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Some rapes are more newsworthy than others in India


A construction worker in Jaipur: protection from sexual violence should apply to all women in India Prayudi Hartono under a Creative Commons Licence

Since the famous or, more appropriately, infamous, Delhi rape case hit global headlines last December, every newspaper carries a daily dose of rape crime reportage from all over India. Many of us Indian women are in a state of perpetual, simmering rage as we read these reports – as should be the case. Tolerance for sexual violence is at a historic low in urban, middle class India.

Last week, a new rape case made the headlines in Mumbai. It set every TV channel ranting and raving because traditionally, all of us consider Mumbai to be India’s safest city for women. I lived there for eight years in the 1970s and took taxis back and forth to the airport at midnight with little fear. In 2000, my daughter moved to Mumbai at 17 for university and I felt no apprehension whatsoever about her safety, whereas Delhi was always a no-no for most parents. The newest Mumbai victim was a photojournalist which shocked the media and totally jolted everyone out of their complacency. ‘It could have been one of us!!’ was the understandable media reaction.

All sexual harassment, violence and rape is abhorrent. And women’s groups in every corner of India are screaming ‘enough!’. But Dalit groups are asking a different question, a very valid question: ‘why are some rapes more outrageous than others? Why does the Indian media scream from the rooftops about middle class girls from Delhi and Mumbai, but ignore the daily attacks on poor, mostly Dalit, women and girls?’ These routine rapes, and I cringe as I write this phrase, barely merit inside column inches on a dull newsroom day. Forget Dalit rapes making headlines, they are just not newsworthy. They are dismissed as rapes that do not interest readers.

Why are these rapes under-reported? Why are they never sensationalized like the infamous Nirbhaya rape in Delhi? December 2012 is seared into our brains, into our collective, national memory. All of us are outraged that the most brutal rapist will walk free in three years because he is a minor. ‘Castrate the bastards’ was a popular sentiment when the verdict was announced a few days ago. The nation expressed outrage and anger all over again.

But when Dalit women are raped, the silence is deafening. The indifference is palpable. A few newspapers diligently report the incidents but even passionate young reporters, journalists who really care, cannot inspire anger or outrage in a cynical, blasé readership. India is enveloped in ennui when the violated women are Dalit – rural or urban, domestic servants or adivasi (indigenous) people.

Yesterday, I received a shocking report entitled ‘101 brutal atrocities/heinous crimes against Dalit women: from the Damini incident (16 December 2012) to the Aasaram arrest (31 Aug 2013)’. It listed crimes against Dalit women and girls from all over over India: Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka. The list went on, its cases came from the north, south, east and west. None of them inspired interest or outrage. Few made headlines.

I get these missives every day and I read them with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. But it’s only when you see a dossier, all the incidents neatly chronicled one after the other, all the newspaper clippings, the information from the public domain that the sheer horror, the rank injustice, the absolutely indigestible bitter truth hits you.  

We need special fast track courts with individuals who are passionate about combating caste atrocities. We need anger and outrage, media coverage and public action. We need a concerned proactive judiciary. We need a comprehensive plan to combat rape and sexual violence, and we need it right now.

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