Writing From Below | Cultural Critique after Nirbhaya: Indian and Foreign Media Commentators Negotiate Critique of Culture and Masculinity Following the 2012 Delhi Rape - Arjun Rajkhowa
Writing From Below

Cultural Critique after Nirbhaya:

Indian and Foreign Media Commentators Negotiate Critique of Culture and Masculinity Following the 2012 Delhi Rape

Arjun Rajkhowa


On 16 December 2012, a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, India was brutally raped and assaulted inside a bus while on her way home from a popular shopping complex. Duped by the assailants, raped and assaulted inside the bus, and then abandoned by the roadside at a remote location, the victim[1] was reported to have suffered some of the “most grievous injuries” encountered by the doctors who treated her (Narayan 2012).[2] The incident quickly escalated, over two days, from a local news story to a national and then international news story in the mainstream media (Narayan 2012; Sikdar 2012a). Efforts by the police to find and arrest the assailants became an immediate focus of reportage[3] (Sikdar 2012b), as did unremitting scrutiny of the woman’s condition in hospital, and ultimately her death from organ failure at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital[4] (Chatterjee 2012). Amidst ongoing protests, media discourse emerged as a site of generative renegotiations with the social, political and institutional factors underpinning violence against women.

As a legal category, violence against women encompasses various forms of abuse (Coomaraswamy 2005; Kelly 1989; Schuler 1992). In India, from girl-child foeticide and infanticide (see Chunkath & Athreya 1997; George at al 1992; George & Dahiya 1998; Negi 1997) to domestic violence and ‘dowry deaths’ (see Jaising 1995; Jejeebhoy 1998; Mahajan 1990; Nelson 1996; Sinha 1989), the family context, coupled with structural factors (Galtung 1969), plays an important role in the socialisation of misogyny and violence against women (Visaria 2000, 2008). The literature on rape offers a complex analysis of underlying socio-cultural, economic and individual-related factors (see Agnes 1990; Kelkar 1992; Kumar 1993). A sizeable segment also deals with legal issues surrounding rape, particularly the problem of consistently low conviction rates, the discrepancy between the framing of law and its application, the harassment of victims and intimidation of their families, and prejudicial attitudes within the police and judiciary (see Agnes 1993; Jaising 1995; Kumar 1993; Prasad 1999; Sarkar 1994).

Overall, feminist scholarship in India emerges from both academia (e.g., Sood 1990) and social movements with their activist networks (e.g., Dietrich 1992; Omvedt 1993; Sen 1990), converging around questions of female autonomy and mobilisations against violence (cf. Purkayastha et al 2003). In sociological studies, the problems posed by violence are often conceptualised in terms of the conflicts and tensions between modernity, tradition and changing social structures (see Anandhi & Jeyaranjan 2001; Rogers 2008; Srivastava 2012). In both media and scholarship, approaches to gender-based violence vary from those that essentialise gender as a stable construct across societies, and those that prioritise the intersections between “race, class, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sexual orientation and many other characteristics as well as gender” (Crenshaw 1994; see Busby 1999; Gow & Harvey 1994).

When what came to be referred to as the ‘Delhi gang-rape’, or simply the ‘Delhi rape’, captured the headlines, violence on the streets and the lack of security for women quickly (re)emerged as rallying points for students, activists and ordinary citizens in Delhi and around the country, feeding, ultimately, into transnational discourses about and mobilisations against gender-based violence (see Kearl 2015; Konner 2015). Referred to in the media as ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless), ‘Jagruti’ (awareness), ‘Damini’ (lightning), ‘Amanat’ (treasure) or simply as the ‘Delhi brave-heart’, the victim became a panoptic symbol of women’s oppression. The daily fears experienced by women and the spectre of the threat of sexual harassment and violence became issues of public debate, (re)igniting a desire in civil society to interrogate issues around gender-based violence comprehensively (Kearl 2015). The plight of this young woman, a paramedical student attacked whilst on her way home from a movie theatre in South Delhi, resonated with urban women across the country, spurring intense identification with her predicament and trenchant reflections on the intersections between gender, public space and power in post-liberalisation India (see Schneider & Titzmann 2014). Indian youth tend to associate the country’s large metropolitan cities with economic opportunity and modernity (see Jeffrey 2010) but for many, life in an urban metropolis is characterised by insecurity and the ever-present threat of violence (see Marhia 2012). While affording professional and social opportunities to many, large Indian cities with their “striated urban spaces” (Auge 2008) remain spheres of perceived freedom laced with palpable fear, where the use of public space inflects individual notions of personal safety in gendered and class-specific ways (see Smit 2012; Srivastava 2012). This incident, against the backdrop of ever-rising rape statistics, precipitated a desire for substantial change in a city ostensibly long inured to news of violence against women (see Chaudhury 2013a, 2013b). It rekindled important conversations about civic life. The need for constant negotiation with fears and apprehensions around public mobility was questioned; the disjuncture between male and female understandings of security in the public arena was interrogated; and institutional failings and lacunae were laid bare and challenged. In effect, the protests that followed the incident provided an opportunity structure for the articulation of oppositional views in the area of civic life and progressive views in the sphere of gender relations (see Kitschelt 1986; Koopmans 1999; Kriesi 1995; Tarrow 1983, 1989). To the extent that this is possible, it created a renewed impetus for social change in an area long marked by institutional absences as well as entrenched gendered power hierarchies, even if expectation of these changes far outstripped actual capacity for, or amenability to, reform (see Ghosh 2015; Hundal 2013; Pinto 2013).[5] Later developments that can be linked, directly or indirectly, to the political consciousness engendered by the case include: the legal reform processes that emerged from an official inquiry (see Misra & Bronitt 2014; Verma, Seth & Subramanian 2013); sustained media scrutiny of subsequent cases of violence against women in India (in both domestic and international media) (see Roychowdhury 2013); the arrest of a prominent editor-proprietor, Tarun Tejpal, in November 2013 on allegations of sexual assault, and the ensuing backlash against his publication, Tehelka (a publication long venerated for its pioneering efforts against gender-based violence), and associated journalists, which some characterised as representative of a ‘new’ gender consciousness in Delhi (see Cohen 2013); and the proscription of a BBC documentary on the Delhi rape, India’s Daughter by producer Leslee Udwin, in March 2015 by the Indian government, and subsequent debates around both the documentary and the ban (see Krishnan 2015; Roberts 2015; Rowlatt 2015; Roy 2015). These were some of the significant ramifications of the mobilisations that arose from the Delhi rape, each meriting careful consideration on its own. However, this paper, which has an exploratory analytical orientation (see, for example, Schultz 2000), focuses exclusively on three aspects of the media commentary surrounding the case. First, I survey and delineate the different ways in which commentators in mainstream print and online media in India addressed the links between masculinity, culture, misogyny and violence against women; then, I survey foreign mainstream media commentary on the case and explore some of the fissures and conflicts that emerged therein (particularly around the link between culture and violence against women, and feminism); and finally, I conclude by delineating the strain of diffidence and antagonism in Indian politicians’ and media commentators’ criticisms of the BBC documentary India’s Daughter. My aim here is two-fold: to demonstrate that Indian media commentators adequately addressed the role that masculinity and culture play in violence against women; and to demonstrate that western commentators’ critiques highlighting the same links between culture and violence were met with discomfort and diffidence on the part of both other western commentators and Indian commentators. I argue that while it is useful to interrogate some of the rhetorical and discursive strategies deployed in discussions of culture and gender-based violence—and while I acknowledge the epistemological underpinnings of scepticism of cultural critique (see, for example, Amos & Parmar 1984; Grewal & Kaplan 1996; Ho 2007; Kapur 2002)—it is nevertheless important to recognise the usefulness of such critique (as a political tool for Indian journalists, activists and scholars engaging with the problem of violence against women, and as a framework for media commentary for journalists and scholars globally), and to recognise the importance of contending with a social problem in all its complexity, without undermining productive modes of analysis.


