Readers Write In #221: Why there are so many rapes in today’s India?

Posted on July 11, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

Pick any social or cultural phenomenon of today and try to analyze it. If your analysis does not involve the economic aspect underlying it, you are probably not analyzing it enough. The world of today was not the world we saw a couple of decades ago. The Chennai I grew up in the 1990s has very little resemblance to the Chennai of today. The quantum of change the city has undergone in the last two decades or so is much, much higher than that which happened during the four decades preceding the advent of neoliberalism that hit us in 1991.

This amount of change that happened in almost all aspects of our lives including those of psychology and culture post India’s embrace of neoliberalism was simply too huge and complex to understand that it continues to bewilder both common people as well as public intellectuals even today. On my part, I will try to analyze through this essay the only aspect of increasing rates of criminality happening in neoliberal India with special focus on sexual crimes perpetrated on women.

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Even if the general public is not willing to engage with these phenomena critically, there is no easy escaping the overwhelming flood of news that invade our living rooms through smartphones and televisions bringing gruesome stories of rape, murders, extortion and drugs. Most people would like to dismiss stories of crime as something that has always been part of our societies and that today’s proliferating number of news channels and web-portals greatly exaggerate them as to capture and hold the attention of viewers in order to ward-off competition. But in my opinion, this explanation is hardly sufficient.

India before 1991 was never witness to crimes such as child-rape and human trafficking on a scale that is being witnessed today. The dangers of today to children and women of our families are quite real and staying in denial mode, unfortunately may no longer be an option. However our middle classes especially young and educated ones often overestimate their ability to provide simple solutions to extremely complex problems such as these. One solution offered and the most famous among all of them is the awarding of capital punishment for the incorrigible sexual offender. Some offer less brutal yet more sophisticated punishments such as chemical castration, which might in my humble opinion play only a very rudimentary a role in curbing these crimes.

There are two types of rapes in India to put it broadly – one carried out by persons possessing enormous social and economic power and another carried out by people who have literally nothing of that sort.

Explaining the first kind is quite simple since it is very much a traditional phenomenon in Asiatic countries like India. The case of farm workers and daily wage-labourers being violated by Zamindars and traditionally wealthy elites in rural India has been happening for more than three or four centuries and strong ties of the offenders with local rulers and men in law enforcement offices have often ensured their unchallenged immunity from legal punishment. This class of elites has undergone a radical change in their composition post-1991 with new actors joining their ranks with stupendous rapidity.

Ever since India’s natural resources were opened to private acquisition as part of economic liberalization in 1991, the rewards achievable by being involved in politics grew bigger by the day. Close links with politicians could get hefty rewards for you through mining contracts, permits to run private hospitals and educational institutions which were all these years under the domain of the government. Mining, education, healthcare, real estate and defense were the key sectors in India which created an altogether new class of entrepreneurs whose exponential growth of fortunes in the neoliberal age stunned even people belonging to the traditionally wealthy elite. These new entrepreneurs had so much money at their disposal and found it expedient to cultivate connections in almost all departments of the government. Those involved in law enforcement started making a killing out of these new deals with business elites and were only glad to become their unofficial foot soldiers in dealing with local dissent and trade-union menace. Judges, government doctors and journalists hitherto reasonably immune from the corrupting influence of vested interests were also not spared. As a result, the size of the power-wielding elite grew to unprecedented proportions whose adjuncts employed in the echelons of state power were only too happy to collude in the machinations of the new-born, 21st century Indian capitalist.

This nexus that strung the businessman, the law-enforcer, the law-maker, the judge, the press reporter and the state medical official together was made possible only with the help of the blueprint furnished by the new economic policy adopted by the government in 1991. Those affected by this nexus directly or indirectly had no means to apply for justice since no part of the state’s grievance-redressal network was spared by these new class of entrepreneurs. This is one important reason why the number and gravity of crimes perpetrated by this class grows unabated every passing day as evidenced by the recent sexual crimes reported in Pollachi.

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The second type of rape carried out mostly by poor and lower-middle classes is slightly more complex to understand. To get a hang of it, one needs to understand the economic changes that swept individual lives in post-1991 India. Agriculture, India’s traditional occupation that employed more than 70 percent of India’s workforce in the early 1960s was completely strangulated by the government through a series of market-oriented measures aimed at deregulating the sector from 1991 onwards. India witnessed a massive shift of labour from agriculture to service industries coupled with an unprecedented number of farmer suicides right from the beginning of the new millennium. Millions of workers and their families hitherto directly engaged in farming and related activities were forced to move out of their traditional professions and learn new skills to fit into and survive the new order.

The virtual disappearance of jobs in the agricultural sector was not sufficiently compensated by newer opportunities in other areas. The government also post-1991 declared a virtual ban on state as well as public sector recruitment. Permanent employment was no longer the norm in organized sector while newer forms of less-secure, grossly underpaid contractual employment began to appear almost everywhere.

Glitzy malls selling expensive fashion items, food, films and other forms of recreation cropped up all over the urban centres in India where the disenfranchised rural poor had recently migrated to make a living. Almost all facets of urban life were centered on unbridled consumerism while the ability to acquire expensive commodities, regardless of their purpose and utility was touted to be one of the final goals of modern, civilized existence. Needless to say, neoliberal capitalism of the 21st century for the most part made use of attractive-looking women as the easiest way to sell their wares through advertisements in newspapers, televisions, malls, hoardings and smartphones. Most magazines even before the advent of neoliberalism in India had the habit of making use of scantily-clad women to boost their circulation irrespective of their relevance to the published content. The same trend was adopted by advertisers and film-makers of the 21st century whose role in defining the tastes and attitudes of poor and middle classes cannot simply be overstated.

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The individual who hitherto had safely belonged to his agricultural community in pre-reform India whose values and norms he easily understood received his first shock when he was driven out of his traditional profession. The pressure to adapt to an altogether new way of life in order to survive must have been, no doubt unimaginably huge. Add to it the paltry number of opportunities that were open to him for survival in the new city or town. To top it all, the cultural alienation after having been relocated to a vastly different milieu that brought together with it a completely different set of social and moral standards must have made things even more difficult for him.

Acquiring a job with a fairly decent income has always been the pre-condition for an Indian male to secure marriage from time immemorial. And marriage has always been the only ticket for an entry into the secretly guarded world of sex and carnal fulfilment in a still culturally feudal India. Cities and towns under the influence of neoliberal capitalism through advertisements and pop-culture phenomena, never stopped issuing seductive appeals to both his carnal as well as hitherto dormant consumerist impulses. But this uprooted male never came close to achieving even a dignified form of life which in turn made his chances in the marriage market bleaker and bleaker. Those males who immediately fell to the whims of their consumerist impulses were able to land plumb opportunities in the burgeoning world of organized crime.  Organized crime in the form of kidnapping, extortion, drug-peddling, human trafficking were crucial to the smooth functioning of the neo-liberal economy and the rewards and remuneration involved here were too alluring to say the least. The world of organized crime was pretty much a crucial component of the newly-constructed capitalist power-elite described in the previous part of the essay and being part of it brought rich rewards for men in the forms of access to the hitherto-forbidden world of expensive commodities, high societies and glamorous women. Anurag Kashyap’s Sacred Games helps one to understand this world where societies of the powerful elite live in a state of mutually beneficial harmony with those in the dark underworlds of slum-infested cities.

These men part of criminal gangs through their lucrative association with police authorities as well as influential politicians and businessmen were often tempted to run parallel empires of unchallenged domination which helped them get away with ruthless sexual violence against easy prey such as middle-class college and office-going women. Parents and relatives of these victims had virtually no means to secure justice in this newly-rearranged world of ubiquitous corruption and moral depravity.

Even if sexual criminality of males belonging to criminal gangs and mafia underworld appears quite easy to understand now, there is another often-confusing phenomenon of lower-class males without any of these aforementioned ‘legal protections’ indulging themselves in rapes and other sexual crimes. As observed previously, males belonging to the newly uprooted sections in India especially those who had failed to land opportunities in the tricky world of organized crime, continued to languish within the margins of urban society unable to withstand the pulls and pressures of their smoldering impulses for carnal fulfilment. Even married men with families are often found to be guilty of these sexual crimes which can partially be explained by their physical and emotional estrangement with their families living hundreds of miles apart in their native villages and towns.

All of this is not to imply that only men belonging to the migrant population are responsible for increasing rates of sexual crime in India. Neoliberal India has not only affected those belonging to the agricultural profession but also those involved in their traditional professions such as weaving, pottery, handicrafts and other manufacturing sectors. Introduction of capital intensive equipment into the manufacturing sector by big industrial houses has brought the cost of these hand-crafted goods to historical lows. Thousands of small and medium businesses were as a result shutdown and the displaced workforce were again placed at the mercy of the all-powerful market. To say that this neoliberal phenomenon has in many ways jeopardized the survival of the entire Indian workforce is simply not a wild exaggeration.

Males belonging to these sections of population form the majority in India who on account of a myriad factors such as lack of proper means of livelihood, lack of well-knit families on account of their perennial economic uncertainty coupled with new forms of ‘culture-shock’ due to radically altered male-female equations in a society of financially liberated women were subjected to unforeseen levels of psychological pressure. Bonds created through well-knit families that depended on a reasonable level of social dignity and economic well-being have for centuries together acted as levers counteracting the criminal and aggressive tendencies of men. Middle-class morality in India with its own flaws and contradictions was sturdily built on a strong foundation of financial adequacy and family bonding as a result of which men belonging to these classes, for generations together had their inclinations to violence and criminality strongly tempered by their commitments to family well-being and future economic advancement.

Consequently, uprooted males who belonged neither here nor there, having been completely unmoored from long-term commitments to family bonds in a tricky neoliberal environment of insurmountable financial volatility, realized that they had nothing to lose due to moral overstepping goaded by relentless appeals emanating from the glitzy superstructure of neoliberal capitalism.