December 16th Movement: Looking Back A Year Later

A year ago, a massive movement erupted on the streets of Delhi and the country – against the brutal gangrape of a young woman on a bus, leading to her death.

Look back at that movement a year later, it is clear that the questions, concerns and above all the tensions and debates embedded in that movement are with us still – and are quite crucial to the political discourse around us.

I stress ‘tensions and debates’ because of course, there’s a tendency to speak as though ‘the movement’ was one homogenous entity. That it spoke in one voice – ‘for the nation’. That the ‘nation’ wanted to ‘protect women’ and ‘hang the rapists’. The truth, of course, has more layers to it. If we could hear the voices seeking to protect women and avenge rape, there was an equally significant counterpoint striving to be heard, and made itself heard in spite of all the odds. These were the voices demanding ‘freedom without fear’, challenging the culture of victim-blaming, and seeking accountability from the State towards women’s freedom and autonomy.

I’m not trying to suggest the two sets of voices were mutually exclusive or even hostile to each other. It’s more probable that both voices wrestled each other within the same persons. Nevertheless, these two sets of voices did represent two models of political vision; two kinds of political possibilities. A year later, the political contest between these two political possibilities is more relevant than ever.

Beyond Patriarchal Protection and Vengeance

Many moments in the movement reminded us that there is a new, emergent alertness towards the politics of patriarchal protection. Early in the movement, a video of a street speech rejecting ‘protection’ that came with the baggage of benign patriarchal restrictions, and demanding instead protection for ‘freedom without fear’, went viral on the internet, getting some 55000 hits and being translated into several Indian languages. It so happens that it was I who made that speech. But to me, it doesn’t feel like ‘my speech’; the speech itself was born, after all, from the hand-made placards around me, that angrily challenged rape culture, and from the anger that women protestors felt at being asked by a well-meaning reporter if the Government should not at least protect women who ‘can’t help having to go out at night.’ What caused that speech to strike the chord that it did?

Individual communications indicated that the speech had struck a chord especially with women, who resented being accused of ‘risky behaviour’ that ‘courted rape.’ The ideas in the speech weren’t exactly new, but the shape they took as a political slogan was certainly new. As the months have passed I have realised that many of us women had been mulling those thoughts in our heads, even before December 16th. And that post December 16th, thousands of people, especially women, were able to connect empathetically with each other and articulate a new political idea.

The speech that went viral said


“We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!...Even if women walk out on the streets alone, even if it is late at night, why should justifications need to be provided for this, like ‘she has to work late hours’ or ‘she was coming home from a BPO job or a media job’? If she simply wants to go out at night, if she wants to go out and buy a cigarette or go for a walk on the road — is this a crime for women?...Freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.”

Shuddhabrata Sengupta, writing about the movement and about ‘Confronting the rules of rape,’ talked about the protestors and the woman assaulted on December 16th together occupying the subversive position of the Jugni or Abhisarika: “A woman who goes out into the night—to claim the night, to revel in its promise, thrill and comfort.”

And as the movement progressed, the slogan of ‘freedom without fear’ was embraced by others beyond women. The right of the protestor at the barricades, the Muslim, the Kashmiri, the woman or man from the North East, the working class slum-dwelling man or woman, the sex-worker, came to be asserted with the right of every woman, to access the streets and public spaces freely without fearing violence, without being seen as ‘suspicious.’ It was a revelation to see college-going women respond to the slogan of ‘naari mukti’ (emancipation of women) with an emphatic ‘sabki mukti’ (emancipation of all). In the course of the movement, women students of Delhi University colleges demanded to know (in the face of angry reprimand from their Principals) why curfews and restrictive hostel timings were imposed on them in the name of safety; and why Delhi Police could put up posters outside their college advising them to head home straight after college instead of loitering.

