Tag Archives: rape

TOI iDiva: A Cinderella Story

Standard

Change on the level of society is a generational thing. The dream is that there will come a day when a rape, even a single one, becomes as shocking as a beheading or a skinned scalp – an act of torture from an unevolved era, not a hypothetical, daily risk. But until then, as depressing and perhaps controversial as the notion is, there is only so much we can do: caregivers today have a responsibility to raise their sons differently, while simultaneously protecting themselves and their daughters from the dangerous conditioning that remains rooted in human mentality at large.

Unfortunately, “protection” is interpreted too frequently in ways which are invasive, imbalanced, curb basic freedoms or blame the victim. The city of Gurgaon recently imposed an 8pm curfew on its female population. This curfew carries multiple layers of responsibility: women are discouraged from working or being out of the home past that hour, and their employers are required to arrange for transportation to drop them back home, in addition to a slew of tab-keeping measures that monitor personal details and activities. Accountability is thus shifted completely away from the police and the authorities; should a crime occur past that hour, they can plead as useless as the post-midnight pumpkin in the story of Cinderella.

As many people have pointed out: why is the onus on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators, to stay off the streets? Why can’t Gurgaon ban its male population from being outside at night?

And why is rape or other gender-based crime (such as eve-teasing or molestation) only expected to happen at night?

The word “curfew” is said to have come from the French words for “cover” and “fire” – “cover the fire”. What Gurgaon has done could happen, as though in a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, in any other city, and in fact already does happen in informal, unstructured ways.

The visual this term – “cover the fire” – conjures to my mind suggests that the fire is not put out, only kept from view. There is a profound and pervasive stifling of “fire” in women – dissent, expression and passion. But there can be no extinguishing it. As any of us who have experienced the curtailing of ambition, moral policing or other forms of inhibition know, the fiery woman knows when to take the form of water: to become amorphous and slip away, reconstituting in kinder vessels, larger landscapes.

A simple example that you might be deeply familiar with: afternoon sex, after all, is the only kind of sex good girls in Madras have.

The most terrifying thing about a law-enforced curfew is not that it has happened, but that it will continue to. The Gurgaon precedent may “inspire” the administrations of other places. Before we get to that stage, and with the sobering reality that a truly egalitarian society won’t manifest overnight in mind, what can be done to effect little changes that might go a long way?

A culture of fear is a culture of defeat. There have to be better ways to protect ourselves and the other women in our lives than to simply say “stay at home, it’s for your own good”. For example: “morality” is taught in schools, but what about martial arts? We routinely carry shawls to cover our upper bodies, but do we carry pepper spray in our handbags? Do city corporations invest in adequate street lighting?

Instead of questioning women who are alone on the street, can’t the police also question male loiterers? Instead of chasing couples off the beach, why not keep a closer eye on actual crime?

Instead of blaming all women, or suspecting all men, why not take the view that we’re all in this together, and that a society is only as sick as its silences?

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

Vachathi

Standard

There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.

Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.

Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.

Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.

Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.

Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.

Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.

It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.

The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.

Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.

An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.

Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.

It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.

That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.

For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.

At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Shaming of Scarlett Keeling

Standard

(Cross-posted at Ultraviolet)

That violence against women rarely grabs any attention except for in the presence of gruesomeness, sensationalism, drama and tragedy is already known. But more disturbing by far than the fact that the murder of a teenage tourist in Goa last month has been making headlines precisely due its cocktail of all the above elements is the level of moral sanctimony that accompanies the media coverage, the ensuing debates, and even what are ostensibly the responses of those who knew Scarlett Keeling and her family.

On February 18, the body of 15-year old Scarlett Keeling, a British national, was found on a Goan beach. Police initially chalked up her death to drowning after consuming too much alcohol, despite evidence of severe bruising and rape. But investigations and post-mortem investigations revealed contradictory facts, as did eyewitness accounts by people who had seen the girl during her final hours. Scarlett had been in India with her mother Fiona MacKeown, MacKeown’s boyfriend, and her siblings. They were frequent visitors, and on this instance were on a six-month-long trip.

