PUCL Bulletin,

September 1982

Rape, class and the State
-- By Uma Chakravati

While rape may take the form of individual violence of men against women, often, as disturbingly, rape occurs as an instrument of repression, and is used as a political weapon. It then becomes a potent instrument for the intimidation of whole sections of people in which women are specifically the victims of a peculiarly brutal and dehumanizing form of violence. Violence by individual men on individual women is itself a serious violation of women's rights but in the context of civil liberties it is important to highlight the growing incidence of custodial rape by agencies of the State such as forest officials, army personnel, and especially by policemen.

Women's organizations have particularly focused on custodial rape and it is hoped that it is hoped that with sustained pressure from women's organizations the laws relating to custodial rape may be revised in favour of women. Both the Mathura case and the Rameeza Bee case have receive a measure of public support. In the Rameeza Bee case widespread protests by the people resulted in the appointment of the Muktadar Commission to enquire into the incident. Subsequently, women's organizations have been active in filing a public interest review petition in the High Court against the Raichur District Court which had rejected the charge of rape against the policemen while indicting them on minor grounds. These are positive developments and it would appear that women's organizations can be most effective in the area of custodial rape by their continued vigilance.

The use of rape as a political weapon however has not received the same attention either by women's organizations or by civil liberties groups. The most reprehensible development of social and political life in recent years is that there has been an aggravation of the use of violence, and this can be directly related to the decline in the social and political situation in India. Coercion or the threat of coercion, which had been exercised in a concealed manner is now expressed as a more direct assertion of the strength of powerful groups. The State and the ruling elites have increasingly resorted to the use of violence as a means of systematic repression of the growing articulation of the demands of the people both in rural and in urban India. Mafia tactics in crushing trade union movements and in the suppression of the organizations of the rural poor, which may take the form of armed reprisals and the wholesale burning and looting of settlements, are common occurrences everywhere in India. It is in this context that one must view the phenomenon of increasing violence on women and more specifically of rape.

It is now the standard practice of the rural landed elite to indulge in the rape of the womenfolk of the rural poor when they begin to assert themselves in sharecropping disputes, or in reclaiming lost land, or in demanding the payment of minimum wages. The use of violence as part of class conflict in rural India which results in rape is an expression of the feudal attitude of the landed classes which views women as the property of men. Therefore when the ruling classes assert their brute strength in savage reprisals against the attempted resistance of the poor they rape 'their' women. All that the poor have is a few pots and pans and their families. Rape in this context becomes the most naked instrument of repressions since the violation of women serves to highlight the helplessness of the poor.

But the reverse situation is also beginning to occur and sometimes a spark is lit when the rape of women of the poorer sections or the Harijans serves to focus on the generals exploitation of the poor by the rich. When some of these sections organize to demand minimum conditions, the exploitation and rape of women can lead to a resistance in the movement of poor peasants and wage labourers in Patna District in the last two years. The people's movement had held a series of meetings on the incidence of rape and molestation of women and had drafted a code of conduct for the people of the area. Subsequently the rape of a women of Lahsuna village triggered off widespread tension following the protests of the people of the area. In Koduspuka village of Karimnagar District the peasant movement has been actively supported by women who have formed a mahila sangam to protect themselves against rape and insult. Further in the Dalli-Rajahara iron-ore mines at Chattisgarh the militancy of the workers, where women comprise half the workforce, prevented the rape of a fifteen year old adivasi girl by the jawans of the CISF. The workers gheroed the jawans and demanded their arrest. This was a unique occasion for the workers since they succeeded in preventing rape than merely retaliating.

People's movements which have attempted to organize and resists the exploitation of the ruling elite are however subjected not only to armed reprisals of the landlords but also face the repressive power of the State machinery. Mass rape is often used as part of the repressive measures unleashed by the State to crush movements of tribals, peasants, workers, and political dissidents. This has occurred in Beldiha in the Santhal Parganas where CRP men and Bihar policemen surrounded the village and went on a rampage. While the men escaped to the fields the women were trapped with their children. The policemen entered the huts and assaulted and raped the women as part of their effort to crush the adivasi land-grab movement.

Eight women were raped; half of them were between the ages of 12 an 15 and many more women were thrashed mercilessly. In Bailladilla the police opened fire on agitating workers set ablaze their huts and raped their women because the workers were protesting illegal retrenchment. In the north-eastern areas of Nagaland and Mizoram atrocities by the Indian army have become a systematic practice to suppress their struggle for freedom. Victims of police bestiality range from young girls to pregnant women. An analysis of the instances of State violence reveals a sinister pattern that runs through all the incidents in which the suppression of protest movements invariably includes mass rape as one of the weapons of repression. Women activists are special targets of police brutality and here sexual violence, rape, or the threat of rape are the weapons most frequently resorted to for purposes of intimidation and breaking the spirit of these women. Right in the capital a woman activist of the Janata Party was taken to the police station on a minor charge, and then stripped, slapped and threatened.

She was paraded round the a room of the police station naked, kicked on the hips, and threatened with worse treatment if she screamed. The more recent torture of Madhu, whose action in rescuing a girl from a brothel in Agra in which she had revealed the complicity of the police in running the brothel, resulted in brutal physical torture. Similarly a report compiled by the Akhil Banga Mahila Samiti described some of the methods used against women activists of the Naxalite movement at the Lal Bazar police station in Calcutta where they were stripped, thrashed, and burned on all parts of their bodies. Even when rape is not actually used as part of the torture of women it is ever present as a probable weapon in the hands of the police.

Only a strong protest movement by women's organisations, civil rights groups and the people can fight the problem of rape in general and the growing incidence of rape as a political weapon in the hands of the powerful.


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