Critiquing Masculinity and Culture—A Common Theme in Indian Media Commentary

Interrogation of men’s attitudes and behaviours, and social construction of masculinity, and of the link between these and violence against women, constituted a significant segment of Indian media commentary on the Delhi rape. As a cumulus of conceptions and cultural norms inextricably imbricated with the social structures of society, masculinity, and in particular the interrelations between masculinity and enactments of gender-based violence, came under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the Delhi rape. Media commentary on the links between masculinity, misogyny, socialisation of gender-based discrimination and violence against women was wide-ranging and incisive. This interrogation did not restrict itself to explicitly recognised attitudes; it encompassed incorporeal elements of the social construction of male identity as well. Media commentators emphasised the need for a comprehensive and sensitive revaluation of the values and forms of socialisation underpinning the link between masculinity and violence against women (see Swami 2012, 2013; Srivastava 2013).

A perceived “crisis of masculinity” was linked to a “sense of displacement” brought on by women’s empowerment and the economic transformation of society (see Butalia 2012; Kapur 2012). The growth of women’s economic power was linked to male hostilities and violence against women (cf. Giddens 1990, 1991, 1999; see also Nayar 1975). This argument was explicated in terms of the mobility and concomitant vulnerability of working women in urban areas (see Anandhi & Jeyaranjan 2001 in Rogers 2008). It was, however, countered by others who emphasised the fact that gender-based violence necessarily transcends socio-economic bounds (see Baxi, U. 2012; Kaur 2012). The foregoing understanding of the factors underpinning the perpetuation of attitudes of hostility and fear, it was argued, could not sufficiently explain the continued oppression of those in traditional and patriarchal settings (see Sitapati 2013). It was argued that the relationship between mobility and visibility in the (urban) public realm and increased violence, as an explanatory trope, could only be applied to the vagaries of urban security; elsewhere, it served as a tenuous link (see Gupta, S 2013). Women in rural areas living within the confines of traditional patterns and strictures of social organisation revolving around family, caste and religion experience gender-based violence regardless of their lack of mobility (ibid).

Further, I argue that the interlinking of women’s empowerment, visibility and violence against women, while providing a necessary explanatory context for misogyny and violence, also raises a slew of other questions, particularly the question of how understanding of this nexus relates to notions about female agency and responsibility. Against the backdrop of widespread ‘victim-blaming’, among authorities as well as the wider public (see Ward 1988), conceptual linkages between mobility and vulnerability can be seen as providing a rationale for the paternalistic hectoring of women for their ‘unwise’ behaviour (in personal safety terms) and instructing women “to be vigilant, to be careful, not to take unnecessary chances” (Sharma 2012). Though seemingly pragmatic or benign, these (mainly informal but occasionally ‘official’) admonishments serve, ultimately, to implicitly inculpate female victims (for a lapse of judgment or inappropriate demeanour) and, disingenuously, to shift the onus of guaranteeing security onto women themselves (ibid). This particular register of discourse can be described as “protectionist” (ibid).

As indicated earlier, anthropologists have argued that gender-based violence in India is based on men’s “thwarted identities” and sense of displacement arising from the breakdown (or restructuring) of traditional social and economic structures (Moore 1994; Rogers 2008). Following the Delhi rape, media commentators averred that recognising this was necessary for “confront[ing] the hatred [of women] that is now manifesting itself in the most egregious ways” (Kapur 2012). It was argued that male anxiety around women in the urban workforce and women’s social and economic mobility had much to do with increasing violence against women. Not only was women’s emancipation in the urban-professional landscape identified as a source of anxiety but the sexualised depiction of women in popular culture was also linked to misogyny and violence (see Bajpai 2013; Basu 2013). Commentators linked the proliferation of sexualised depictions of women in cinema and on television, intertwined with the consumption of pornography, to violence through the phenomenon of “psychological projection” (see Gupta, R 2013; see also Kumar 2013; Swami 2012). The nexus between cultural “objectification” and the performance of male identity (through the emulation of maladaptive, violence-glorifying models of behaviour and the espousal of commoditised values) was blamed for the “[normalisation of] the degradation of women” (Gupta, R 2012). Although this represents only one specific understanding of the issue, and is arguably interlaced with conservative sexual mores, its appositeness can be seen through an unexpected controversy that erupted during this time: in the course of the protests, the misogynistic lyrics of a popular singer who was seen as being singularly implicated in a “hyper-masculine” creed of “glorification” of violence came under intense criticism (see Katju, A 2013). The sexualisation of popular culture was linked to violence through the mediating context of masculine identity-formation (see Chowkhani 2012). However, this is not to suggest that the link between popular culture and social violence went uncontested; critiques of this link (from what may be described as a libertarian perspective) were also proffered (see Ford 2013; Kanjilal 2013).

The context of masculine identity-formation and its role in the socialisation of violence was interrogated in a myriad of ways. The argument was made that in some quarters of society, violence had become part of a “system of masculinity-making rituals” and young men were now more likely to commit crimes against women than ever before (Swami 2013). Citing crime statistics that indicated that, even against an abatement of overall crime levels, crimes against women perpetrated by young men had escalated, journalist Praveen Swami (2013) of The Hindu averred that a focus on the “dysfunctional masculinity” that underpinned this “pervasive gender terrorism” was absolutely necessary (ibid).[6] Swami offered four contexts for understanding the “production of India’s urban-male dysfunction”. Firstly, he argued, the country’s “transforming urban economy… has produced a mass of young, prospectless men” (ibid). As children of migrant workers, they face the double burden of fighting for economic sustenance amidst the growing casualisation of work and monetising the investment made in their education. Their socio-economic stress is compounded by (mismatched) familial expectations. Secondly, working-class men in cities increasingly find themselves excluded from recreational spaces. An overemphasis on consumption by the wealthier sections of society has priced young men from lower-income backgrounds out of access to culture and sport. The streets then serve as an alternative site for “acting out adulthood, through violence and substance abuse” (ibid).

Thirdly, a large number of children, particularly in urban slums, are being brought up in “no-parent families”—“families that fathers have abandoned… and where mothers work long hours” (ibid). These circumstances engender a social environment, characterised by “physical and emotional abuse, as well as neglect” (Kleijn 2010 in Swami 2013; see also Cherian 2013), that produces individuals with a propensity for crime and sexual violence. The problem of child abuse was framed as a key concern here: a 2007 survey of 12,477 children found that 69%, over half of them boys, had suffered physical violence, and 6%, again a majority of them boys, had experienced severe sexual abuse (Ministry of Women and Child Development 2007). 65% of school-going children, 59% of children who did not go to school and 59% of working children had experienced physical violence (ibid). Swami argued that exposure to violence has a deleterious and lasting effect on young men, and many tend to form an impression at an early age that society condones violence. Thus inculcated, violence is normalised and self-replicates through one’s adult life.

Fourthly, Swami argued, there was a “crisis of sexuality”:

Few men, working class or rich, have access to a sexual culture which allows them sexual freedoms or choices. The crisis is exacerbated by the fact that sections of urban élites participate in a sexual culture which is relatively liberal—a culture that young men can watch on television and in public spaces, but never hope to participate in. For some, the sexually independent woman is thus enemy to be annihilated. (Swami 2013)

Yet another context for the making of masculine cultures that was identified and addressed by commentators was that of the family and religious customs (Srivastava 2013). Indian family life contains “elaborate formal and informal means of reinforcing and celebrating male privilege”—sons are brought up to “both perpetuate and condone gender hierarchies and are nurtured with a sense of entitlement” (ibid). This was posited as contributing to “male violence towards women” (ibid; see also Kulkarni 2013; Samar 2012; Sengupta 2013).

Opinion pieces such as ‘Rape and the crisis of masculinity’ (Kapur 2012), ‘What’s wrong with Indian men’ (Sharma 2012), ‘Taking the aggression out of masculinity’ (Srivastava 2013), ‘The rapist in the mirror’ (Swami 2013), ‘The danger to women lurks within us’ (Swami 2012), ‘Why Indian men rape’ (Soondas 2012) and ‘Rape and how Indian men see it’ (Chaudhury 2013) evince and encapsulate an important thematic investment in situating “pathological male violence” (Swami 2012) within the discursive schema surrounding rape, and in unpacking the nexus between masculinity and violence. This theme is best exemplified by and elucidated within an extensive feature article in the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka on men’s attitudes regarding the problem of gender-based violence titled ‘Rape and how Indian men see it’. Tehelka canvassed men from different parts of the country for their reactions to the Delhi rape and published its findings in an incisive report (see Chaudhury 2013a). The report postulates a dichotomy between orthodox views and progressive views as regards how men respond to issues concerning violence against women (ibid; see also Gupta, S 2013). On the one hand, there is a tendency to blame instances of violence on factors such as the erosion of morality and the disruptive impact of modernity on traditional social structures. According to this “regressive [and] reductive” view, women are usually to blame for their own harassment and suffering (ibid). Their “provocative” actions and lack of “caution” are said to result in, and therefore extenuate, attacks on their “dignity”, and in such instances, their personhood and concomitant right to security is thus invariably viewed as being already “compromised” (ibid). Several strategies are used to obfuscate, and even completely negate, the perpetrators’ responsibility. Diminished male accountability, stemming from the notion that violence is inescapably linked to women’s “transgressive” actions, feeds into the belief that the problem of rape may best be “controlled” by regulating women’s behaviour (ibid). The “protective” role of “guardians” is affirmed, and lapses in familial supervision are blamed for rape (ibid). “Brute misogyny” is thus supplemented by a kind of “stifling protectionism” (ibid).

On the other hand, the “progressive” view evinces “a profound commitment to the idea of equality and women’s rights over their own bodies, ambitions and sexuality” (ibid). The “regressive” ideas espoused by those who hold the former view, particularly the “reductive” problematisation of women’s (increasing) freedom as a cause of violence, are unequivocally rejected. Women’s autonomy is understood as a necessary condition for the emancipation and progress of society. An “autonomous” and “successful” woman is described as “someone who is truly independent, who can live with her family or on her own, take her own decisions, dress as she wants, go where she wants and have as many sexual partners as she chooses” (ibid). This, the report says, is echoed by people of various ages in different regions and in different segments of society. Improvements to institutional mechanisms and processes, and changes in official attitudes are deemed necessary for the mitigation of sexual violence. Importantly, the Delhi rape is seen not as an instance of random violence but as a symptom of a more deep-rooted problem demanding a careful examination of social attitudes. The solution proffered is “more freedom, not less” (ibid), and opposition to gender-based violence is informed by a feminist consciousness that encompasses more than concern for physical security and economic autonomy. Additionally, progressives deem it necessary to sustain an ongoing dialogue with those who espouse a divergent worldview in order to mitigate the challenges of social conflict and to arrive at an understanding of freedom that is both inclusive and transformative:

As [social activist] Aruna Roy says, the deepest feminist position one can have is a commitment to participatory dialogue. The ideas that will emerge from that lengthy process will always have greater validity and acceptance by plural cross-sections of society. The idea of equality may be non-negotiable, but the paths to it are many. If we stay committed to that process, even after the clumsy water cannons are gone and the anguished candles have died, we might still have one billion rising (ibid).

Developments that arose in the course of the protests further crystallised some of the issues highlighted by the Tehelka report. Comments by certain politicians and public figures which were seen as attributing blame to the victim, or minimising the criminality or responsibility of the rapists, became a locus of critical contestations over the continuing hold of retrogressive attitudes in large swathes of society, including, most problematically, within political circles (see Sengupta 2012c; Singh, T 2012; see also Prasannarajan 2013).[7] These retrogressive views were characterised as representative of the underside of civil society discourses, the veritable antithesis of liberal civil society’s cherished visions (see Bakshi & Banerjee 2013; Kandasamy 2013; Singh, T 2012; see also Nayyar 2012). Antagonistic tensions modernity and tradition confounded public discourses here in ways that were wholly expected but nevertheless considered disruptive of prevalent understandings of the protests (see Gupta, S 2013). Inviting unequivocal condemnation, these sentiments were challenged as soon as they appeared, but by embodying values antithetical to those espoused by liberal civil society, they highlighted the seriousness of the problem of persisting discriminatory attitudes, particularly amongst politicians and others in positions of authority (see Bamzai & Sriram 2013; Gupta, D 2013; Nigam 2012). However, the contradictions between the ‘modern’ and ‘non-modern’ that were raised by and lay at the centre of this public contestation went unresolved, and through retractions, the offending statements were neutralised before anything resembling a sustained interrogation could take place (see Bamzai 2013; Chaudhury 2013a, 2013b; Sahgal 2013). As is often the case under these circumstances, the ‘non-modern’ resumed its wonted place in society in largely unreconstructed form, seemingly assured of the stability of its hegemonic hold outside the domain of ‘modern’ civil society (see Gupta 2000; Rudolph & Rudolph 1984).

I argue that issues around masculinity, misogyny and social attitudes regarding violence against women occupied a central place in Indian media commentary on the case. However, this is not to suggest that, following the Delhi rape, all of public discourse consisted of nuanced discussion of the multifarious issues underlying gender-based violence. On the contrary, the protests and mobilisations that emerged in response to the case were dominated by reflexive demands for instant justice (viz., death penalty for the Delhi rapists)[8]. Nevertheless, by and large, public discourse qua media commentary on the case may be characterised as sensitive, comprehensive and incisive. To sum up this section, I reference the writer Urvashi Butalia’s acknowledgement of the complexity of the problem of violence against women, and note that Butalia’s commentary also foregrounds the role that “we, our society, we as a people… [play in making] our men so violent” (Butalia 2012). Butalia argues that the aetiology of rape and violence cannot not be compartmentalised into discrete concerns: a disproportionate majority of rape-cases occur within the home and are perpetrated by persons known to the victim; custodial rapes have occurred on numerous occasions in the past, and sexual violence inflicted by policemen often goes unreported; a large number of politicians in the country, including sitting members of parliament, face allegations of rape and other sexual crimes (ibid). Any conceptualisation of the political and institutional changes desired, therefore, cannot be disentangled from this larger vortex of socio-politicial realities, and must adequately address the social underpinnings of gendered violence:

It is important to raise our collective voice against rape. But rape is not something that occurs by itself. Let’s ask ourselves how we, our society, we as a people, create and sustain the mindset that leads to rape, how we make our men so violent, how we insult our women so regularly; let’s ask ourselves how privilege creates violence (ibid).


Tensions Underlying Foreign Media Coverage of the Delhi Rape—Is Cultural Critique Justified?

