India rape case

Whether it was Mr. Ramsevak Paikra’s “Rapes happen inadvertently .. by deceit”  or Mr. Mulayam Singh’s “Boys will be boys,” multiple such instances could be found of politicians uttering dangerous tripe about rape. These politicians are roundly criticized by many and asked to retract these “shameful comments” riding on the assumption that everyone already knows and understands what is wrong with such statements.

There has been a vibrant debate in the west on such issues as ‘consent’ and significant progress has been achieved in defining these terms. However, this debate has not happened in our society and as a result, significant portion of our society (including most politicians) are unaware of the foregone conclusions and the resulting vocabulary regarding consent. This ignorance, even if we believe otherwise, cannot be wished or shamed away.

A few have deemed it fit to decry this lack of awareness as a “rape culture” that is apparently rampant in our society, and somehow derived from our traditions.  But, isn’t such a revisionist view of the past an anathema to the very progressive ideal that we can be better than we were yesterday? To ascribe misogyny to every other tradition and to advocate a clean break from the past in order to reforge an equal and a fair society would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So, where do we begin? First and foremost – Marriage is not a pre-requisite for consent and pre-marital sex is not rape. Neither is there such a thing as “consent obtained by deceit”. In layman’s terms, as the Supreme court ruled, “ Consensual sex with intent to marry, that later does not materialise, is not rape.” So is the case, if the promise to marry is replaced by another promise. Thus, there is no such thing as “willingly be raped”. These ideas trivialize rape, and facilitate an escape route for real criminals.

At the risk of trivializing rape myself, let me draw an analogy* for some of us to better understand: you may be willing to give some of your money away to person X (to a good friend or to buy something), but that doesn’t automatically mean you give permission to person Y to take money from you, or that you are willing to give money to person X at a later point in time.  Regardless of the past history, consent needs to be earned each time and use of force is criminal. Hence, please teach your young ones that consent needs to be obtained even in a formal, on-going relationship, and that marriage does not mean unconditional consent (even though our judiciary doesn’t recognise the concept of ‘marital rape’ yet).

Next – the myth that “most of the rapes are accidental” or more liberally interpreted as “most rapes are not premeditated” needs to be laid to rest. By estimates, up to 70% of rapes are planned and premeditated to various degrees. It is important to rebut this point of view because in most of our value systems (as reflected in the judicial sentences), premeditated crimes are treated with greater seriousness than impulsive ones.

That brings us to a very difficult question that needs to be debated more widely – “What constitutes consent?” Firstly, it is much easier to define what doesn’t constitute consent – or “No means no”. However, with the taboo on sex and the lack of a vibrant and a public debate on consent, most youngsters resort to social learning to answer the questions on what does and does not constitute consent. And this is where our “artists” have let us down terribly.

Even until very recently, what would be considered stalking and sexual harassment in real life is shown, and endorsed on tv and in films as a template for young men to obtain a “Yes”. So, the message that goes out is “No means no, except when it’s a maybe”. This needs to change, and with immediate effect and it needs to be impressed that consent has to be explicit – i.e if a person does not say no, it does not automatically mean “Yes”. Media depictions of “rape victims” as having been shamed must also change as these depictions seep into our consciousness and affect our attitudes. So, instead of trying to fight poorly defined “patriarchal traditions”, if we could create social pressure to affect changes in attitude within the media, it will be a huge step forward.

As for influential figures in public and private lives: I hope they study and digest the debate thus far on consent and rape in detail before jumping in to showcase what would be, at best, ignorance and at worst, an apologia for rape and misogyny. It is also in this context that I am extremely happy that Ms. Preity Zinta has filed criminal charges of physical and mental intimidation against Mr. Wadia. After the dust of deplorable, yet predictable misogynistic reactions has settled down, I hope it triggers a wider debate on, and serves as a template for what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Because far too often, our women compromise on individual dignity to keep up appearances and that too, needs to change.

But ultimately, these are all changes that take a long time to fructify. Harassment and rape, like murder and assault, are first and foremost problems of law and order. Politicians and police officers can join this philosophical debate on questions such as “what constitutes a crime” and “How do we reduce the criminal tendencies”, once, and only after, they have ensured a quick response and legal retribution without also punishing the victims (by dragging them through the courts for years). Fix the broken windows by coming down heavily on molesters and sexual harassers (please let’s not refer to it as eve-teasing), and we might just deter many crimes and force more individuals to err on the side of caution..  Until then, “kya aap maun nahi reh sakte?

*Disclaimer: The author in no way equates giving consent to donating money, neither does he intend to equate rape with robbery.

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