Published: 07th December 2019
Why the encounter in Hyderabad doesn't help us truly address rape as a social crime
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) will conduct a spot inquiry at the site of the “encounter” near Tondupally toll plaza in Telangana where four men were gunned down
Reading and defining rape as only a sexual offence that is a product of lust or desire is falling into the patriarchal trap that enables rape. Rape is unlike other crimes that are defined in criminal codes across the world. It is not merely an intrusion in another person’s bodily integrity, but is, more importantly, a tool of assertion of power making a claim of ownership over the body that is violated – it is a heady mix of power assertion that has patriarchy doing the tango comfortably with other identities like caste, class, race, ethnicity and so on.
Since the beginning of the history of human conflicts, rapes have been a part of warfare. Women to be raped were part of the booty – like treasure or livestock - for pillaging raiders and victorious armies. Rape has always been a weapon of war. Buggery was used in Guantanamo Bay to break prisoners. Christendom sanctioned rapes of non-believers both in the Old Testament and when the crusaders ravaged West Asian non-believers. And rapes are as civilisational omnipresent as patriarchy. So, South Asia is no exception. The birth of the Indian and Pakistani states was among other things with violent rapes. Caste rapes were always normal. Post formation of the Indian state, rapes have been used to hegemonically show the other their place, be it in Gujarat in 2002, Kunan Poshpora in 1991, Bastar rapes of 2016, Thangjam Manorama in 2004 etc.
The ideology of rape is rooted in the patriarchal idea of propertisation of women, their bodies, sexuality and desire. Popular discourses on rape want to see women in relation to men as their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and so on and focus on the implication of rape on existing social mores rather than on the woman who has been raped. This, perhaps would explain selective outrage on rape when on the same day that the Hyderabad vet was raped and murdered a 25-year-old tribal law student was abducted from Ranchi's VIP Zone at gunpoint and gang-raped by 12 men, a 20-year-old Dalit girl was raped and hanged to death in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, a 32-year-old woman while returning home along with her relative on a two-wheeler was gang-raped by 5 men from Neyveli in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, a 14-year-old was raped by 2 men in Vadodara, Gujarat and an 11-year-old was kidnapped, held captive for three days and raped by an auto driver in Chandigarh. But, only the vet got the necessary attention.
In 2017 alone 32,559 cases of rape were reported all over India and of these 93.1 per cent cases were committed by those known to the victim. One should see these numbers in the backdrop of a deeply entrenched patriarchal society where reporting rape is rare given the stigma around it and another huge number would be hidden given the prevalence of marital rape which is still legal. In this context, it may seem perplexing that a few individual cases like the Hyderabad vet’s case or the bus gang rape and murder in Delhi in 2012 can create humungous public outrage that has literally been baying for the blood of the alleged rapists even without affording them a process of trial. For me the reason for this outrage is elementary. Because, it is not so much against the notion of rape and how it violates the bodily integrity, sexuality and desire of a person, but it is against the audacity of a person from an undesirable social location in committing this crime against someone perceived as one of “us”. It is a dangerous mix of class, caste and gender as the other!
It is in the above context that we need to examine the events that led to the 6th December 2019 early morning shootout, where the four accused in the vet rape case were killed by the police. On the night of 27th November, a vet was raped and burnt. When she went missing, her parents reported to the police, who did not take any action. Her charred remains were found under a bridge the next day morning. Based on CCTV footage of the people who accosted her at a toll gate, the police zeroed in on 4 people as the main suspects and started rounding them up. But even before the police investigation was underway based on the leaked name of one of the suspects, rumours and propaganda started flying on social media whipping up a communal hysteria. However, when the names of the other three suspects were released – the hysteria proved to be counterproductive for those who started it, but mass outrage and media trial was in full swing. The police also received a fair amount of public flak for the handling of the crime right from the time they got to know about the vet missing. Their misogynist advisories to contain the public relations backfired and they were under pressure. Meanwhile, a collective bloodlust was unleashed. People started demanding instantaneous justice. In a parliamentary discussion, MP Jaya Bachchan notoriously demanded that rapists be handed over to be lynched.
From what can be gleaned from what is available in the public domain, the police investigation was still at a nascent stage. The only evidence against the suspects was the CCTV footage and confessions made to the police, which under evidence law isn’t admissible in a court of law (rightly so, because most often confessions are extracted under torture). The case, in the event it had reached trial would have had to depend on scientific (read forensic) evidence if any, witnesses if any and/or if one of the accused turned an approver – but that is in the realm of speculation. To cut a long story short, whether these men were the actual rapists or not, the investigation had not yet established anything conclusively as against media and social media. So, at the ungodly hour of 3 AM of 6th December, police under the supervision of an IPS officer, VC Sajjanar decides to reconstruct the crime scene. The police narrative is that two of the accused allegedly tried to escape grabbed a gun and fired at the police present there and in the retaliatory fire all four were killed. This event satisfied the bloodlust of those who wanted instant justice while getting brownie points for the police covering their serious lapses while handling the case.
The troubling part is that the police narrative has been largely bought unquestioningly. Not too many people seem to be bothered that the reconstruction of crime scene was sought to be done at 3 AM, that a police force could not contain four casual labourers who have had no previous history of crime, that even if one of them had grabbed a gun, it is unlikely that he would have known how to use it, that if two tried to escape why were all four shot at, why weren’t the escapees shot at below the knees, why couldn’t the police use a camera, as is becoming a practice nowadays, to shoot the reconstruction of crime scene. But collective bloodlust seems to be blind to these questions. It doesn’t help the police case that VC Sajjanar orchestrated a similar extra-judicial murder in 2008 using the same modus operandi that resulted in the death of three suspects.
This extra-judicial murders and their celebration have far-reaching consequences. In the immediacy of this present case itself, rather than justice being done, these murders have subverted the same because we are never going to know what exactly happened on the night of 6th November, for all the people who had the knowledge have been eliminated. Moving beyond the present case, feting this murder is a public sanction for non judicial state murders. Rape is just one peg in the entire gamut of civil liberties. People can be bumped off for mere suspicion in other offences as well as long as public bloodlust can be kept alive.
It is going to affect rape and sexual violence jurisprudence adversely as well because this doesn’t address the basic reason for rape – patriarchal attitude and propitiation of women, especially in a society which responds to rape based on the social location of the rapist and the victim, where a Chief Justice got away without the stringent investigation that the court he headed itself had recommended in a case of sexual misdemeanour and almost an entire bar association came out to protest the prosecution of the accused in a case where a child was gang-raped and murdered. On one hand rape conquests are going to up their ante, and become more violent as it would be dangerous to let the victims survive, while on the other, the most prevalent forms of rape – hegemonic – in a fiduciary and caste sense – will largely remain unreported and when reported will continue to elicit no social response.
In the meantime, there has been a conscious attempt to pit right to life and due process against the right of the victim. Such arguments are not only egregious and against the basic spirit of human rights jurisprudence where one right cannot be privileged against another, but it is also mischievous. In fact, the only way that the victim in this case or any other case can get justice is when due process is followed and guilt is established – otherwise doubts regarding guilt would continue to linger.
It is my opinion that a jurisprudential construct has to be evolved to describe rape (of all genders) keeping in mind that rape isn’t just a sexual offence and is a tool to reinforce identity hegemony - Viz. class, caste, race, ethnicity etc., to terrorise people, a weapon of war, to subjugate people in fiduciary relationships and so on. This has to be done while asserting the bodily integrity of women, their sexuality and desires. To limit the understanding of rape to the sexual gratification of patriarchal men alone is to limit the approach to eradicating it!
(Bobby Kunhu is an advocate and an activist)