers and television news channels asked us on 16 December whether anything had changed at all in the past year, and expectedly the answer was no — late night travel is still unsafe, streets continue to be threatening spaces, and the police is as insensitive as ever. What the people in charge have failed to realise was that these 365 days might not have inspired any systemic changes, but they have transformed, quite dramatically, how we think about gender relations.

Control over our bodies and sexual choices is the ultimate assault a patriarchal State can make in its repressive turn. Women’s bodies are repeatedly used as political battlefields, and they end up suffering the most.

"This has been an extraordinary year — we have all been on the roads, claiming the space as our own and protesting sexual violence. We've exposed sexual harassment at the workplace as something that happens often. This is the year when young men and women demanded that they would not accept sexual violence as routine. We also learnt that an institution as big as the Supreme Court does not have a GSCASH. This is also the year of the visionary Verma Committee report that embodies the progressive pulse of the country," said Nivedita Menon, one of the leading voices of protest and a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

n one year we have accepted that sexual violence is present in our homes. A young journalist is abused at Tehelka and she goes to her male colleagues for help, and they do help and support her — that in itself is a welcome change. Women have starting arguing and demanding that they don't need protection. It is no longer acceptable to them that their freedom be taken away in the name of safety. Most importantly, the number of people who are in for the long battle against patriarchy have increased," said Kavita Krishnan at a candlelight march to the Munirka bus stop on the 16th.

But while people who have engaged with this movement might have moved on to a refined and nuanced understanding of gender relations, the state clearly hasn't. There is a huge distance between the rulers and the ruled, it seems. The first landmark legal breakthrough to come of the churning brought about as a result of the protests in December last year was the Justice Verma Committee report. However, several important aspects of the report were never accepted or altered radically to pass a watered down version of his recommendations as the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013. "The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 fails to criminalise marital rape; promises impunity to the armed forces in effect sanctioning use of rape as a weapon to subjugate; and defines rape so vaguely as to make conviction almost impossible. From finger penetration to penile — it is all categorised as rape which makes conviction quite tricky," Menon later explained.

Activists also suggest that gender neutrality of the victim must be made mandatory in order to take into account sexual violence not only against women, but also men and transgenders. Similarly, the perpetrator must be seen to be male unless in a position of power. If the perpetrator too is seen as gender neutral, complaints by women can be met with counter-complaints to get them to withdraw. The question of impunity to armed forces is particularly chilling, forcing several lawyers, and activists to issue a statement against it when the Bill was still being drafted. "The existing statutory immunity for armed forces 'acting in the line of duty' surely cannot apply to sexual assault committed on women. No sanction should be required to proceed with prosecution of such personnel in sexual assault cases," the joint statement read.

“If no one had protested I would still have been locked up somewhere.”Tanushree Bhasin


Similarly, while a particular section of the society seems to be slowly arriving at an acceptance and inclusion of queer identities within different social and cultural spaces, the law clearly took several steps back last week, reviving the draconian and regressive Section 377, which criminalises homosexuality. This Supreme Court judgment, the consequences of which we are still grappling with, reversed the High Court's decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2009. With this judgment, the struggle against Section 377 and sexual violence seemed to coalesce into one, marking an important stage in the gender equality movement in the country. It is to the credit of the feminist movement in India that it has been able to help critically understand the complicated nature of the subcontinent's reality. We have learnt to go beyond the category of 'woman' and to remember that one's caste, class and religious identities too mark us in specific ways. This is one aspect of Indian feminism that contemporary movements owe a lot to.Image 2nd

The LGBT movement owes a lot to the feminist movement and our enemy is the same. What do these words 'g***u', 'chhakka' and phrases like 'tu leta hai ki deta hai' mean? They tell us that patriarchy defines the biases against homosexuality too. Ek ka haq toot-ta hai toh sabke haq toot-te hain. The homosexual community is embedded in patriarchy too. We need to unlearn so many things. So long as we keep questioning ourselves, we will be able to question patriarchy in society. It is no longer enough to talk about equality. We also need to talk about inequality and how it functions. The ruling states that only 'a minuscule percentage' of India's population is lesbian, gay and transgender. Are laws defined by statistics? If that is so then we are all dalits, Kashmiris, homosexuals and women. It is time for different movements to come together," activist Gautam Bhan said.

This interconnectedness of issues pertaining to gender, caste, class and communalism was voiced by other activists too. "We are no longer talking only about women's liberation or about their bodies. We are now talking of liberty of relationships," said lawyer Vrinda Grover.

It is clear that the law of the land doesn't reflect the sense of the people. So what does one do when all of a sudden anyone who indulges in "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" is deemed a criminal, while marital rape isn't even recognised as an offence? "We have to show the state what we really want and who we are. If that means breaking the law, then we must break it," Menon asserted.

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