Over the past fortnight, six deaths connected with sexual violence – one in Unnao and five in Hyderabad – have, once again, opened up the question whether violence is an aberrant or normal part of our national life. For though there is no serious research at all that acts of violence – sexual, domestic, religious, political – can be reduced or eliminated through countering them with even more violence, we continue to believe it to be true. The reaction to the so-called encounter killing of the four accused in the Hyderabad rape case tells us as much.
The news of the encounter has been welcomed across the political spectrum, in the media, among celebrities and sports persons and across a number of forums where ordinary citizens exchange opinions. In addition, there is consensus that we have solved one of the most serious social problems of our times, that of sexual violence against women. The family of the veterinary doctor who suffered the terrible consequences of the attack on her expressed satisfaction that justice had been done.
Given the murky history of “encounter killings” in this country, we will have to wait for results of ongoing investigations into what really happened. However, the latest news from Hyderabad and the reaction to it will – rather than tackling the problem of sexual violence – only serve to further institutionalise violence as a general principle of Indian life. A terrible personal tragedy – that of the Hyderabad vet and her family – has become the site of a social calamity that will continue to wreak vengeance for years to come.
In the first instance, the demands and acceptance of “instant justice” is an acceptance of the point of view that a broken judicial system that takes an infinity to deliver justice – and frequently allows the powerful to get away with rape and murder – must be by-passed. A very wide cross-section of the Indian population now appears to endorse this view. Deep-rooted social problems – relating to the position of women in Indian society and their place in public life – are now seen to be solvable through arbitrary acts of policing.
It is not unlikely that many of those who see the Hyderabad killings as the solution to the problem share the same set of attitudes that create the conditions for the act: the normalisation of violence and its deployment as an unremarkable part of life. Violence against women can not be solved through further masculinised violence, for that is what endorsement of encounter killings amounts to. It only perpetuates the conditions of an infinite cycle of violence.
Secondly, the police-as-hero perspective also places an extraordinary burden of responsibility for social problems upon an organisation whose task is quite different. We must hold it accountable for it is meant to do, but frequently does not: follow the rule of law and treat all perpetrators equally, agree to register FIRs when required and provide adequate support to victims of sexual violence. Unfortunately, however, as we normalise extra-judicial violence as the most appropriate manner of dealing with individual violent behaviour, we also create a policing apparatus that internalises this attitude.
The police force is neither meant nor equipped to be the instrument for delivering justice and creating the conditions such that criminal acts do not occur. However, the normalisation of police violence leads to a situation where the important distinction between “police” and “society” is blurred. Social action must always be broader than police action. If the two are allowed to coalesce – as appears to have happened in the reaction to the Hyderabad killings – then justice becomes a matter of reflex action.
A masculine theory of justice
The most significant consequence of the treating police action that is extra-judicial as legitimate is the normalisation of violence in general. This is fertile ground for repetition of the kinds of violence it seeks to prevent. It is, in effect, anti-social and has no preventive consequence at all. The legitimisation of one form of violence as a means towards achieving a social effect is the endorsement of all its forms as normal process.
In effect, it presents a masculine theory of justice, rather than address the masculinity that is at the heart of all forms of sexual violence. And that is the tragic irony embedded within exultations over the encounter killings. It is part of the same complex of beliefs and practices that led to the rape and murder of the young woman. It does not derive from a position that opposes what happened to her.
Masculine justice – attractive to many since it seems to offer a way out of legal lethargy and police inefficiency – is the quick fix solution that even more deeply institutionalises the violence it seeks to address. It infiltrates the social fabric like an invited disease. It has the seeming effect of addressing a problem. However, it is itself part of the problem. The tragedy of the raped and murdered woman can only seriously be addressed by addressing the causes of both what happened to her and why it is that we believe that procedural policing and the justice system have no value.
If we do not seriously address the nature of masculine behaviour that create the conditions for sexual violence and ignore the urgency of judicial and police reforms, the veterinary doctor from Hyderabad is likely to become just another horror-laced statistic. As the death of the Unnao rape victim – set alight by her tormentors as she proceeded to a court hearing – shows, it is the glorification of masculine violence that is at the heart of its never-ending repetition.
If representatives of the state align themselves to it – endorsing rather than seeing it as a problem – they take part in the simplification of social problems that is at the heart of perilous populism. The peril lies in the fact that a wilful turning away from the underlying causes will serve to ensure that the cancer we have befriended, nurtured and endorsed continues to consume us, year after year, decade after decade, young women after young women.