The conversation about rape has started again in India after last week’s horrific gang-rape in Mumbai. The intensity is muted in comparison to the outrage after the December 16, 2012 gang-rape in Delhi. But the side chats have gone down familiar lines. We start looking at mindsets and patriarchy and social status. The rapists in the Mumbai case are slum dwellers, junkies and petty criminals. Not so different from the Delhi rapists although some of them had jobs like on school buses filled with children.
But not all rapists are poor or slum dwellers or adolescents with unhappy childhoods. Not all rapists are men with pent-up sexual energy encouraged by online pornography. And some men accused of rape are actually well off, apparently well centred. Some, as the strange case of the godman known as Asaram Bapu shows, are also religious leaders. While the Mumbai rapists have been picked up quite fast — and the Mumbai police have done a much better job than their counterparts in Delhi last December -- this religious leader has been given time to arrive at a Rajasthan police station to be questioned.
The difference between the two attitudes is striking. The whole country was angry after the Mumbai rape and a very vocal actress and BJP MP Smriti Irani was seen making an impassioned speech in the Parliament. Quite right. But when it comes to the religious leader, the BJP is either silent or supportive and the Congress government in Rajasthan has been amazingly lenient.
The story then veers towards that other old theme: if you are famous person, the law changes for you. So some people accuse the police and the media of focusing on the story of the Mumbai gang-rape because the victim/survivor was a journalist and not on the innumerable rapes committed on the poor and disenfranchised. And others can clearly see that if you are famous or important or powerful or influential, the law bows down to you and your needs.
A meditating religious leader with many followers must see the police genuflect before him; not treat him like any other person accused of rape. In this case, the influential person is the same one who recommended, after the Delhi case that if the raped woman had called her rapists “brother”, they would have immediately stopped assaulting her. The mind boggles at the plight of the poor girl who has accused him of rape and molestation. Asaram of course calls it a conspiracy against him.
And then there is the other thread: that women like nothing better than to invent rape charges against hapless men because that is what women are like and the law has nothing better to do than to encourage such women. And this, in a roundabout manner, brings you back to all the other arguments lurking around a rape case.
Why do judges in India recommend that raped women marry their rapists? Can anything be more terrifying than that? A life sentence with the man who violated you? Why do police in India confuse breach of promise or sex before marriage with rape? Rape is sex without consent. Rape is not when parents are shocked that their children have had sex with someone they do not approve of. And then there’s paedophilia which we do not even want to discuss because we think it goes against our culture and therefore cannot even exist.
Locking up women and children to keep them safe is not going to help because more rapes are apparently committed by people you know rather than people you don’t. And that blows up the class argument to shreds.
The only one thing we can do right now is to try and ensure that the accused are apprehended in time, the investigation systems are efficient and clean and the road through the justice system is not laborious and convoluted. And that applies to the Mumbai case as much as it does to the Asaram case.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona