The photograph does not even look real. Two girls hanging from a tree, one in a green salwar kameez, the other in red: like a scene from a movie about village atrocities.
The controversy over the horror evoked by the use of the picture in the media aside you have to avert your eyes once you know it’s real what has to be contended with is the fact of rape itself. Once again.
The village is Karta Shahadatganj in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. The two girls were cousins, 14 and 15 years old, who had gone out of the house on the night of May 27 because they had no toilet at home.
Villagers near the site of crime at Katra Shahadatganj village where two sisters were gang-raped and hanged from a mango tree, in Badaun district, on Saturday. Pic/PTI
When the father of one of the girls went to the police after the girls did not return, he was slapped by a policeman and sent home. The bodies were found hanging from the branches of a mango tree the next day. The girls were Dalits.
Is this the story of India? There is no element of it that we have not heard before, in fiction and in experience. And yet. We have interpreted this incident in a number of ways. To some, it is about the fact that homes in India do not have toilets.
So if everyone had a toilet at home, would rape stop? To others, it was the fact that the girls were Dalits. So are women from other castes and communities excepted? To many, it was Uttar Pradesh’s bad governance that was responsible.
So are women better off outside Uttar Pradesh? And then there is the fact of police brutality and callousness. If the police were better-behaved and more conscientious would rape stop?
The answer to all those questions, sadly, is the same: No. Yes, all homes need toilets. Yes, Dalits, oppressed classes, are treated inexcusably. Yes, good governance is imperative. Yes, better policing is necessary.
But rape exists in another category by itself and gang-rape is an extreme brutality within that category. It is not just sexual frustration. It is not just how you dress or how you look. It is because you are.
After December 2012, we thought we had dealt with all those issues and yet today we come up empty once again. Rape is power. Rape is domination. Rape is an assault on the most private part of you. And all too often now, rape is gang-rape and rape is followed by murder.
These are the unpalatable facts we have to grapple with. If we get deflected by sanitation and atrocities on Dalits, then we are dealing with those very important issues, not with rape. We are in a sense, looking for an excuse, for a justification, for an answer to why a very brutal crime takes place.
But by the act of providing these reasons, we are steering close to those unacceptable excuses for rape: her dress was too short, why was she out at night. In this instance, we cannot blame the victims so we blame the circumstance.
It is difficult to make this only into a male-female issue since men also get raped. Unfortunately it is hard to wriggle out of the gender problem because the perpetrator in both cases is usually male. However, women are known to be facilitators, for want of a better word for such despicable behaviour. Let us then categorise it as a human problem.
In Badaun, after public anger, five people, and that includes two policemen, have been arrested. Who knows if toilets will ever be built after the outrage dies down? Is life in Delhi any better for women after Jyoti Pandey was brutalised and killed? Or is Mumbai safer after Shakti Mills, the scene of two recent gangrapes, has a new wall around it?
In spite of all the soul-searching and self-inflicted excoriation in the past two years about rape, we are still grappling in the dark. The pain the nation palpably felt at the end of 2012 did not percolate it seems.
Rape remains our most shocking crime and more so because no matter what, the horror stories do not end. Except they’re not stories. They’re real. The future of Indian womanhood hanging from a mango tree.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona