A woman was raped in Kolkata. Another one. As if that is not bad enough, the spotlight is now on the woman being a Christian nun. Now, the rape becomes something else. It is now about religion, minorities, tolerance, conversion and diversity. There is talk of the rise of fascism in India. With that, the rapist is now deemed into a political agent, which now makes him, rather unfortunately, in the eyes of some people not a villain, even if the law catches up with him. While one group uses the survivor’s demographic details to make it a “greater” crime, another group uses this information to make it seem like it is not a crime after all: only an expression of religious and political outrage.
This is what happens in war too – men kill men, but we do not call it murder, we now call it defence of the nation state, thereby transforming the killing into something that the soldier can be proud of. It is apparently okay to kill men and rape women, for a “higher cause”. We are now challenging this idea, especially the rape part. The killing, however, continues unabated, provided it has “democratic sanction”. If not, we call it a war crime. So ISIS beheadings are a terrible thing. But drone attacks are an act of justice. Who decides these divisions and qualifications?
The logic is frightening but all pervasive. Through storytelling, the event becomes something else. Thus the rape victim/survivor becomes a “beacon” for activism and revolution and intervention. Rather than focusing on the crime, rape is now being increasingly used in international forums for “civilisational” reasons. It is being used as evidence that India is indeed a land of heathens, where “English speaking” girls are raped, where rapists and their counsels speak crude native tongues, not English, and treat women like chattels, a truth that even the government wants to suppress and ban (never mind that such films influence court procedures). Somewhere along the line we forget that rape is a human problem, not just an Indian one. The narrative becomes so powerful it denies the victim her name, despite it now being public knowledge, and prefers the grander PR nomenclature: Nirbhaya!
The “Christian nun” who was raped is on her way to become a symbol. There are already articles telling us this is precisely how Hitler behaved before the Holocaust, thus overtly positioning India’s democratically elected government, and its Hindutva ideology, with Nazism. There are articles which talk of all the good work done by Christian missionaries and nuns in the field of health and counselling and education, very significantly leave out evangelism, the bone of contention with Hindutva groups. Such articles refuse to even mention aggressive American evangelical activities and their Joshua Project, where Hindu gods are being described as Satan, that are being confused with the work of Catholic churches and non-evangelical missions. They do not speak of how Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not a homogenous whole, but a collection of numerous denominations and ideologies, and not everyone wants to see the “collapse of Hinduism”. Willy-nilly, such manipulative writing and editing turns the victim/survivor into a propaganda tool.
In the last month, many journalists have approached me to explain Indian masculinity, misogyny and patriarchy using the lens of mythology. I quoted stories from the Bible. They chuckled. “No sir, Hindu mythology.” I argued: Isn’t India more than Hinduism? Surely Abrahamic mythology – which informs Christianity and Islam – is also a narrative that shapes India, not just Hindu mythology. But they insisted I narrate only Hindu stories. In doing so, they were equating India with Hinduism. But when the government does it, the very same journalists will call them religious fanatics.
When I am asked about rape in Hindu scriptures, I refer also rape in the Bible, or the Greek epics. It is important to tell people that every religious literature, Abrahamic, Greek, Chinese or Indian, can easily be used to present any view we want, both positive and negative.
If you are a Bible-hater, like many rational atheists, you can prove that God of the Bible approves rape by quoting passages where Moses encourages soldiers to, after killing the enemy such as the Midianites, “take” their virgin daughters as wives, as in Numbers 31. If you are a Bible-basher, like many evangelical missionaries, you can prove that actually God of the Bible condemns rape by quoting Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy 22:25–27 where the rapist has to be stoned to death. In politics, there is no such thing as objectivity. In politics, we focus so much on the issue, that we forget the woman.
Many Puranas tells us stories of kings who are illustrious and noble. But they also tell us the story of one Danda, son of Ikshavaku, who raped Araja, daughter of the Shukra, the sage of the Bhargava clan. In fury, the sage cursed the king’s kingdom to be destroyed. It transformed into a desolate wilderness that even birds and animals avoided. It was called Dandaka-aranya, the terrible forest, a reminder of Danda’s crime. The story also informs us that Shukra told Araja to just do tapasya and purify herself. The anti-Hindu lens can read this as the father telling her daughter to do penance for being raped, thus holding her responsible for the crime. The pro-Hindu lens would see tapasya as meditation and contemplation that generates mental fire, tapa that is used to burn all negative thoughts and traumatic memories.
Rather than using a crime as a story to further our politics, our hatred/love for religions/ideologies, we must devote at least some time to help the victim/survivor live life to the fullest, not carry the burden of the event forever, as if it is a “permanent stain on their pure bodies”. I personally know at least two women who have trusted me enough to tell me they were raped. Years have passed since then. The rapist in one case is in jail. In the other, got away on a technicality. The women are no longer traumatised or angry. They have, with the help of a psychiatrist in one case, and a guru in the other, moved on. They are both married. Their husbands know of the event and it does not affect their conjugal life or their domestic plans. Families have been supportive. No one talks about the event, anymore. Conversations are more around children and jobs and family issues and future. The memory resurrects itself occasionally. Both husband and wife are mature enough never to use it as bait during fights. For most of the time, life is good.
All this talk of “rape is worse than death” does not help victims/survivors move on with their life. It simply indulges our inner activist who feeds on tragedy and victimhood. It also attributes the foul act too much power, more than it deserves. While justice is important and punishment of criminals necessary, we must not let rape destroy the human quest for life. We must certainly not let the agenda of religious and political forces highjack their lives. Life can be wonderful, if we work at it. There is much glory in the Bible and the Puranas to make it even more wonderful, rape notwithstanding. Let us relish it. Let rapists, bloodthirsty justice-mobs and chest-thumping revolutionaries not take that away from us.