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Suchitra Vijayan Headshot

A Disposable Life: Sexual Violence and State in India

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Almost two weeks ago, I saw the image of two young girls suspended from the mango tree. It was a macabre image full of agony. Men, women and children stood around, and some sat beneath these bodies, in mourning and disbelief. The police had failed to act. They had refused to perform their basic duties -- to prevent crime, enforce the law, and maintain order. The villagers had congregated and stayed next to the tree for an entire day, preventing authorities from taking down the bodies until the suspects were arrested. It is unfair to demand of any people such acts of protest in the face of death.

The photograph of the two Dalit girls is terrifying in its clarity and detail. It lays bare the society that we are. To quote Robert Jay Lifton, "We are in a death-saturated age, in which matters of violence, survival and trauma now infuse everyday life." In the corner of the image, a small girl of about five years wearing a bright yellow shirt stares at the lifeless bodies. She's too young to understand or witness this gruesome scene. But here she is. What happens to this little girl and the hundred or so others who sat or stood there in protest? What happens to the survivors left behind who saw this act of violence unleashed upon their community over and over again? How does a family survive after a calamity of this nature?

This was "death infecting life."

The state in charge of protecting these girls did not see them as worthy of protection; the violence committed against them was not seen as a crime. Their lives did not matter and their bodies were not their own. They were deemed disposable.

In the politics of disposability, people -- and sometimes entire social groups -- are considered valueless. They have increasingly become invisible, unknowable and expendable without any discernible rights. There is no one accountable for their condition. When violence is regularly wrought against those who are considered disposable sexual violence against women particularly becomes socially and culturally acceptable. Acts of violence against them is considered not just normal, but completely acceptable within the norms of community. Accompanying the politics of disposability is terror, fear of losing everything, the horror of violence that might occur any moment, the struggle to merely survive.

To understand Katra Saadatganj village, where the girls were raped and killed, we need to start with the trinity of stratification, domination and subordination. Here inequality remains constantly legitimized through social, economic and political arrangements. It is in this triumvirate that caste, patriarchy and violence reign to create a microcosm of everyday oppression. We need to begin by recognizing that in India, two kinds of hierarchies simultaneously exist, bureaucratic hierarchy and feudal hierarchy. They both compete and are complicit with each other. The post-independent, post feudal democratic India was meant to be based on merit, open competition and a public examination system creating a modern bureaucratic hierarchy. This was meant to create opportunities for mobility and growth, and fortify democracy. While a growing minority did benefit from this, most people continue to remain outside of opportunity. Feudal hierarchy on the other hand is based on unequal distribution of wealth and political power -- electoral patronage combined with the caste system. At the heart of this feudal hierarchy is patriarchy, which is gender-based and gender-biased against women.

Dalit women are at the bottom of both gender and caste hierarchies making them vulnerable targets of sexual violence. Their subjugation, lack of political voice, disposability and suppression, sustains the hierarchies that rest on the power of the dominant castes to enforce caste-based rules, including those rules governing what (Dalit) women should and should not do. Violence and impunity go hand in hand, reinforcing caste-based notions of village justice that continue to prevail over democratic rights and the rule of law. The feudal hierarchy, firmly planted, has left little room for equality, democracy or rule of law to thrive. Congruently, the police that belongs to the bureaucratic hierarchy pledges its allegiance to caste-based justice.

Law has no existence for itself; rather, its essence lies in the very life of men who act and execute it. The police officers in the village of Katra Sadatganj, uninsulated by local caste politics and with active indifference, ignored the complaints, refused to assist the parents, and failed to provide protection before and after the commission of the offense. Two of its officers are among five people who have been arrested in connection with the girl's deaths. The victim's families have continuously reported further threats from the local police, politicians and strongmen. In the web of powerlessness, the victims' family sat again in protest under the same mango tree demanding justice, abandoned by the political system.

Their greatest adversary against justice remains the state apparatus -- the bureaucracy, the police, the politicians. These institutions, which are meant to protect the people, have abdicated this responsibility. At the heart of this abdication and abandonment lies the undoing of the social contract, creating what João Biehl calls "zones of social abandonment," "the end-station on the road of poverty; [...] where living beings go when they are no longer considered people."

The philosopher Thomas Nagelsuggesta that "We must turn our attention to the circumstances in which people act and by which they are formed," and we must change the question from "How should we live...?" to "Under what circumstances is it possible to live as we should?" These are the questions we need to ask ourselves again now. A perpetual commentary on facts and testimony falls short of truly understanding the oppressiveness of the society in which these girls lived and died. To start addressing this crisis, we need to start understanding the factors that have conspired to cause these men to descend into the vilest of barbaric acts with impunity.

Before efforts to legislate and reform the penal code begin, we need to start at the very beginning - contract between the citizen and the state. The social contract between the Indian state and its marginalized citizens is very different from the one the state has with its privileged few. The contract with the marginalized is an unequal contract: similar to what Charles Mills referred to as the "racial contract," it establishes a casteist polity, a casteist state, a casteist juridical system in which the status of the privileged and the under privileged are clearly demarcated.1 It is this inequality that we need to combat. It is not just about reclaiming the space, but producing a new political language in the struggle for the rights duly owed to them. But even in moments of deep crisis, we must never forget the fear the powerful have against the powerless.



1 Mills describes the racial contract as establishing " a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial juridicial system, where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state, by contrast with the neutral state of classic contractarianism, is, inter alia, specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites." From Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (1997)

This post was originally featured in Warscapes.