Allegations were quickly leveled against MacKeown for her negligence of Scarlett. The moral higher ground was quickly swamped by those chastising her for her irresponsible behaviour. One whiff of scandal led to another, and details about MacKeown’s private life were dug up. Scarlett’s diary entries were exposed in the media. The bottomline message was that somehow, by choosing to lead lifestyles that included partying, sex and substances, they had asked for the tragedy that befell them. Terms like “alleged murder” were popular, as though it could have been anything else, until today’s gruesome revelation: Scarlett was murdered by having her head held underwater for between five and ten minutes. She asphyxiated to death.

It is alarming to watch the cruelty of the media – from possibly every newspaper in the country to even NDTV’s usually fairly progressive We The People to the blogosphere – and what can be gauged of common opinion by it. Despite the horrifying brutality inflicted on a person who by Indian standards was still a child, and the overwhelming confusion and despair her loved ones are no doubt experiencing, the attacks made against the victim and the family censure them with only superficial demonstrations of sympathy. Political officials in Goa are calling for the revoking of MacKeown’s visa and a ban on her entering the country again, blaming her for maligning the image of the state. She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life from both the drug mafia and state officials whom she has linked to them.

Scarlett’s boyfriend, an Indian citizen named Julio Lobo, has been taken for medical tests to see if he is “sexually active”. A DNA test of substances found on or in the victim’s body would not be unreasonable, but pray tell, what does his being or not being sexually active reveal about the horrific tragedy? Is it necessary, given that in her diary, Scarlett had written not only that she had sex with him, but that she felt he used her for it? Is there a test that proves sexual activity in males? Or is this like one of those repressed, backward ideas about broken hymens and being able to pee in a straight line? That this person’s private life is being pried into in a manner that is unlikely to shed any light on the senselessness of the incident is nothing more than one of the many ways in which the blame is being pinned on “the wanton Western way”. The boyfriend, we are to assume, has sinned by his affinity to this lifestyle of debauchery, which – we are also to assume – is imported to India by the likes of the Keeling family. But even that doesn’t quite crack it: Lobo is being tested not because of his character – but because of what the conclusiveness of science is meant to tell us about hers.

Lobo, in turn, has retaliated by attacking MacKeown because she had been aware of Scarlett’s lifestyle (but she says Scarlett was neither a binge drinker not drug abuser, to her knowledge). This, too, is reprehensible. At 25 years old, a decade older than Scarlett, his relationship with her could amount to statutory rape. Clearly, prior to the murder, MacKeown’s liberal parenting style benefited him. His attempt to deflect attention from his actual law-breaking by ganging up against the bereaved mother with the rest of the patriarchy squad is sickening.

In other words, the condemning of the murdered girl, her family, her friends, their lifestyles and their choices is a typical misogynist response – the wicked woman gets her dues. And this time, there are not one but two “wicked women”: Fiona MacKeown, mother of not just the victim, but of several more children of “varying paternity”, and Scarlett herself. That the women in question happen to be from the West (that corrupter of our chaste and virtuous ways of life!) is icing on the cake.

Rape, murder, the works – apparently, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, they can all be justified.

Make no mistake. What we see in the media today is not an enquiry into a crime. It is slut-shaming, plain and simple. The nation is not in shock because a 15 year old has been so brutally treated. Those are not the sounds of protest and outrage; they are the sounds of many hands rubbing in glee, so thrilled to be vindicated of their position that women who break the rules deserve what’s coming to them, and what’s coming to them is exactly what happened to Scarlett Keeling.

But what happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with if she had sex, if she did drugs, if she drank. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with why her mother so frequently chose to travel to India or lived a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has only one reason: some places in the world are not safe for women, not because of culture or tradition, but because of an absence of respect for them as individuals. India is one of them. India killed Scarlett Keeling – and every day, kills many less sensationalized individuals. That Fiona MacKeown has seen this is not delusion on her part.