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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No, identity politics is not to blame for the failures of the left

This is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality.

In these troubled times, it's good to know that moderate conservatives, anxious liberals and even your neighbourhood Trotskyist uncle can come together against the common enemy: students. Prissy, stuck-up students, with their trigger warnings and political correctness and highfalutin ideas about racial justice. It must be their fault. Forget the gurning neo-fascists goose-stepping into power across the globe, it's the students who are the real enemy. If they hadn't been so hung-up on identity politics, we wouldn't be staring into this abyss. You know I'm right.

That was me being sarcastic. The reason I need to point that out is that on or around 9 November 2016, the age of irony gave way to a new one of deadpan sincerity. It happened at some point between the election of an orange billionaire tycoon to the White House and authorities condemning Native American protesters at Standing Rock under the outgoing administration. So, unfortunately, I must be clear: no, I don't think that “identity politics” is the greatest threat to western civilisation. Some people, however, really do, and are at pains to point out that this geopolitical disaster could have been avoided if we had all been less precious about gay rights and women's rights and black lives and concentrated on the issues that matter to real people. Real people meaning, of course, people who aren't female, or queer, or brown, or from another country. You know, the people who really matter.

In the wake of successive victories for the venal far-right, commentators from all sides of the self-satisfied, chin-stroking debate school are blaming “identity politics” for the disaster on our doorsteps. What they seem to mean by this is “politics that matter to people who aren't white men in rural towns”. I have always thought of that simply as politics, but according to Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Times, I was mistaken. Diversity, Lilla writes, is:

“A splendid principle of moral pedagogy  but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

This is an idea that has remarkable staying power across a fractious and divided left: the idea that issues of race, gender and sexuality are at best a distraction from class politics, and at worst a bourgeois tendency that will be destroyed after the revolution. The logic is that by focusing on issues of social justice, the political class has abandoned “real” working people to economic hardship.

This notion is horribly wrong, and the worst thing is that it's wrong in the right direction, a train of thought that stays safely on track right until it slams into the hoardings next to the station. The political class has indeed rolled over and let kamikaze capitalism wreck the lives of working people around the world. Identity politics, however, has little to do with that cowardice. That the two are now yoked together in the popular imagination is something the left must answer for.

All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicised than others. The notion that the politics of identity and belonging have been allowed to overwhelm seemingly intractable issues of class, power and poverty is, in fact, entirely correct  but this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries, pitting white workers against black and brown workers, men against women, native-born citizens against foreigners in a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme.

As journalist Michelle Garcia noted, responding to Lilla in the New York Times:

 “The attack on political correctness fits within the brand of identity politics Donald Trump exploited during his campaign. Mr Trump's victory relied on fusing a culture of racism and sexism with economic anxieties and the backlash against neoliberalism.”

It's a shell-game. A con. It did not start with Donald Trump, but the real-estate mogul and social media tantrum-artist has taken it to its logical conclusion. The president-elect and his fellow travellers and sugar daddies have committed political fraud against the entire western world. They have compounded it – as all good fraudsters do – by making us believe that it was our fault for being so naive in the first place.

It is, to some extent, reassuring to believe that it’s all our fault. If it’s all our fault for being too politically-correct, too committed to “diversity”  if it were liberals and leftists who messed up by listening to these whining hippies with their patchouli-scented ideals of fairness and tolerance and police not shooting young black men dead for no reason  we might have to face the much scarier notion that what’s happening is, in fact, beyond our control. Instead, those who should know better are encouraging the most vulnerable to throw themselves under the bus for the greater good. This is not just offensive. It is also stupid.

The truth is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. Those who would sacrifice one for the other will end up with neither, which is of course what the unscrupulous narcissists manspreading at the gates of power are counting on. The mainstream political left has, for generations, been unable to answer the core economic issues that  shocking, I know, but hear me out  affect the lives of all human beings, of every race, gender and background. For generations, in the face of late capitalist hegemony, all it could realistically achieve was to tweak the system incrementally, making things a little fairer for individual groups, without challenging the structural inequalities that created the injustice in the first place. This must change, and soon. Not just because of “fine moral principles”. Trying to fix economic policy without tackling structural inequality is not just morally misguided  it is intellectually bankrupt.

Race, gender and identity are not side issues in the current crisis. On the contrary. Capitalism has always divided its labour supply along lines of race and gender, ensuring that in times of unrest, we don't start burning our looms  far safer for us to set fire to one other. All politics are identity politics, and this is no time to back away from our commitment to women’s rights, racial justice and sexual equality. This is when we double down. The fight against the corporate neo-fascism funnelling out of every television set is not a fight that can be won if liberals, leftists and social justice campaigners turn on one another. It is a fight that we will win together, or not at all.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.