In 2011, a book titled Why Loiter?: Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets (Penguin Books India) was published. Its authors, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade, wrote about how women in public space had to conduct themselves with a concern for proving the respectability of their purpose, rather than actual ‘safety’. They sought to articulate a political agenda against violence in terms of the right to enjoy ‘loitering’ aimlessly and even take ‘risks’, for the sheer pleasure of it, in the city. They wrote, “The quest for pleasure actually strengthens our struggle against violence, framing it in the language of rights rather than protection.” They asked us to imagine what public policies (such as, for example, 24/7 public toilets) we should expect from the State, that would make women welcome in public spaces instead of seeing them as a source of anxiety. Instead of framing the agenda against gendered violence as one in which women need ‘protection’ from potential aggressors (profiled as working class, jobless youth, Muslim, migrant, etc), Why Loiter asserted the right of women as well those profiled sections of people to access public space freely:

“It is only when the city belongs to everyone that it can ever belong to all women. The unconditional claim to public space will only be possible when all women and all men can walk the streets without being compelled to demonstrate purpose or respectability, for women’s access to public space is fundamentally linked to the access of all citizens. Equally crucially, we feel the litmus test of this right to public space is the right to loiter, especially for women across classes. Loiter without purpose or meaning. Loiter without being asked what time of the day it was, why we were there, what we were wearing and whom we were with.”

Indeed, Why Loiter could have been a manifesto for those in the December 16th movement, who had asserted the right of women to be risky and adventurous instead of a constraining ‘protection’, and who had called for ‘naari mukti/sabki mukti.’ Yet, most of us who raised those slogans or gave those speeches hadn’t actually read the book (in my case, I only read the book months later). The movement did reveal the fact that those ideas don’t inhabit academic books alone, they do have a social, material life, and they can be the stuff of people’s political imagination.

And the anger against victim-blaming and ‘dress codes’ to keep women ‘safe’ weren’t confined to women in Delhi saying ‘meri skirt se oonchi meri awaaz’ (my voice is higher than my skirt). In rural Siwan, Bihar, 500 women gathered in February 2013 to protest Asaram’s visit there, incensed by his suggestion that the December 16th rape could have been avoided if only the woman had called the rapists ‘brother.’ Fuelling their rage were some other factors too. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had said rapes happened only in India, not Bharat (implying that women who embraced ‘westernised’ clothes/culture got raped). Closer home in Siwan, both Hindu and Muslim panchayat leaders had competed to issue ‘bans’ on women’s using mobile phones or wearing jeans or skirts. The women protestors not only came armed with eggs and tomatoes for Asaram; they gave speeches there declaring that if anyone tried to impose a ban on women wearing jeans, they would beat up men who wore shorts (a reference to the RSS uniform), pants, shirts, or anything but ‘dhoti and khadaun’ (loincloth and wooden clogs). Subsequently, Asaram himself has been arrested for raping a 16-year-old girl in his ashram. A comrade told me recently that in his village in Begusarai, Bihar, the Laxmi Puja pandals included figures of Asaram with women beating him up with footwear. Asaram’s fall from godman to folk-devil started long before the rape charge, with the widespread disgust for his attempts to blame a young woman for her own rape.

So, there was a very significant part of the movement that challenged the discourse of patriarchal protection and vengeance, and the class, caste, and communal pathologies that accompany it. But that is not to undermine the fact that the discourse of patriarchal protection and vengeance was also a very strong current in the movement, shaped and harnessed by well-calculated political signals from the ruling class.

‘Protection,’ Profiling and Patriarchy

There are ways in which a brutal, graphic rape like what took place on December 16th – as opposed to the ‘normalcy’ of everyday discrimination and violence - can suggest that the patriarchal State is ‘not man enough to protect our women.’ This was expressed quite literally in some of the protests which used bangles to represent effeminacy and emasculation of politicians and police. One young woman held a placard at India Gate during the December protests that declared, “MPs in Parliament break your bangles, leave it to us to deal with rapists.” The Aam Aadmi Party cadres protesting the rape of a child in Delhi raised slogans inviting the Delhi Police Commissioner to wear bangles. In Mumbai, the gang rape of a young woman was followed by Shiv Sena women presenting bangles to the Police Commissioner in protest. In this backdrop, the demand for a graphic retribution – like hanging - for rapists in such a case can serve to reassure patriarchy of its ability to punish; to assert that ‘We are man enough to avenge our women’.

Protection, as we have already seen, is coded to connote various patriarchal restrictions for women. The Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi said recently, spelt out the logic underlying dress codes, “women are like gold...if you don’t keep it locked up, it’ll be stolen.” Other leaders across parties (Congress, BJP, even CPIM) have of course advocated dress codes and curfews for women as protection from rape.

Protection also implies that not all women are worthy of it. Women who fail the test of patriarchal morality; women whose caste and class identity does not spell sexual ‘respectability,’ fall outside the embrace of protection.

And protection also implies the projection of Other from whom women need protection. In the wake of the December 16 rape, it was easy to profile slum-dwellers as the source of the fear of rape. About 10 days after the rape, the Prime Minister of India said ‘footloose migrants’ from rural areas represented the ‘menace’ that gave urbanisation a ‘monstrous shape.’ Recently, a Delhi Police ad had a photograph of a little boy, obviously from an urban poor background, with the ad-line “Help him learn to chop an onion. Before someone teaches him how to chop a head.” This ad implied that the child was doomed to become a dangerous criminal unless he became a child labourer, chopping onions at dhabas. The ad was well in line with the shrill campaign in the wake of the December 16th rape, demonising the ‘juvenile’ – a word inevitably applied to poor, never to privileged teenagers. Following the Mumbai gang rape in which several of the accused were Muslim slum-dwellers, the Shiv Sena and MNS began a vicious campaign suggesting that ‘Bangladeshi’ migrants were responsible for rape.

The Politics of ‘Protecting Women’

In the year since last December, we’ve seen the fear of sexual violence and the narrative of ‘protection’ from such violence being harnessed by various brands of political mobilisation. The profiling of certain sections of men as a sexual threat as a justification for violence against those sections, has been wedded to an agenda of controlling women’s sexual autonomy in the name of ‘protecting’ them. As Kum Kum Sangari observed, “Patriarchies provide a potentially hospitable space where racism, casteism, communalism could meet.” (Sangari, ‘The ‘Amenities of Domestic Life’: Questions on Labour’, Social Scientist, Vol 21, Nos 9-11, 1993)

Not long before the December 16th rape, Dharmapuri district of Tamilnadu had witnessed vicious anti-dalit violence, orchestrated on the pretext of a Dalit youth Ilavarasan marrying a Vanniar caste woman, Dhivya. In the months that followed, the hate-campaign and violence against Dalits intensified, and on July 4, Ilavarasan died in suspicious circumstances. Leaders of the Pattali Makkal Katchi and its front the Vanniyar Sangham have given speeches declaring that young Dalit men wearing jeans, T-shirts and sunglasses, riding motorcycles and wielding mobile phones are indulging in ‘love dramas’ to lure girls of the Vanniyar caste. ‘Protecting’ Vanniyar girls from predatory sexualised Dalit men of course also involves preventing them from exercising autonomy in whom they love or marry.

A very similar campaign underway in Western UP has preceded the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. In Muzaffarnagar, khap panchayats had been in the news last year for seeking to impose bans on women having mobile phones or wearing jeans. Khap panchayats in Haryana and Western UP are notorious for custodial (‘honour’) killings of couples who marry in defiance of caste norms.

The same khap panchayats were the vehicle for a concerted RSS campaign raising the bogey of ‘love jehad’ – i.e Muslim youth who seduce Hindu women away from the Hindu fold on the pretext of ‘love’. The ‘love jehad’ campaign revives the older communal myths of lustful Muslim aggressors and unbridled Muslim population growth and combines it with the more recent profiling – by State agencies as well as communal outfits - of Muslim youth as terrorists.

The ‘love jehad’ myth claims that good-looking Muslim men are identified, given neutral names like Sonu and Raju, given jeans, t-shirts, mobiles, and bikes and trained in madarsas to seduce women. As in the Tamilnadu anti-Dalit campaign, here the markers of sexualised Muslim masculinity are ‘jeans, t-shirts, mobiles and bikes.’ Whereas ‘skullcap and beard’ were already propagated as markers of potential ‘jehadis’, the ‘love jehad’ campaign sows suspicions towards Muslim youth in secularised clothing, that is projected as dangerous precisely because it doesn’t distinguish them from Hindu youth.

The incident that became the pretext for the communal violence was narrated as one in which two Hindu youth killed a Muslim youth who was ‘stalking their sister,’ leading the Muslims to come and kill the two Hindu men. There was no evidence of any stalking or sexual harassment, yet the campaign gained force. Moreover it was propagated that the Muslim family who lost a son had several other sons left, whereas the Hindu families whose boys were killed had no sons left, having used ‘family planning.’

The khap mahapanchayat which was the launching pad for the worst of the communal violence at Muzaffarnagar deployed the slogans of protecting ‘women’s safety and honour’: ‘Beti Bachao, Bahu Bachao, Samman Bachao’ (protect daughters, daughters-in-law and honour). The slogans were available ready to hand – being the same slogans that are deployed to justify ‘honour’ killings and bans on same-gotra and inter-caste marriages.

More recently, audio tapes were released by a media website which showed that BJP’s Uttar Pradesh in-charge Amit Shah, when he was Gujarat Home Minister, directing the minute-by-minute illegal surveillance by the Anti Terrorist Squad of a young woman, to relay information to his ‘Saheb’ – presumably the Gujarat Chief Minister. The intimate and obsessive nature of the surveillance on her male friends and private life point to stalking. The tapes have not been denied, yet a bizarre defence has been offered by the BJP. The BJP claims it was all for her protection – at the request of her father. BJP’s national spokespersons have declared on TV that such surveillance is essential to ‘protect’ women from rape! The BJP is banking on the hope that public common sense – if not a Court of law - will be willing to buy the idea that illegal snooping may be justified to ‘protect’ an adult woman from her ‘dangerous’ male friends.

Azaadi: An Essential Agenda for Democracy

The developments at Tamilnadu and Muzaffarnagar and the Stalk-Gate tapes are an urgent warning bell that the fear of sexual violence – conflated with the fear of women escaping patriarchal sexual control – is being exploited politically to justify restrictions on women’s freedom, profile Dalit and Muslim communities and unleash violence on them.

The young women’s slogans of ‘bekhauf azaadi – khap se bhi, baap se bhi’ (fearless freedom – from khap panchayats and even from our fathers) were cause for some embarrassed and uneasy smiles even among comrades. At one workshop, some young male comrades said, “Those slogans may be ok for Delhi, but how can we explain or justify them in rural areas?” Others comrades also confessed that they would probably use the ‘freedom’ slogan without quite spelling out what kind of freedom was sought, and from which structures. The question is: can the Left and democratic forces possibly hope to challenge the bogey of ‘love jehad’ and the campaigns against Muslims and Dalits in rural areas, without confronting the culture that denies women ‘azaadi’ from fathers, families, and caste panchayats? As long as the idea of patriarchal control over women in the name of their protection remains ‘available’ as a ‘hospitable space,’ violence against women will continue to be justified by victim-blaming, and communal fascist and casteist politics will keep breeding there. Shrinking that ‘hospitable space’ is absolutely crucial. It is all the more urgent to recognise that such ‘azaadi’ for women from the patriarchal structures of the household, caste, and community – including financial, social and sexual autonomy - has to become a priority political agenda for the Left and for all democratic, progressive movements.