To begin with, I note that foreign mainstream media coverage of the case was comprehensive, detailed and incisive. Several reports and features on the case and the protests that followed (many of them written by resident or expatriate Indian journalists, or journalists of Indian descent) approached the issue of violence against women in India through the prism of citizens’ anger about the problem and mobilisations against the problem, and by highlighting protesters’ criticisms of governmental and social failures and by foregrounding women’s everyday experiences (see, for example, Gopal 2012; Singh & Kapur 2013). Many reports focalised the contrast between ‘new’ India’s modernity (defined here primarily in terms of women’s emancipation) and ‘old’ India’s reluctance to embrace modernity (or outright hostility to modernity), reifying a dichotomy that (albeit simplistically) encapsulates the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions inherent in contemporary Indian society (see, for example, Buncombe 2013; Dalmia 2013; Dhillon 2013; Foleiro 2013; Huffington Post 2013). Violence against women was deemed to be a consequence of the destabilisation and dismantling of ‘old’ social norms, mores and structures. Journalist Amrit Dhillon of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “In India, the forces of patriarchy, sensing the old order slipping away, are responding by lashing out at women’s new freedoms.” (Dhillon 2013) Violence arises out of a disjuncture between the dwindling hold of traditional structures of power on men and women in urban areas, and the proliferation of new sexual and political codes and identities and the assertion of autonomy. The liberalisation of the economy and its concomitant impact on social relations has enabled women to “exercise autonomy... behave like [an equal]”, but “traditional Indian [men], used to a sense of entitlement for simply being male”—a significant section of whom are “semi-educated, largely rural, deeply patriarchal, and steeped in [a] reactionary tradition”—“[do] not accept these changes” (ibid). The resultant fissures have led to festering tensions in society, manifesting as violent attempts to “subjugate women and teach them their place” (ibid). 

The “objectionable” and “condemnable” comments of politicians and public figures were characterised as emblematic of ‘old’ India—“a mindset within the heartland of India that permits such assaults to take place” (Buncombe 2013; see Washington Post 2013). These comments were excoriated and critiqued, but they were also perceived to accurately reflect the opinions of a sizeable segment of the public. The value systems undergirding these opinions were deemed antithetical and detrimental to the country’s ‘unfinished project of modernity’. The protests were characterised, optimistically, as a manifestation of the strength of incipient progressive forces in the country, a much-needed counterforce to the continuing hold of seemingly intractable and deep-rooted problems (see Burke 2012; Gopal 2012; Gottipati 2012; New York Times 2012).

Arguably, though, what emerged as the most absorbing aspect of the foreign coverage was some western commentators’ critique of other western commentators’ perspectives on the case. Differences arose amongst certain commentators over the question of whether western media were using the rape to “induce collective guilt in India, over everything from its morals to its mad males to its economic growth” (O’Neill 2013). While some journalists and commentators analysed the problem of rape as a culturally-embedded phenomenon—determined by an entrenched ‘culture of misogyny’ and symptomatic of a particular form of oppressive gender politics – others decried the attempt to categorise rape as problem endemic to a particular society, emphasising instead the global dimensions of gender-based violence. Those who criticised the former approach argued that it evinced or exemplified a “neocolonial” (O’Toole 2013) worldview—linking undesirable problems to fundamental cultural iniquities, ‘cultural dystrophy’ and other such constructs—thereby (purportedly) excising from their analysis any acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of the problem in other societies or their own. By focusing on the cultural specificity of the phenomenon, some argued, rape was coded as “someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation” (Jones 2012) or as “something that only happens ‘over there’—something we civilised folk in the west have somehow put behind us” (O’Toole 2013). In being so coded, the Delhi rape was used, one British commentator put it, to “simultaneously demonise Indian society, lionise our own, and minimise the enormity of western rape culture” (ibid).

Some Indian readers unfamiliar with the various antagonisms that characterise western thought in general and western media in particular (left-vs-right, or progressive-vs-conservative, among other permutations of oppositional political views) would have missed the significance of the animus underpinning these conversations about cultural vilification and ‘demonisation’ (see De Sarkar 2013)—the outrage and censure differed little from the tone of the commentary at home. Many arguments about the cultural specificity of the problem emanated primarily from the Indian media, and Indian readers would (or perhaps should) not have been surprised, let alone agitated, by western commentators’ characterisation of the problem of rape as one that is ineluctably intertwined with the “macho culture” and “totally patriarchal” mindset that pervades Indian society (see Nolen 2012; Burke 2012). As discussed earlier, trenchant discussions about the links between masculinity, culture and violence appeared regularly in the Indian media in the aftermath of the Delhi rape. Articles in western outlets calling for “cultural change” (see Nolen 2012) echoed sentiments commonplace in India, but evidently caused discomfort among western commentators as well as, as I will show later, some Indian readers.

The castigation proffered by western commentators should have been seen, by western commentators themselves if not by Indian readers as well, as dovetailing seamlessly with the ‘self-chastisement’ of Indian journalists and readers. However, among western commentators, discussion of the Delhi rape was accompanied by acrimonious debate over the appropriateness of relegating undesirable phenomena to specific cultural preserves. This is not to argue that such debate was misplaced under the given circumstances, or in any way tangential. As I note in the following paragraph, critique of India’s so-perceived cultural dystrophy was often couched in strong and provocative language, thus inviting objection from others. Further, many raised pertinent points about the challenges that gender-based violence poses in western societies. Nevertheless, I argue (in the concluding section of this paper) that critical dismissal of the link between culture and violence obviates productive analysis of that link emerging, first and foremost, from within the culture in question (in this case, India).

An editorial in The Times of London titled ‘All about Eve’ called for “cultural change” in India to combat the “epidemic of gang-rape and the misogyny that inspires it” (Times 2012). Columnist Libby Purves (2012) of the same newspaper wrote, “A benign cultural earthquake is necessary if the country, one of the world’s four big boom economies, can be allowed to hold its head up in the civilised world.” She added, “There is unignorable statistical evidence of this cultural rottenness.” (A reprint of her article in The Australian was titled ‘Gang-rape shame could drag India into 21st century’.) Purves argued that the country could not “pin the whole atrocity” on a few bad men: “murderous, hyena-like male contempt is a norm [in India]” (ibid); the problem of violence against women had specific cultural roots and many in the West were now “looking eastward in disgust” (ibid). Other reports and opinion pieces were more subtle in their imputations of cultural dystrophy. Even those who focused primarily on the protests, and wrote sympathetically of the ‘momentous’ and incipient change in social attitudes presaged by the protests and public anger, nevertheless couched their analyses in the discourse of ‘cultural change’. Indian social structures and institutions were subjected to the “most cauterising of examinations” and Indians were exhorted to “move beyond [their] rape culture” (Lloyd 2012).

Academic Emer O’Toole (2013) argued in The Guardian that there were subtle traces of a “misplaced sense of cultural superiority” in much of the media coverage of the case in the UK and US. O’Toole argued that the “shock” and indignation provoked by ‘rape statistics’ from India belied the seriousness of the problem of rape in Europe and America. The fact that in the US 24% of alleged rape cases result in an arrest, or Britain’s conviction rate of 6.5%, did not, O’Toole argued, temper indignation at India’s ‘abysmal’ conviction rate of 25% (O’Toole 2013). Conviction rates and crime statistics—although always a contentious area (some measure conviction rates using number of prosecutions as a base while others use number of complaints or allegations, perforce a more substantial figure)—formed a leitmotif in discussions around western perspectives on the Delhi case and were used variously to either highlight the global ubiquity of violence against women or the “unique severity” (Saunders 2013) of India’s situation. Journalist Owen Jones of The Independent wrote,

Again, let us Brits not get all high and mighty, either. Amnesty International conducted a poll in the United Kingdom a few years ago. Only four per cent of respondents thought that the number of women raped each year exceeded 10,000. But according to the Government’s Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Girls, 80,000 women are raped a year, and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. It is a pandemic of violence against women that—given its scale—is not discussed nearly enough. (Jones 2012)

Others made a similar point regarding the US (see Kohn 2013; Solnit 2013). Columnist Sally Kohn (2013) of More magazine wrote,

And yet India only ranks third for the number of rapes reported each year. What country ranks first?  The United States. In India, a country of over 1.2 billion people, 24,206 rapes were reported in 2011.  The same year in the United States, a nation of 300 million, 83,425 rapes were reported. In the United States, every 6.2 minutes a woman is raped.

The underlying polemic – of representing the problem of rape as one of ‘pandemic’ proportions while eschewing its characterisation as an Indian ‘epidemic’—speaks to anxieties about ‘cultural stereotypes’ and the deleterious impact of generalisations. These anxieties spurred debate (in western media) about the role of western journalists and commentators in generating a discourse of ‘national shame’ in relation to India while simultaneously minimising the extent of “western rape culture” (O’Toole 2013; see De Sarkar 2013). Taking exception to the comments of the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon condemning the Delhi rape, columnist Brendan O’Neill of the Telegraph asked if it was appropriate for the UN to “comment on horrific crimes that are executed, not by states or armies or guerrillas, but by a handful of depraved men” (O’Neill 2013). Drawing a comparison with a spate of sex-related killings in Ipswich in the UK, O’Neill adduced the following reasoning for an apparent “double standard” in the political (public?) response and reportage: sex-related crimes were not seen as “indicative of British culture in general, as a sign that British society and all those who inhabit it are rapacious and repulsive” but the Delhi rape and murder was deemed the “logical end result of the allegedly depraved culture and attitudes of India” (ibid). According to O’Neill, “every aspect of modern Indian culture and life” was examined in the wake of the Delhi rape and “found wanting” (ibid).

These journalists and commentators found the disparaging tone of the reportage in the US and UK uncomfortably “neo-colonial”, almost xenophobic (see O’Toole 2013). Furthermore, a number of them suggested that western readers would be ill-served if they did not “[turn] their judgmental gazes on their own societies” (O’Toole 2013; see Jones 2012) and take cognisance of the prevalence of sexual violence and misogyny in their own midst and within their own institutions (see Bates 2012). In other words, western readers were warned against the supposed complacency engendered by self-conceptions of the ‘other-ness’ of India’s acute gender inequality and levels of violence.

This line of thinking, however, provoked strong reactions from some readers and commentators. Columnist Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail in Canada, describing the severity of the rape crisis in India as ‘unique’, noted that at a time when Indians had

begun to recognise [the] epidemic of sexual hatred in their midst... an odd thing happened in Canada and other western countries: a number of prominent people, notably anti-rape activists and feminists, rushed to declare that India’s crisis wasn’t notably severe. (Saunders 2013)

Saunders decried what he saw as the attempt of some to minimise the severity of the “national crisis” by deflecting attention from the “real problem” and focusing instead on the alleged invective and vituperation in western commentary on the case. What he found particularly disingenuous was the drawing of comparisons with western countries—he argued that those who sought to ‘excuse’ India’s “unique” situation by way of an (undue) ‘overemphasis’ on the prevalence of sexual violence in western societies were making tenuous and illogical connections: “To use the situation in New Delhi as a way to draw attention to sex crimes in Canada is akin to using the Rwandan genocide to mark points about gang crime in Scarborough.” (ibid) The comments section of O’Toole’s article, for instance, contained responses by many readers who also found the drawing of parallels objectionable and discursive. Many could not countenance the implication that western societies had levels of violence and misogyny that could be compared to, or said to be equivalent to, India. This is best encapsulated by Saunders’ averring of the fact that in the west “rape is a grotesque anomaly, universally recognised as a serious crime”, a crime that attracts severe penalties, unlike in India where the legal framework often delays or denies justice to victims of sexual crimes (ibid). A common argument that emerged was that any obfuscation of the fact that social attitudes and institutional responses to violence against women had changed drastically (for the better) in western societies could be tied to an underlying (implicitly questionable) political ‘agenda’ (presumably an ‘anti-western’ one?); any insinuation of the existence of a “rape culture” in the west could be disputed as fallacious (see O’Neill 2013; Saunders 2013). On the other hand, that very disputing of the existence of a “rape culture” [in the west] was alleged by other commentators to be evidence of the impugned culture (see McEwan 2013). Therefore, those who found the interrogation of sexism or violence in the west problematic, albeit reflexively within the discoursal space generated by the Delhi case, were seen to be inimical to a plural engagement with an expanded conversation on the situation of women’s rights and struggles in western societies, and their responses were inferred to be antagonistic to feminist readings of the case (ibid). In this manner, commentary on the Delhi rape turned into, among some western commentators at least, a debate about the merits of western feminism.

Nevertheless, to some, the significance of the reportage lay primarily in its evocation of the transformative potential of civil society activism. Exhorting readers to “look eastward in solidarity” (O’Toole), many emphasised the momentum and magnitude of the protests and highlighted the ‘unique’ irruption of gender rights discourses on the national (and international) stage. Academic Mark Lilla contrasted the Indian reaction to the Delhi rape with the tepid response of the US to the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (which claimed twenty six lives and took place around the same time). Deploring, on the one hand, the circumlocutory debates around gun-ownership laws that immediately followed the shooting and the overall despondency of public opinion, and extolling, on the other, the “willingness [of Indians] to mobilise and put pressure on those in authority”, to rise above “narrow interests or ideological obsessions”, Lilla (2012) wrote, “Contemporary Indians have a very different idea about what it means to be a citizen.”

Travelers’ accounts played a crucial discoursal role here (see Wallbridge 2012; Moore 2012; RoseChasm 2013). Many women who had travelled to India wrote about their experiences and perceptions, thereby contributing to the wider discoursal field by situating the ‘outsider’s’ perspective within the paradigm of the unfolding (local) political and discoursal churning. These accounts emphasised individual, subjective perceptions formed through travel encounters and exposure to the vicissitudes of life in India. Different in both tone and content from commentaries by journalists, personal narratives and observations opened up a unique space in international portals for the articulation of sentiments, anxieties and experiences otherwise eclipsed by overarching analyses of the broader socio-political situation. Arguably the most prominent (and, to some extent, controversial) of these was a CNN iReport article written by RoseChasm, the (self-disclosed) pseudonym of Michaela Cross, who, as a University of Chicago student, spent a semester abroad in India. Her post on the CNN website, which eventually became the most-viewed post of all time on CNN iReport, attracted an avalanche of comments, many of them sympathetic but many also critical of what they perceived to be her ‘Orientalising’ narrative. Describing her stint in India as “half dream, half nightmare”, she set out to convey the trauma she had suffered as a result of what she described as relentless sexual harassment. She wrote that her predicament as a female traveller in India was one characterised by uncertainty, constant vulnerability and deep unease: “There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that everyday stared with such entitlement at my body...”  (RoseChasm 2013) India was “a traveller’s heaven and a woman’s hell”, she said, and her post afforded brief glimpses into her memories of her jarring experiences there. Her suffering, she revealed, had unveiled a reality she could not blot out:

What, may I ask, is the cure for seeing reality, of feeling for three months what it’s like for one's humanity to be taken away? But I thank God for my experiences in India, and for my disillusionment. Truth is a gift, a burden, and a responsibility (ibid).

Responses to her article ranged from sympathetic and laudatory to sceptical and disgruntled. Many readers, identifying themselves as Indian, expressed ‘shame’ for the experiences that she had endured; and many expressed ‘gratitude’ and appreciation for her effort in ‘speaking out’ and ‘revealing the truth’ while corroborating her account with their own reflections. Many others asseverated that these were ‘one-sided’ observations that portrayed India as irredeemably violent; that collapsed or did away with all distinctions between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ in her journey and depicted ‘Indian men’ as an undifferentiated mass of ‘predators’. These criticisms circumvented the central concern of the article—that is, the traveller’s experience of hostility and insecurity—and arose from a wilful misreading of the narrative frame of the article. The context of personal narration, and expunction of traumatic memories by means of recounting traumatic experiences, was overlooked and many criticisms thus (perhaps unwittingly) diminished her personal suffering through coruscating counter-charges (‘Did she misjudge people’s curiosity as hostility? Was she being overly paranoid?’), or diffident counter-narratives seemingly intended to redeem readers’ impression of India (‘I have travelled to/always lived in India and I have always been treated with respect’).  This is where Indian readers ‘clashed’ with ‘outsiders’ over the ‘legitimacy’ of their critique, and conflicts arose over ‘authorial’ locus standi. The incorporeal but readily discernible question that pervaded many readers’ engagement with RoseChasm’s piece was: who should get to speak, authoritatively, about women’s issues in India?

