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Indian politician calls rape a mistake that boys make

Opinion: crass comments reveal alarming depth of ignorance

Indian politician calls rape a mistake that boys make

An anti-rape protestor holds a placard in Delhi

Ritu Sharma, New Delhi

April 15, 2014

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The campaigning stage leading up to any national election should serve as a chance for politicians to present ideas aimed at furthering a nation, and to articulate a way out of whatever current problems exist. That’s how votes should be won, but not so in India. Last week, one party head took to the stage to discuss that most pernicious of acts: rape. And he did so in the most provocative way possible.

Rape is defined in the dictionary as an act of plunder, violent seizure or abuse and despoliation. But what if this barbarous act of crime is characterized as simply a mistake? On April 10, Mulayam Yadav, the chief of the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party), said in response to the death sentences handed down to perpetrators of a gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai, “Boys are boys. They make mistakes. Why hang them?”

Their sentencing followed a revision to India’s rape laws to allow hanging for perpetrators. Yadav said alleged victims were misusing the new act, and that he would support a provision for legal action against those who misuse the rape act. Outlining his reading of recent rapes cases, he said that “when differences creep into a relationship between a girl and a boy, she complains of being raped.”

Those were not isolated comments. The following day in Mumbai, his party colleague Abu Azmi delivered another shocker.

“Nothing happens to women. Only man is punished. Even the woman is guilty. If any woman, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without her consent, she should be hanged. Both should be hanged. It should not be allowed even if a woman goes by consent.”

This seems to be an all too common position in India, a male-dominated society where men are innocent creatures who indulge in such acts only when provoked by the other sex. In some villages of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana states, the village councils have forbidden women to carry mobile phones and wear jeans, a sign that a primitive hierarchy of the sexes is still very much alive.

Along with that hierarchy, primitive explanations of India’s rape crisis have come from influential members of the community. Jaitender Chhatar, a village council head in Haryana district next to Delhi, said in 2012: "Consumption of fast food contributes to such incidents [of rape]. Chowmein leads to hormonal imbalance, which evokes an urge to indulge in such acts."

Whenever a rape happens in India, condemnation and discussion follows. But little else happens, and politicians continue to vent spleen on the guilt of victims. Rape is seen as the fault of the woman, and she becomes the target of vicious questioning: Why was she out of her house so late at night? Why was she wearing revealing clothes? She hangs out with boys, so this was bound to happen. And so it goes.

In 2012, police recorded 25,000 rape cases across India. One of those, of course, was the 23-year-old medical student aboard a bus in Delhi who was gang raped by fellow male passengers, including the driver. She later died of injuries sustained during the rape. In the wake of that, guidelines were set for women’s safety. They should carry pepper spray and be accompanied by male relatives when out at night. But nothing was done to engage with the mindset of the Indian male, and to tackle the root causes of the problem.

The latest talk from politicians shows that this really isn’t on the agenda. Beyond the casual chauvinism, callous politicking may also be behind Yadav’s remark, which was made in Uttar Pradesh, where he used to be Chief Minister. Two of the men involved in the rape were Muslim, and Yadav may have been making a desperate attempt to woo voters from the sizeable Muslim community.

Women make up 49 percent of the electorate in India. A survey by Avaaz found that more than 90 percent of Indians want the tackling of sexual violence to be a priority of whichever new government comes into power, but whether Yadav stands to lose sizeable numbers of votes following the comment remains to be seen.

A sea change in the mindset of Indian male politicians needs to take place. Would-be leaders should be brought to book for issuing such crass remarks. But a shift in the focus of tackling rape also needs to happen, and quickly.

We would not need guidelines for women if men were taught to respect women. While girls are asked to be demure and obedient in nature, in order to attract a husband, families often allow boys to roam carefree. Altering this imbalance must begin early in life, for values inculcated at a very young age remain intact forever. If that had happened long ago, then Yadav would not have been offered an electioneering platform in the modern age.

Ritu Sharma is a correspondent based in New Delhi

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