The Rupan Deol Bajaj vs K. P. S. Gill case, also known as the Butt Slapping case, remained in the media limelight for several years when I was a teenager. In this high profile case of the late 1980s, a senior male police officer was accused of the charges of molesting a female administrative officer. The Punjab and Haryana High Court found the police officer guilty of the charge. Even though at that time I could not understand the intricacies of the epidemic of sexual violence in India, I felt restless, thinking how a man in a power position thought that all women were his property. As I grew up, I understood that the Bajaj case was neither the first nor the last one. Right from the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012 to scores of horrifying stories of alleged sexual harassment by an acclaimed journalist and writer, M. J. Akbar, who was until recently a minister in India, the scenario seems to have been worsening with each passing day. Early this month journalist Priya Ramani accused Akbar of sexual misconduct about 20 years ago. Later dozens of other women also accused Akbar of sexual misconduct. Akbar had to resign even though he also filed a defamation case against Ramani.
Sexual violence, any non-consensual sexual activity ranging from verbal to physical, perverted ways of demonstrating power, dominance and control, is rampant in conflict situations. Scholars have drawn our attention to the relationship between sexual and gender-based violence and armed violence. Sexual violence during and after conflict is increasingly recognized as a threat to international peace and security. Governments and international organisations are increasing their efforts to end sexual violence in conflict settings. However, the question is: Is sexual violence limited to conflict and post-conflict settings? Are women safe in peace times or what we call 'normal times'?
My decade long research suggests sexual violence is as much a reality in peace as in conflict. There is no disruption, rather there is a continuity of violence against women both in peacetime and wartime. Sexual violence during conflict is merely an extension of widespread violence against women in times of relative peace. It is rampant in conflict situations because unequal gender relations transcend times of conflict.
Sexual violence against women is omnipresent. Women across the globe confront sexual violence almost on daily basis, in times of relative peace. The #MeToo campaign has brought forth multiple forms of sexual violence suffered by women of all nationalities, ages, class, ethnicity, religion and physical ability. India is, certainly, no exception. Being a resident of India for the most part of the life, I have experienced as well as witnessed sexual harassment and assaults. The 'milder' forms of sexual violence, such as eve teasing, are considered 'normal'. 'This is inescapable', is an often-heard statement. Well, no longer, hopefully.
Sexual violence is systematic and unrelenting in India partly because of state failure to prosecute the perpetrators and partly because of the societal attitude. When state and society 'gang up' to victimise the victim and protect the perpetrator the complexity of the situation is easy to understand. In June 2018, India was ranked as the most dangerous country for women in a report released by Thomson Reuters Foundation. According to the report, India is unsafe for women due to the high cases of sexual violence and slavery. In its 2011 survey, India was preceded by countries such as Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. India climbed to the top position in 2018, indicating that the state and the society have largely failed to ensure the safety of half of its population.
While in the United States I am keenly following the consolidation of the #MeToo campaign, until now, Indian women were seemingly hesitant to join the march. Coming from a societal background firmly rooted in patriarchy, it is certainly not easy for Indian women to publicly talk about their sexual victimisation. But this is happening. When Indians are now celebrating the nine days of worshipping Goddess Durga, worshipped as destroyer of evil, many women are talking publicly or anonymously about the powerful perpetrators of sexual violence.
In September 2018, when Tanushree Dutta, a Bollywood actor, talked about her harassment in 2008, which forced her to finally leave the film industry, expectedly, patriarchal forces ganged up to silence her. The ganging, however, neither could deter Dutta nor the scores of other women who talked about their harassment by well acclaimed powerful celebrities and leaders. When the Junior Minister for External Affairs of India came under the #MeToo scanner, the saturation point was reached. With scores of women talking about the minister's predatory nature, he had to resign. This case is now in court. The judiciary will take its own course of action, but the debate about the omnipresence of sexual predators and the necessity to bring them to justice is here to stay for a long time. There are many other powerful predators probably praying to Goddess Durga not to get exposed. The Goddess will certainly not accept their prayers; the evil has to go.
While the state needs to implement laws stringently, ensure speedy trial and justice, the society has to gear its resources to address gender discriminatory mindsets. The patriarchal mindset has to change. Until then, the state has to be extra-vigilant not only to prevent such crimes but also to exemplify stringent action against the perpetrators. India cannot let half of its population live in fear of being sexually harassed – anytime, anywhere and at any age. The powerful perpetrators cannot go scot-free and continue to believe that they have a 'fundamental right' to sexually harass women.
Dr Seema Shekhawat is a Florida based social scientist with specialisation on gender in South Asia. She is the author of Gender, Conflict and Peace in Kashmir (Cambridge University Press) and editor of Female Combatants in Conflict and Peace (Palgrave Macmillan). She is currently working on a book on sexual violence.