The horrific news of rape and murder of veterinary doctor Priyanka Reddy has shocked the nation. She was abducted, raped, brutalised and killed on the night of November 27, 2019 allegedly by four young men working as lorry cleaners. In the early hours of the next morning, her charred body was found under the bridge at Shadnagar. At around 9.30 pm on the night she was abducted, she phoned her younger sister to inform that she was stuck on the road as her bike’s tire was punctured and was feeling scared due to the sinister stares of the men around her.
Protests broke out with the first peace march by the Veterinary Association and the residents of the gated community from her residence to Ambedkar’s statue at Rallaguda, Shamshabad, on the night of November 28. Students from various colleges, women’s rights activists, NGOs and ordinary people have organised protests at various places in Hyderabad and other parts of the country. Within 48 hours, the police — at a press conference — announced that the four accused were caught and would be presented before the court on November 30. Protests broke out on a large scale — people from Hyderabad demanding “instant justice” — public hanging the accused/burning them publicly or even shooting them publicly. People have expressed the desire to uphold a “feudal idea of justice” in place of a democratic one. Instead of demanding a quicker response from the police, safe public spaces and sensitivity from men, they demanded for the public witnessing punishment in the way autocratic societies display violence — which are otherwise called “barbaric” nations. Simultaneously, the social media has been flooded with misogynist comments on Priyanka Reddy: “A modern urban woman like her deserves rape” and the public statements of film personalities such as “women who dress up inappropriately invite rape”. This brings our attention to the contradictory nature of our society that demands public hanging of the accused and the same society that upholds patriarchal and misogynist tendencies. The same crowd that clapped and enjoyed the collective euphoria at the opening rape scene in the films Arjun Reddy/Kabir Singh is now expressing its rage against sexual violence.
The very conditionality of respect to women in Hindu culture is problematic. The protesters demand that every woman should be respected like a mother and sister in this country. The image of the mother sets the conditions upon which women deserve to receive respect and security in our society. Respect to women on the conditions of compliance to the traditional dress code, sexual purity and controls on mobility is nothing but the perpetuation of violence against women who break the norms either once or once and for all. Arjun Reddy intimidates a woman with a knife in his hands to strip off and provide sexual favours in the opening scene. She is a woman who had already accepted a sex-date with him and refuses to go ahead as her fiancé knocks at the door while Arjun Reddy is with her in her house. She clearly doesn’t deserve the empathy of the middle classes and as well as Arjun Reddy since she is engaged in sexual activity outside marriage. She is hardly a victim and in fact deserves rape according to the same crowd that demands capital punishment for the rapists. The “pure victims” of sexual violence are sexually pure and innocent, according to the Indian middle classes. However, a part of this Indian middle class society might as well find fault with victims like Nirbhaya and Priyanka Reddy. The question here is whether the problem is only the accused or the patriarchal and misogynist nature of the society?
The rage of the Indian middle classes against sexual violence is selective and is in most contexts directed against public violence and not domestic violence. Almost every other day, people hear news of women being killed by families in the name of “honour killings”, dowry violence, domestic violence and cruelty. However, the rage of the middle classes is not similar in case of domestic violence that middle class women face because the middle classes deliberately uphold the violent institutions of marriage and endogamy. Therefore, the middle classes, who are complicit in the process of familial and domestic violence against women, do not express the same rage in cases of that violence.
The demand to kill the accused publicly contradicts the democratic nature of the nation itself. Going against the democratic judicial process would lead to injustice against the marginalised. Anyone who is accused of rape and sexual violence also should be proved guilty before being punished. The response of the middle classes to sexual violence in the context of communal violence on minority women, endemic caste violence against dalits and dalit women, the Indian Army’s brutality towards women from certain regions, the rape of adivasi women is not the same as the response to sexual violence against middle class women. One among the protesting women shouted at the police, “She is an educated girl from a respectful family and not a woman from Lambada Thanda of Shamshabad”. This comes like a harsh reminder of how the value of women is determined by the social location and its masculine power/vulnerability in relation to the other locations within the larger caste system. Sexual violence is fundamentally linked to the patriarchal nature of the society that owns the bodies of women at various levels by husband, families, caste groups and communities. The value of a woman’s body is determined by who has ownership claims over it. Therefore, sexual violence against a tribal woman from Lambada Thanda may not receive the same response from the Indian middle classes. The structural complexities of caste, class, ethnicity and gender play a vital role in sexual violence against women. In such cases, the hierarchies implicit in the social locations of the victim and the perpetrator become important to determine the response and rage of the Indian middle classes. The same middle class society may be apathetic to dalit women being paraded naked and lynched or adivasi and Muslim women being raped and brutalised by our security forces.
The writer teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad...