India’s Draupadi Moment

Times of India | October 08, 2020
India is a country where soldiers chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ or ‘victory to mother India’ as their call to arms. Note the reference to a mother, rather different to the German, Dutch, Scandinavian, Slavic and Baltic notions of a ‘fatherland’. When environmental issues are discussed we talk of ‘mother nature’ and and the effect of our actions on her. When devotees take a dip in the Ganges, they are symbolically being embraced in the loving arms of ‘Maa Ganga’, the mother river. When we plant trees, we silently give thanks to ‘mother earth’.

Hindi cinema’s 1957 production, ‘Mother India’ was one of the greatest hits ever and (adjusted for inflation) it remains the second-highest grossing Indian film of all time. Twice a year, India celebrates Navratri—or the festival of nine nights—to mark the victory of the goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. Even in worship, Hindus chant ‘Jai Siya Ram’ or ‘Radhe Krishna’ always placing Sita and Radha before Ram and Krishna.

So when one hears that a woman is raped every 16 minutes in India, it is difficult to reconcile this shocking statistic with our presumed respect for Shakti, a tradition that can be traced back several millennia. In 2013, a joint team of Indian and American archaeologists carried out excavations in the Son valley of Madhya Pradesh. They found a circular platform with a triangular stone at its centre. The findings were estimated to be around 11,000 years old. Imagine the surprise of the archaeological team when they found that Kol and Baiga tribals living in the neighbourhood continued to offer daily prayers to a similar triangular stone, one that was representative of their mother goddess, Mai.

Shakti is the energy that is at the very root of creation. Mothers give birth, thus Shakti is the energy that gives birth. Shakti inspires Shiva and it is only when the two come together that creation, preservation and renewal is made possible. Ardhanarishvara, a Hindu representation of a half male and half female deity is symbolic of the equal importance assigned to both genders. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that worshipping Shakti is limited to temples and prayers while we continue to denigrate the living Shakti in our lives.

Sure, rape isn’t a modern problem problem. When the Goths ransacked Rome in the fifth century, St Augustine referred to wartime rape as an ‘ancient and customary evil’. The ancient Greeks thought of the act as ‘well within the rules of warfare’. Spanish conquistadors raped women of the Aztec Empire and Central America in thousands. Even as late as World War Two, over 20,000 women and girls were raped within the first few weeks of the Japanese occupation of the Chinese city of Nanking. Over 100,000 German women were raped by Soviet forces after the Battle of Berlin. The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 saw thousands of Bangladeshi women tortured and raped by the West Pakistan forces. The Bosnian War and the Kosovo War of the nineties were replete with instances of gang rape.

Nor is rape a particularly Indian problem. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, India had a rape incidence rate of 5.2 cases per 100,000 people as of 2018. This pales in comparison to South Africa with a rate of 132.4, Sweden with a rate of 63.5 or even the United States with a rate of 27.3. But one must remember that a vast majority of rapes go unreported in India, so the figures may not be strictly comparabale. But it still begs the question, why is India perceived as a dangerous country for women?

We can search for answers in patriarchy, the skewed sex ratio, caste powerplay, religious and cultural misogyny. We can find historical reasons in Manusmriti, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Islam’s Sharia or Macaulay’s puritanism. We can attempt to contextualize rape and sexual violence through the prsim of religion, culture and history but where would that get us?

The 2012 gang rape and murder of Nirbhaya made average Indians yearn for effective policing and efficient justice. But shouldn’t we be ashamed of the fact that it took 8 years for four of the adult convicts to be hanged? Besides Nirbhaya, there have been numerous examples including those at Ajmer, Suryanelli, Mumbai’s Shakti Mills, Unnao, Kathua, Bikaner, Kamduni, Ranaghat, Williamnagar, Hyderabad and too many more to mention. There is a strange pattern in these cases. First there is outrage; selective leaks result in ghastly details of the crime; then social media descends into community blaming; candlelight vigils follow; politicians make vile statements; and the perpetrators are arrogant enough to believe that they can play the system. Of course, they are not entirely wrong. Finally, the rape disappears from public memory.

There are many things that India can do to lower the incidence of rape. The most obvious suggestions include a higher proportion of females in the police force, better police procedures and a quicker legal process. But at its core, rape is about exercising power over another. In India, the power balance has been tilted towards males in each era. This includes viewing females as property in the dharmashastras; recognizing the husband’s sole authority over his wife’s body in Islam; or seeing rape through the lens of Victorian Puritanism in the country’s penal code. This imbalance must be corrected through economic progress and education.

Let India never forget the vow of Krishna to Draupadi when she narrated her humiliation at the hands of the Kauravas to him. ‘The heavens may tumble; the mountains may be razed; the oceans may dry like a corpse’s bones; earth herself may rupture, but I shall keep my oath to you. To avenge the crime against you, there will be a war to end all wars.’

India’s moment to avenge Draupadi’s shame has arrived once again.