Child abuse: can India afford to remain in denial?

Traditional notions of the Indian family allow child abuse to happen with impunity.

 

Last week in the Indian capital Delhi two men drank, watched porn and then lured a five year old from her play area using a chocolate as bait. They kept her in captivity in a rented room in the same building where she lives with her parents and systematically raped her, in turn. For three days. Her cries led neighbours to find her locked in the room, bruised and bleeding. By then, the two men had fled, thinking they had left the child for dead.

Doctors treating the child say they extricated pieces of candle and glass bottle from the little girl’s vaginal orifice. The rapists have confessed to inserting candle parts and a glass bottle into the child in a panicked attempt to stop her bleeding, while confirming that the child was raped even after she began bleeding profusely. She has suffered severe internal injuries as a result and will now need surgery to reconstruct her intestines.

This horrific case has triggered angry protest marches in Delhi, akin to what the city witnessed after the excruciatingly brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old student aboard a bus in December 2012. This time even school children have played a vocal part in the anti-rape demonstrations. Yet rapes and child rapes are continuing unabated.

Just last week the case of a four-year-old girl raped by her neighbour in Haryana  – a state that borders Delhi – was reported, along with the rapes of a five-year-old girl in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a six-year-old girl in the state of Uttar Pradesh, two rapes involving two twelve year olds, and a thirteen-year-old who was gang-raped in Delhi for nine days.

Between 2001 and2011 there have been 48,000 cases of child sexual abuse. Moreover, there has been a 336 per cent jump in cases between 2001 and now. The Indian media is now calling these numbers an epidemic.

There is a valid argument to be made about woefully inadequate public services fuelling the crisis. Inadequate forensic labs, dysfunctional police training colleges, corruption and a lack of sensitisation are key among factors that exacerbate an institutional apathy that victimises the victim. In this most recent case on the nation’s radar, police officers offered the child’s family 2,000 rupees (£20 approx) as a price for their silence.

Yet the most compelling deterrent to such crimes can only come from a change in familial mindsets. India prides itself as a child-friendly country where within families, members of the immediate and extended family are believed to view children as a prime source of their family’s joy. But statistics suggest that the home is where the Indian child and woman is most unsafe. “Ninety-seven per cent [of rapes] are committed within homes, three per cent by strangers,” Delhi’s police commissioner confirmed in an address earlier this week.

Most cases of sexual abuse happening in domestic environments go unreported. But reported cases alone suggest that rape and child sexual abuse are mostly happening within the home and with a disturbingly increasing frequency. A harsh spotlight ought to be put on prevailing notions of the Indian family. The universal understanding in India that the family system is beyond reproach and family elders are perpetually pristine must be questioned.

In Indian society appearances are paramount and the keeping up of appearances by families is the epicentre of this societal veneer. “Covering up” for family members is an essential part of maintaining this veneer. Moreover, as a culture at large, and within families in particular, elders are considered to be beyond blame and censure. Youngsters are told that  elders are the apotheosis of all that is best and beautiful. Accordingly, the young are expected to exhibit an unquestionable reverence to all elders and especially towards relatives.

In Indian culture, every blood relationship has an ascribed moniker such as chacha for father’s brother, mama for mother’s brother and so on. It is under the guise of these sobriquets that relatives commit heinous crimes within their families with impunity. More chillingly, when a child or woman makes abuse known, the social stigma is seen to lie with the victim, not with the perpetrator. A mentality that espouses that children know less, compared with elders who are always right sadly still holds sway. At best, this patronises the child, and at worst labels him or her a repository of shame and discredit. The child is simply put down for his/her audacious attempt to malign a much-respected relative. Hushing up cases of abuse then maintains the status quo of the pride and place of the extended family in the wider culture.

Unsettlingly, the mindset that emanates from traditional notions of the Indian family is seen to empower family members to commit sex crimes towards children, knowing they will be well protected. When tradition serves as a veil behind which atrocities can happen without censure, then tradition must be called up, put in the dock and sent to the gallows. A society that fails its children, has failed entirely. India cannot afford to remain in denial about child sexual abuse any longer. Corrective measures are essential. But shrill chants on the streets in themselves will not herald the urgent change needed. Change has to start with the mindset in every Indian home.  

A placard is seen as demonstrators participate in a protest in Allahabad. Photograph: Getty Images
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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.