Capitalism Doesn’t Set Us Free

The US Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell has recently said that American students feel insecure about coming on study trips to India because they fear rape. This statement has come a few months after a blog post by an American woman student which spoke of experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the relentless sexual harassment and violence in India, generated a huge response. The woman student is white; another black woman who had been with her on the same tour had written a response saying that the relentless harassment was indeed traumatising, but cautioning against the dangers of racial profiling, which she as a black person in America had experienced. Many Indian women actually responded to the first blog post with empathy, saying it was terrible that they accepted this daily trauma as ‘normal’. I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you admit that sexual violence is worse in India?’

An interview where one of the authors of Why Loiter described her experience of the US and India, describes the problem accurately: “Ironically, although the fear of actual rape loomed much larger in America than it ever did for me in India (there was a serial rapist at large around my campus), it did not limit my sense of freedom in the way that the small everyday acts self-policing did here.” (Mumbai Hollaback website, March 7,2011, http://mumbai.ihollaback.org/2011/03/07/why-loiter-women-and-risk-on-mumbai-streets/)

Speaking about the issue to audiences in the US and UK recently, I pointed out how even within India, there is an attempt to keep the discourse around rape reassuring by locating the problem outside one’s comfort zone. So, there are attempts to address rape as though it’s a danger emanating from strangers on streets or certain profiled communities as opposed to the ‘safe havens of the homes.’ The only useful movement against sexual violence can be one that brings the problem home, right into the comfort zone, that challenges rather than reassures patriarchy, that exposes the violence found in the ‘normal’ rather than locating violence in the far-away and exotic. For people in the US or Europe, it might be reassuring to imagine that sexual violence and gender discrimination happens ‘out there’ in India, rather than to look around and question the violence embedded in the ‘normal’ around them. The questions to ask would be: how does the politics of ‘protecting’ women, and of propaganda about ‘good and bad women’ play out in advanced capitalist societies? In what ways are countries like the US and UK complicit in the violence and discrimination that women face in India or Bangladesh?

In the UK, too, policies projected as ‘protecting’ women from violence actually rob women of any control over their situation, and are being used to profile immigrant and working class men. The Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs), supposed to support ‘high-risk’ cases of domestic violence, are an instance. Decisions (including, in the case of immigrants, deportation of a partner deemed to be abusive or ‘high-risk’, for instance) can be taken without the woman herself being present at the Conferences! In other recent instances, there has been a concerted campaign to profile Asian Muslim men as guilty of ‘grooming’ young white women. The ‘grooming’ campaign is very similar to the ‘love jehad’ campaign in India. In fact the actual instances of sexual exploitation has little to do with the ethnicity of the perpetrators, and more to do with organised businesses that were profiting from the exploitation. Ironically, the cases of sexual abuse or exploitation of children by powerful white men, is not described as ‘grooming’!

In India or elsewhere in the world, neoliberal economic policies require women to bear a great burden of domestic labour and to be available as pliant labour in the workplace. Rape culture and victim-blaming discourse that has been heard loudly from cops, politicians across the world help to maintain the gendered discipline by reinforcing the notions of ‘good/bad’ women. And the ‘good/bad’ dichotomy isn’t restricted to rape culture and sexual violence. Black women receiving welfare in the US are stigmatised as ‘bad mothers.’ In India, ASHA workers are profiled as ‘good’ women who will labour for public rural healthcare without a salary – as an extension of women’s ‘selfless service’ within the household!

Multinational corporations are implicated in the sexual and other forms of violence that women resisting those corporations in India face. They are also implicated in the continued subordination of women in, say, Bangladesh, since they profit from the underpaid and insecure labour of these women, who work in factories that might catch fire or collapse!

Gendered violence in India isn’t a mere vestige of the past that can be wiped out by capitalist modernity. Freedom isn’t something with an MNC label that can be bought at a mall. Today, the slogans of ‘bekhauf azaadi’ continue to resonate with urgent relevance: in the struggles against the rapist godmen and editors, judges indulging in sexual harassment, and rape-speak by people in authority; in demanding a change in social and material structures of class, caste and gender oppression; and in the ringing challenge we need to offer to communal fascist politics.

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