Having lived and worked in India, Australian Oxford University student Esmerelda Wallbridge (2012) wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Women in India are in grave danger, suffering in a culture where sexism and misogyny lead to horrific violence against women.” Wallbridge exhorted readers back home to “imagine the psychological and emotional effects of living in an atmosphere of danger and fear” (ibid). She argued for the adoption of a particular political stance on the issue:

If we as a nation are to embrace India fully—as I think we ought—we must disavow any form of cultural relativism when it comes to this issue. We must apply pressure, in whatever way possible, to call for change. (ibid)

Columnist Susan Moore (2012) of the Guardian, in India at the time of the case, wrote, from Goa, “where westerners and wealthy Indians live the high life”, of her sense of elation at the coalescing, inchoate movement for change unfolding in India’s urban centres. As a riposte to those, primarily in the west, who derided feminism as “the preoccupation of a few white middle-class women [in the west]”, she said, “I wish they could see these angry men and women out at night demanding that women be safe, who say rape is always a weapon used to keep women in fear.” (ibid) Moore characterised the protests as a significant turning point: “For something is happening here, anger is overtaking fear. The dam has burst.” (ibid) The country, through acute self-examination, and finding that its “much-vaunted modernity does not look so modern”, was at the cusp of a “radical” conversation about “how to change the culture itself. And because this is India we are talking about a myriad of cultures.” (ibid) Moore’s commentary, born of a reaffirmation of the enduring salience of feminism, highlighted the potential for progress immanent in the unfolding discourses.

The arena of anxieties and aspirations made available through travellers’ accounts opened up new avenues of engagement and created an impetus for renewed focus on both the gravity of the status quo and the possibility of change signalled by the unfolding civil society activism. Placed at an intersection of concerns regarding authorial position, location and the assumption of ‘leadership’ in directing the course of conversations regarding women’s rights in India, the multifarious issues thrown up by western women’s perspectives on the country undoubtedly enhanced the discoursal economy—of agitation, reflection and criticism—that emerged from and fully enveloped the Delhi rape and its aftermath.


India’s Daughter – Indian Politicians and Commentators Negotiate Cultural Critique from a Western Perspective

A BBC documentary on the Delhi rape called India’s Daughter, which was part of the broadcaster’s Storyville series and was produced by filmmaker Leslee Udwin, was banned by the Indian government on 4 March 2015 (Yahoo 2015; see also Roberts 2015). The BBC had intended to screen the film in Britain and internationally on 8 March 2015, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, but, after controversy erupted in India over promos of the film and in light of the Indian government’s ban on broadcast of the film in India, the BBC aired the documentary on BBC4 in Britain on 4 March, four days earlier than scheduled (ibid). The film was uploaded on YouTube and soon went viral on social media. On 5 March, the Indian government requested YouTube to make the video unavailable in India, and YouTube complied with the request (ibid). The film generated controversy because of its inflammatory content: the filmmakers had interviewed one of the convicts, Mukesh Singh, and one of the defence attorneys involved in the case (see Roberts 2015). In the film, Mukesh Singh is shown saying:

“While being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’...” (Rawlinson 2015)

Singh also says:

“A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy … A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night … Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night, doing indecent things, wearing indecent clothes.” (Rahman 2015)

AP Singh, one of the defence lawyers involved in the case, is shown saying:

“If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” (Withnall 2015)

That the film contained these comments, among others, and that the filmmakers had interviewed one of the rapists, inflamed tensions in India, where politicians and social media users alike heatedly debated the film and, later, the merits of banning the film (see Rahman 2015; Rathi 2015; Rawlinson 2015; Withnall 2015). Government ministers condemned the documentary, decrying what they called attempts to or “defame” India or “dent the country’s image”, while ignoring or overlooking the fact that government and prison authorities had expressly granted the filmmakers permission to conduct the interviews in question and had, in fact, also been shown the edited version of the film (Zee News 2015; see also Rathi 2015). Further, the government also appeared to completely ignore the fact that the film was made with the express support of the victim’s family (see Rahman 2015). Instead, other than the ban itself, whose intended purpose it was to effectively silence discussion around the contents of the film, attempts were made to ‘punish’ the filmmakers. The Delhi Police registered a complaint against the filmmakers invoking arcane laws—Sections 505 (statements conducing to public mischief), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 505(1)(b) (with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service) (Indian Express 2015). The provisions of these laws in themselves indicate some of the institutional and cultural hindrances to honest public discussion of contentious and sensitive issues.

While politicians overwhelmingly denounced the film, using jingoistic language, and without critically engaging with the revelations made by the documentary—one politician stated, “Don’t we know he’s a rapist? Why should people be told why he did it?” (Rahman 2015)—and while many commentators and social media users expressed support for the government’s ban on the film, citing, most commonly, the supposed ‘damage’ done by the documentary to India’s ‘image’, many others denounced the ban, describing it as illiberal, intolerant and blinkered (ibid; Withnall 2015). Kiran Bedi, a noted former policewoman and (now) politician, stated: “I would like to see every convicted rapist interviewed. Unless you know the cause of [the] crime, how will you correct it?” (Rahman 2015) In a similar vein, commentator Shobha De noted, “The real ‘embarrassment’ India needs to confront is its own horrific reality... and the shame that goes with it—not a bold documentary.” (Withnall 2015) NDTV, a national English-language 24-hours news channel that had arranged to broadcast the documentary, played, for the duration of the broadcast hour it had earmarked for the film, video of a candle flickering in the dark as a mark of protest. Many journalists and public personalities such as actors and filmmakers also expressed disapproval of the government’s knee-jerk and purblind response, and expressed support for the documentary and its mode of overt and implied criticism of culture (ibid).

What was, however, most interesting about the general response to the film was many liberal Indian commentators’ hostility to the film (see Ghosh 2015). Writing in the Guardian, author Nilanjana Roy criticised the film for “giving a rapist a platform to justify his terrible crime” and “reinforcing the views that have normalised violence against women” (Roy 2015). Roy asked, “Could this film help silence [Indian women] again?” (ibid). Activist Kavita Krishnan (2015a) decried what she perceived to be the film’s underlying “civilising mission” ethic and the filmmakers’ supposed reproduction of “white savior mentality”:

What comes through, then, is a sense of India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women, that inspires both shock and pity, but also calls for a rap on the knuckles from the “civilised world” for [India’s] “brutal attitudes”. (ibid)

In another article, Krishnan takes issue with the film’s perceived depiction of Mukesh Singh as an “uncivilised brute” (Krishnan 2015b) and questions whether “civilisational leaders [sic] like ex-IMF chiefs [Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also in the news at the time of publication] are as much a part of rape culture as are Delhi slum dwellers” (ibid). While I do not dispute the validity of Krishnan’s critique (her article also raised questions about the ethics of what she described as “media trials” and of interviewing under-trial prisoners), I do argue that even critiques of the film from progressive writers and activists obviated the central issue of cultural reproduction and socialisation of misogyny and, concomitantly, violence against women.

