ToI's Agent Rana: The Spy Who ... We Don’t Need

"Casual" is probably a good way to describe the Times of India's take on sexual violence. Given how prevalent this kind of violence is in India and elsewhere, that attitude is hard to forgive.

Agent Rana. Credit: Facebook/Agent Rana.ToI

Agent Rana. Credit: Facebook/AgentRana.ToI

Agent Rana, the hero of the Times of India’s daily comic by the same name, is apparently saving the country. That is literally his job description – and the newspaper says you can help him, by uploading photos on Facebook.

If you weren’t aware that India needs the kind of saving a one-man macho spy army is capable of, then that makes two of us. But even apart from the ‘why’ of Agent Rana’s existence, there are a whole bunch of ‘whys’ the newspaper needs to answer – and yesterday’s edition makes those questions clear.

Imagine the worst kind of hypermasculine ‘hero’, and Agent Rana will appear. He has a handlebar moustache, makes all women fall in love with him and has superhuman abilities to fight his enemies even after he’s been shot at and stabbed. While the women in the comic wear only plunging necklines and figure-hugging clothes, Rana is mostly dressed in a suit, or at least a full-sleeve shirt. In between having sex and saving women – as well as referring to them in abusive, violent ways – Rana fights ISIS and all kinds of Islamist extremists, while protecting a ‘good’ Muslim girl in need of saving (who later turns out to be not so good after all). And of course, because it could be no other way, Enemy No. 1 is Pakistan – the country is blackmailing the Indian Muslim girl, and also using counterfeit currency to ‘instigate students’ at India’s universities.

Of course the basic question is why the newspaper would decide to publish something of this sort in the first place – and the cynical answer would be that pandering to prejudices sells. If this was indeed done to please a very specific readership demographic – no matter the cost – then that raises a whole bunch of other questions.

There have been complaints about Agent Rana before; a large number of parents have said that children or teenagers read the paper too and the explicit sexual content isn’t good for them. For some reason, though, the cartoon strip’s ‘Muslims are bad’ and ‘women deserve violence’ messaging hasn’t received the same kind of backlash.

'Hero' (L) and 'villain' have similar things to say to women. Credit: ToI epaper

‘Hero’ (L) and ‘villain’ have similar things to say to women. Credit: ToI epaper

The comic first began in September. Let’s cut out the many painful days of bad writing and Islamophobic storytelling we’ve been served up and forward to yesterday – a day when the Times of India went so far across the line that they probably can’t see it even with Agent Rana’s magic spy telescope.

Five days ago, a new character was introduced – one that many agreed was supposed to be a portrayal of Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Shehla Rashid.

The character, Sameera, was leading protests against the vice-chancellor at the National University of Delhi. This students’ protest was apparently being used by Pakistan to divide India. An ISI agent posing as a former student offers Sameera Rs 50 lakh (in counterfeit currency, of course) to help with the movement. Apparently the students see nothing strange in this offer, and Sameera is so trustful of this man who has suddenly appeared that she agrees to take him to her room. Once there, the agent, Timur, rapes and murders her. This, apparently, because his boss had told him to “commit the most heinous, despicable act ever that will tear and polarise the student community in India for ages to come”.

And so the Indian student leader who doesn’t know any better is raped and murdered – though this adds nothing whatsoever to the basically non-existent storyline so far – by the ISI agent who targets India’s universities to try and take advantage of ‘anti-national’ students. This is how it’s described: “Timur lunges at her. He violates her modesty and knocks her out. He tears a bedsheet and hangs Sameera from the room ceiling fan with it. He quietly closes the door and disappears.”

It seems as though Sameera’s character was created just for this purpose – to have her “modesty” violated. In four sentences, accompanied by illustrations of a woman covering her face in fear and then hanging from the ceiling without any clothes on, a (completely undeveloped) female character is reduced to a pawn for some sort of inter-country enmity. Add to this the fact that the author probably knew that Sameera would make people think of Rashid, and the already dark grey morality of the whole thing turns pretty pitch black.

Casual sexual violence

What is the Times of India getting wrong? Using sexual violence simply as a plot device when it is unnecessary and could easily have been done without should be an obvious no-no. That should probably be amplified by a 100 times when your character is based on a real person. Writing in Café Américain, Lauren Johnson puts it clearly:

Considering the prevalence of violence—in all its forms—against women, I think it’s crucial to explore this reality through art, film, and literature.  In my opinion, a well- written assault scene functions like a form of journalism: it exposes the horror of this kind of violence and opens up a space for discussion in national conversation. The danger however, is that if handled the wrong way, sexual assault can easily become a cheap plot device, or worse, veer into erotica both on the screen and the page.

She quotes Helen Benedict, author of The Sand Queen, a novel on sexual violence within the US military, as saying, “You may be [writing about sexual assault] for political reasons, or for realism, but just don’t do it causally. And you better understand what sexual assault does to its victims, as well as the motivations from the perpetrator’s point of view so you don’t fall into harmful clichés.”

“Casual” is probably a good way to describe the Times of India‘s take on sexual violence. Given how prevalent this kind of violence is in India and elsewhere – and how difficult it has been to have a serious public debate on the issue – that attitude is hard to forgive.