The protests after Jyoti Singh’s gangrape essentially led to the production of two things – one of which we chose to remember, the other we swept under an already-burgeoning rug full of uncomfortable facts.
The first – stricter laws to punish rapists! Guaranteed justice for survivors! The second by-product was the documentary India’s Daughter, which included interviews with Nirbhaya’s assaulters.
The set of laws assured us that nothing of this kind would ever happen again, the threat of stricter punishment would deter the nation’s depraved would-be rapists from even thinking of assaulting a woman. The second told us that legal conviction had no impact on Nirbhaya’s assaulters’ moral convictions. They felt no remorse. They truly believed they’d done the ‘right’ thing that night.
What kind of law or threat of punishment would deter men like these? But luckily, the government saved us from asking that question by preventing the film from being aired in India at all. There’s a case to be made in favour of forgetting. We were a traumatised nation, so the state decided to focus on the future for all our sakes. Here are some new laws, they told us. Safety for all. But the bitter lesson of the last six years has been this – trauma doesn’t dissolve in silence, it only hardens.
There’s another child rape that made the news this week. Author Junot Diaz outlined an entire life shaped – twisted – by the aftermath of a violent childhood rape in a lengthy piece for the New Yorker. Since the age of eight, Diaz has lived an existence in which he has felt undeserving of love, unworthy of being alive. Professional success, romantic success, sexual success – none of it could loosen that knot of trauma. No place, no person, no relationships, no story he wrote ever let this man feel safe. No silence, no matter how deep, relieved him of his burden.
And that’s the realisation we’re arriving at as a nation too. No amount of virtue signalling will erase this collective trauma. No matter how many laws we make to ‘liberate’ Muslim women from the death-grip of triple talaq or how many women we appoint to powerful political offices, or how many times we shout ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’ – nowhere will feel safe. Not the mean city streets of Delhi nor the idyllic glades of Jammu and Kashmir. Not even the cool fragrant interiors of a temple.
Our trauma stems from betrayal. The shock of realising that a fellow citizen may want to harm us just because they can. The realisation that an innocent child’s life was just collateral damage for a politicised, communally-charged agenda. That the very men we task with upholding the social and legal fabric of our society orchestrated this heinous plan. The fact that lawyers – the people meant to help us get our due – have organised to deprive us of exactly that. And finally, this cruel silence from our government that is usually quick to assure us that no harm will come to us. Unless of course, we happen to be the father of a vocal assault victim. Then we may lose our life under the hawk-eyed surveillance of the state itself.
At 23, I’m wondering if I’ll ever walk a Delhi street at 11 pm alone with a calm heartbeat. If I will ever trust the men around me. If I will ever trust the state itself to protect me from any harm, and to deliver justice if harm does befall me. Because the state and its apparatuses – the police, public lawyers, policymakers – are the only entities that actually owe me protection and justice, not my male family members, friends or acquaintances.
For the last six years, so many of us have tirelessly spelled out the many ways in which we incur harm for simply existing as women. We have ignored our own trauma in the hopes that explaining our side of things will earn us the authorities’ attention – and protection. That we, too, will be treated as full-fledged citizens with claims to the state’s power. In return, we’ve received measures that are turning out to be hollow platitudes – laws nobody means to enforce, misogynistic norms nobody intends to break.
It’s hard to ignore the methodical intentionality behind the rape and murder of the eight-year-old in Kathua. It wasn’t about her as an individual at all. Her body stood in for her community, reducing her personhood to the possession of one entity that could be ‘taken’ by another. The ensuing protests have also been about communities’ honour and assets. How easy it is to politicise women’s bodies. What a brutal reminder that body policing and sexual assault are never apolitical endeavours, not when it comes to mythical characters like Padmavati and definitely not when it comes to real people like the eight-year-old in Kathua.
If we’re just political pawns in the game of nationalism, it’s no wonder the state doesn’t think we’re worth responding to.