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16 Jul 2024, Edition - 3290, Tuesday

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The ugly truth: What Salman Khan’s comment on rape and a brutal murder in Chennai say about us

Covai Post Network


From ‘Yes, but’ to ‘Why get into this hassle?’, the responses to two recent incidents are a telling commentary on society.

Google provides you numerous contexts in which the word “rape” is used, and every one of them is terribly insensitive.

In each, it is either raised to a physical combat or reduced to total defeat. At times, it is also used to connote success – an unchallenged victory. Take, for example, the sentence: “I raped the exam.”

This gives us an insight into what we, as a society, think of women and the violence of and in rape. This is the vulgarity that we need to address urgently. Women are looked upon as property and a functional need for men. Roles have diversified, but every one of those new contexts are still viewed from the prism of the man’s world.

Given such a context, rape is but an aberration, a mistake – to some, a grave one – but nothing more.

Irresponsible comments

The manner in which we have objectified women further establishes our belief that rape is only a physical violation. And suggested within that is how immaterial and trivial we consider its emotional and psychological scars.

Salman Khan is not the first and neither is he going to be the last to make such a statement about rape. There have been many, even in our Parliament, who have said similar things, which are forgotten after a few days and everyone moves on.

The ugly truth is that most of us deplore rape but, deep within, we do not abhor the idea of rape. We are not shocked witless at the thought that such an act exists in society, our society. It is not surprising, then, that in pornography, watching rough sex bordering on sexual abuse is still an option for viewers.

Then there is the other word, “but”, which has been used by many to defend or shield Khan and even while trying to address the larger issue. “Yes, but…” they say, and the counter begins.

Originally, the dictionary definition of but was: “outside of, apart from, other than, except.” Today, more often than not, we use it as an excuse or a diversion to soften what is inherently inexcusable. Though understanding the sociology of Khan’s rape comment is essential, it cannot be used as a tool to portray him as a victim of cultural situationality.

Beyond binaries

I want to add here that even among the progressive, rape is only understood in the context of women, forgetting that it is unfortunately an accepted reality in the transgender community and the rape of men is not unheard of either.

I have rarely seen a news report on rape in the LGBT community, something that happens ever so often. Once again, the darkness within lifts its head and we say to ourselves: “They are not like us and such things are a result of their abnormality”.

Prostitution has been described as the world’s oldest profession. We do not know who coined the term but it is generally used by sniggering men as the description of a female calling. Why is rape not called the world’s oldest crime? And here, I’m not just referring to the brutal act that we are so familiar with as to become complacent about but rape in the widest sense of the term. This includes sexual abuse of transgenders by so-called customers and by custodians of the law, sexual acts on vulnerable children (boys and girls), and above all, rape within marriage.

This last form of rape is the most widely prevalent, beginning with the crime on the so-called first night on just-married girls, barely adult and often still below 18 and then on wives in each and every non-consensual action.

We in India regard the un-guarded woman, the girl-child and boy-child, the sexually undefined, as ‘available’, for an act which we regard as wrong – “yes, but, you know…human nature.”

Collective apathy

Around the same time that Khan’s statement was trending, Chennai – my city – witnessed one of its most horrific crimes in the recent past.

Swathi, a 24-year-old Infosys employee, was hacked to death in broad daylight on the platform of one of Chennai’s busiest railway stations. Beyond the failures of the government and police, what was even more shocking is that no one went to help this girl or even call for assistance soon after the incident.

She bled to death and her body lay on the platform for over an hour, while the assailant got away with ease. After the ghastly act, people went on with their lives as though nothing had happened. This apathy is shocking but not surprising, is it?

There’s even a phrase in Tamil for this attitude – yenakkuyedukkuvambu (why get into this hassle?). At the core of this often-used phrase is fear. But not fear of the attacker, fear of the police. No one wants to get involved with the police even as witnesses and this is the primary reason why people have become apathetic. We do not trust the police – we are in fact afraid of them, their physical abuse, manipulations and ability to make accomplices and murderers of simple people.

The police’s force

Following the murder, former police officials have been quoted as saying that inefficiency and corruption in the police force has contributed to murderers and thieves getting away with impunity. What they deliberately avoided addressing is the fear every citizen experiences when a police official appears on the scene. This pushes citizens into the self-preservation mode. And the less privileged you are, the more exploitative the police tend to be.

Instilling fear, it is believed, makes the police effective, because in our minds, people are not innocent until proven guilty – they are guilty until proven innocent.

Therefore the police must be suspicious, unscrupulous and violent. Fear mixed with corruptibility and a general feeling of being above the law is a deadly cocktail. This is our police force and it has destroyed the spirit of the citizen.

What we don’t seem to understand is that fear will never be a deterrent. Efficiency, honesty and commitment to work is what will make the police effective. It is easy to speak about citizen participation, but why would anyone participate when they live in fear? The police must be respected and loved, not feared. Unless the establishment makes an effort to dismantle this oppressive mindset, nothing will change.

Need for change

Swathi was a human being and her murder – for which the accused, who reportedly used to stalk her, has been arrested – has to be seen as an assault on the whole lot of us and not just women. I say this with great trepidation because I recognise that we live in a misogynistic, unequal society.

We have to be very careful that patronising men and women who have internalised chauvinism do not reduce these incidents to further stereotypes of women. That women are weak and need our protection cannot be the underlying tone of the discourse. In the gender hierarchy, men rule and transgenders are at rock bottom. This structure has to be demolished and we must stop viewing gender as a societal differentiator.

Every time there is a sex crime perpetrated by a man, including those against other men and boys, we must highlight the grotesque machismo that drives such acts. At the same time, we must also celebrate all genders and sexual orientations as strong and equal partners in society. They are not to be treated as helpless asylum seekers.

If we want to live in happiness, we have to recognise that hate, dislike and power breed fear. We cannot be selective, justifying these emotions whenever they suit us. These feelings are certainly real and will remain, but have to constantly challenge them. Khan, Swathi, you and I are part of the same problem – a human being’s inherently violent condition.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own

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