An editorial in the Guardian expressed great befuddlement at the Indian government’s “perverse” decision to ban the film based on what the newspaper surmised—going by the government’s formal pronouncements as well as the rationale of the court order obtained by it to secure the ban—was “Ms Udwin’s supposed failure to follow certain bureaucratic procedures regarding the prison interviews” (Guardian 2015). It argued, “[I]t would make more sense if the real source of the objection was patriotic resentment at foreign filmmakers shining an unflattering light on Indian society” (ibid). In reality, however, as discussed earlier, “patriotic resentment at foreign filmmakers shining an unflattering light on Indian society” was precisely the source of the government’s, and significant swathes of the public’s, antagonism towards the film.



The Delhi rape prompted many media commentators in India to examine and address the links between violence perpetrated by men against women, socialisation of misogyny, and culture. Links between masculinity, masculine-making cultures, society’s patriarchal mindset, and women’s experiences of harassment, discrimination and violence, were explored at length by a range of commentators. Clearly, situating critique of culture, and particularly of socialisation of men’s attitudes towards women, at the centre of discussions of violence against women was a priority for the Indian media. Among western commentators and in foreign mainstream media commentary on the Delhi rape, critique of the links between culture and violence proved to be fractious and a source of considerable discomfort and tension. Some western commentators deemed the drawing of causative links between culture and violence problematic for two reasons: one, critique of culture was seen as being tainted by an implicit ‘neo-colonial worldview’, and two, examination of the specificity of the problem of violence against women in India, or its conceptualisation as a cultural problem, was seen as somehow entailing obfuscation or minimisation of the problem in western societies. Western media commentary on the Delhi case came to be dominated by arguments about the merits of drawing equivalences between sexual violence in India and in western nations, and about the merits of dominant or popular modes of conceptualising the problem of gender-based violence. Furthermore, western media commentary, as well as western writers’ narratives about their experiences of sexual harassment, discrimination and/or violence in India, became a site of contestation over authorial locus standi, i.e., who gets to say what about India, and even more to the point, who gets to speak up for women’s rights in India. The Indian government’s banning of the BBC documentary India’s Daughter and Indian media commentators’ responses to the film demonstrated and evinced anxieties about: one, cultural critique from an (informed) western perspective, and two, intensified scrutiny of the links between violence, masculinity, misogyny and, most importantly, culture. The aim of this paper has been to analytically explore these three strands of media discourse surrounding the Delhi rape, and, primarily, to demonstrate the claims made herein about Indian and western media commentary through the citing of specific examples of commentary as well as through “thick description” (Geertz 1994) and analysis of commentary. I posit that productive critique and analysis of the entrenched problem of violence against women in India is undermined by denial of the cultural specificit(ies) of the problem, as well as dismissal of critics based on their location and identity. Further, cultural critique from what can be described as an “indigenist perspective” (see Rigney 1999) is enhanced, rather than obnubilated, by cultural critique from the ‘outside’. While I acknowledge that critical scepticism of cultural critique from the ‘outside’—particularly in the sphere of gender and women’s rights, and particularly critique of non-western cultures from western perspectives (see Grewal & Kaplan 1996)—is rooted in specific (often post-colonial) political epistemologies and is informed by specific historical circumstances, trajectories of knowledge-formation and ongoing events (ibid; see also Abu-Lughod 2002; Amos & Parmar 1984; Ho 2007; Kapur 2002), I also aver that the validity, usefulness and power of critique, as well as the ability of critics to recognise the reality of the struggles and challenges that they’re engaging with or wish to engage with, should not be undermined by either absolutist identitarian considerations (i.e., prescribing limits to who can speak for women’s rights in India), or cultural relativism, or, indeed, cultural ‘denialism’ (i.e., refusal to put culture under critical scrutiny) (cf. Abu-Lughod 2002; Brems 1997; Higgins 1996; Kim 1993; Mayer 1995). At its most blatant, this refusal to engage with cultural critique can culminate in or take the form of outright banning of critical commentary (such as in the case of India’s Daughter), but its more quotidian forms include minimisation of the problem in question, and dismissal of critics (such as in the case of RoseChasm of CNN iReport). Ultimately, however, the relevance of critique of the role of culture in the perpetuation of gender-based violence, for both Indians and ‘outsiders’ alike, cannot be denied.


[1] The use of the term ‘victim’ in reportage and commentary on sexual crimes remains contested (We End Violence 2013). However, given that the crime resulted in the woman’s death, the notion of her being a victim of the crime was one that indubitably underpinned both mobilisations against the Delhi rape as well as media coverage of the case. Further, specific aspects of this case and, indeed, of Indian law, constrain authorial discretion in discussions of this case or of any other case of gender-based violence. The victim’s name – Jyoti Singh – was disclosed to the media by her father in January 2013 (BBC 6 January 2013, ‘India rape: father wants victim named’). His rationale for doing so, against the backdrop of laws prohibiting the identification of victims of sexual crimes, was to challenge the stigma surrounding victims of rape and other sexual crimes. However, it was later reported that he was uncomfortable with the media using her real name (Hindu 6 March 2015, ‘Father objects to revealing gang-rape victim’s name in “India's Daughter”’). Nevertheless, many commentators and scholars, including women’s rights activists, have continued to refer to Singh by her real name in their work (see, for example, Ghosh 2015). In December 2015, Singh’s mother referred to her by name at a public demonstration (to protest the release of one of the rapists, a juvenile at the time of the crime, upon the completion of his three-year sentence), stating, “Why should I hide her name? Why should I be ashamed of it? Those who committed that heinous crime should feel ashamed. The makers of this administrative system should feel ashamed.” (CNN 20 December 2015, ‘Convict in Indian gang rape, murder case is released’). Amidst these contradictory claims and contested usages, it is difficult, if not impossible, to unhesitatingly assert the acceptability of referring to the victim by her name. As mentioned in the introduction, a number of symbolic identifiers were used to refer to Singh, or to reify her personhood whilst continuing to conceal her identity and maintain anonymity, and the Times of India’s ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless) ostensibly emerged as the most widely-used symbolic marker. The government’s Nirbhaya Fund, for instance, which was set up by the finance ministry on 26 April 2013 and whose purpose it is to disburse funding for programmes that aim to address violence against women and assist victims of sexual crimes, takes on and acknowledges the popular significance of that name. In this paper, and primarily for the purposes of the introduction, I follow what was at the time of the crime standard practice among Indian and foreign reporters and commentators: in keeping with crime reporting conventions, I write of ‘victim(s) of the crime’ (see, for example, Burke 2012). This is to replicate the tone of the media coverage that I examined in the course of writing this paper and to preserve the commitment to anonymity that characterised media coverage of the case.

[2] The doctors stated that they were “horrified by the nature of her injuries and the brutality of the assault” (Narayan 2012). The vehicle, a private chartered bus that normally operated during the day as a school bus, had six other occupants inside (ibid). The woman and the male friend who accompanied her (and who was also assaulted in the attack) were led to believe that the bus was a regular private bus plying the route to their destination but soon became suspicious when it deviated from the expected route. The other occupants, who were reportedly in a state of inebriation, taunted the two for being out late at night and assaulted the male passenger first, knocking him unconscious with an iron rod. They then assaulted and raped her while the driver continued to drive through different parts of the city (ibid). After the assault, the two victims were stripped of their clothes and belongings and were thrown off the moving bus. The driver attempted to run the woman over as he drove away but she was pulled to safety in time by her friend. They were eventually found in a semi-conscious state by a passer-by and subsequently taken by the police to Safdarjung Hospital in the city (ibid).

[3] The police arrested the suspects within 24 hours. CCTV grabs of the bus from a highway camera were broadcast and the city’s bus depots were searched (Sikdar 2012b). A few contractors identified the bus as one that was used to ferry children from a prominent South Delhi school. The bus was tracked down and its driver, a man by the name of Ram Sigh, who had had the vehicle impounded for various reasons previously, was arrested. Sketches of the assailants were made on the basis of interviews with the male victim, and a cell phone stolen from one of the victims was used to track down another suspect (ibid). In all, six men were arrested by the police (Shekhar & Chauhan 2012). Brothers Ram Singh and Mukesh Singh, who lived in Ravidas Camp, a slum in Delhi, were arrested in Rajasthan. Vinay Sharma, an assistant gym instructor, and Pawan Gupta, a fruit-seller, were arrested in the city. They refused to undergo an identification parade and stated to the officiating magistrate that they had committed the crime. Akshay Thakur, who had only recently arrived in Delhi seeking employment, was arrested in Aurangabad, Bihar. The sixth suspect, from Badayun, Uttar Pradesh, was arrested while attempting to leave the city at a bus terminal in Delhi. He was later declared a juvenile and tried separately from the other accused, although the police described him as the most brutal among them.  It emerged that they had been drinking heavily before the crime and had decided to take the bus out on a ‘joyride’ and dupe potential passengers.

[4] The woman was operated on several times at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital between 17 and 19 December, and on 21 December the government appointed a committee of physicians to ensure that she received the best care (HT 20 December 2012). That same day, large public protests took place in the political centre of Delhi, at India Gate and Raisina Hill, which is the location of Sansad Bhavan (Parliament House) as well as Rashtrapati Bhavan (the official residence of the president and the seat of various ministries). Police clashed with the protesters, and used water-canons and tear-gas to disperse the crowds. Journalists criticised the police action as excessive and harsh, reporting that 375 canisters of tear-gas were used at India Gate and elsewhere (Haider 2012). Protests erupted and continued over the next few days in various other parts of the city. At a cabinet meeting on 26 December chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it was decided that the patient would be flown to Singapore and admitted to Mount Elizabeth Hospital, an organ-transplant specialty hospital. This decision was criticized by some doctors as unnecessary and politically-motivated (Perappadan 2012). It was suggested that the move to Singapore was mooted when it was already clear that the woman would not survive the next few days; the authorities appeared under pressure to contain the protests and demonstrations around the city. En route to Singapore on 27 December, the patient’s condition deteriorated and on 29 December, she died from brain damage, pneumonia and abdominal sepsis. Her body was flown back to India and she was cremated in Delhi (Chatterjee 2012b).

[5] For instance, several reports and commentaries note that while the Delhi rape brought much needed attention to the problem of violence against women in India, systemic challenges such as low conviction rates for crimes against women and low rates of investigation (complaints received versus investigations launched) continue to stymie gender justice efforts (Ghosh 2015; Hundal 2013). Of 706 rape cases filed in New Delhi in 2012, only one, the Nirbhaya case, resulted in a conviction (Hundal 2013). Of 501 allegations of harassment and 64 of rape received by police between 16 December 2012 and 4 January 2013, only four led to official inquiries (ibid). Arguably, the most visible lasting change can be seen in “the national media, which has maintained an interest in stories of violence against women” (ibid).

[6] According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2010, 58% of men arrested for rape and 54% of men arrested for molestation or sexual harassment were from the age-group of 18-30. The records show that while there has been an overall decline over a twenty-year period in the participation of young men in violent crimes such as murder (a decrease from 38,961 arrests in 1991 to 29,937 in 2011), there has been a marked increase in their involvement in sexual crimes (8,864 were arrested for rape in 1991 against 16,528 in 2011). In 1991, 270,602 18-30 year-old men were arrested for rioting; in 2011, 72,867. In 1992, 23,075 were arrested for molestation and sexual harassment; in 2011, 32,581 (Swami 2013).

[7] Statements imputing guilt to the Delhi victim, stemming from the culture of shame referred to earlier, exposed entrenched socio-cultural fault lines in society and heightened political tensions by virtue of the explicitly political context of their dissemination. Kailash Vijayvargiya, a BJP minister in the state of Madhya Pradesh, said, while alluding to myth and tradition, that women should be wary of crossing “moral limits” (Times of India 5 January 2013, ‘Maintain maryada or face music, BJP minister Kailash Vijayvargiya tells women’). He apologised after his party condemned his statement following widespread outrage in the media. Botsa Satyanarayana, a Congress leader in the state of Andhra Pradesh, called the Delhi rape a “minor incident” and averred that women ought not to “roam around” at night (Times of India 25 December 2012, ‘Rape victim should have been careful: Andhra Pradesh Congress chief’). Abhijit Mukherjee, a Congress MP from the state of West Bengal and the son of President Pranab Mukherjee, said in the course of a television interview that the Delhi protests comprised a large number of “highly dented and painted women... who go from discos to demonstrations”, which, by implication, denuded the protests of legitimacy (Indian Express 28 December 2012, ‘Abhijit Mukherjee says Delhi gang-rape protesters “dented-painted” women, President asks him to apologize’). This instigated an enormous backlash and he was also forced to apologise. Banwari Singhal, a BJP lawmaker in the state of Rajasthan, wrote to a bureaucrat with the suggestion that girls be prevented from wearing skirts to state schools, which he justified as arising out of “a concern for their safety” (Indian Express 30 December 2012, ‘Rajasthan’s BJP MLA Bhanwari Lal Singhal demands ban on skirts in schools’). Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological backbone of the BJP, said at a public meeting in eastern India that rape was primarily an urban phenomenon fuelled by the excesses of the ‘western lifestyle’ prevalent in cities: “You go to the villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents... They are prevalent in some urban belts.” (Indian Express 8 January 2013, ‘RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat makes derogatory comments against women, says rapes happen in India, not Bharat’) A claim that is statistically untrue, it was followed by a “clarification” from the group that the intent of the statement was to foreground the “erosion of traditional Indian values” in the context of the growing incidence of crimes against women (ibid). Perhaps the most controversial, and widely-denounced, of these comments was one made by ‘spiritual guru’ Asaram Bapu. A Hindu preacher with over 400 ashrams in the country and an ostensibly large following, he said that the rape victim was as much to blame as her assailants – yet another reference to the victim’s supposed ‘lack of caution’ and self-endangerment. In a bewildering statement that provoked a mixture of discomfiture, bafflement and outrage, he averred that she could have prevented the rape by “[begging her assailants] to stop”, falling at their feet and supplicating them for mercy by “chanting prayers” (Times of India 7 January 2013, ‘Delhi gang-rape victim as guilty as her rapists, Asaram Bapu says’). Additionally he described the Delhi protests as “anti-men” and opposed any changes to the law on the grounds that they could be widely misused (ibid). This position on the case, perceived as surpassing the others in both incongruity and insensitivity, led civil society groups to demand that “religious and political figures” be “boycotted” for their “competitive sexism” and “misogynistic views” (Times of India 8 January 2013, ‘Activists slam Asaram Bapu for his comments on Delhi gang-rape incident’). On 31 August 2013, Asaram Bapu was arrested for allegedly raping a 16-year-old girl, the daughter of two ‘devoted’ followers, at an ashram in the state of Rajasthan (Guardian 1 September 2013, ‘Indian guru Asaram Bapu arrested over rape claims’). Subsequent media reports then uncovered and investigated older claims of land-encroachment, murder, sexual abuse, violence and intimidation. His earlier statements on rape were described as “merely the tip of a sinister iceberg” (Deshpande 2013).

[8] The Delhi rapists – Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur and an unnamed minor were all convicted for the crime. Ram Singh died in Tihar Jail in Delhi before the commencement of his trail. His death was officially ruled a suicide. Mukesh Singh, Sharma, Gupta and Thakur were convicted by a Delhi Sessions Court and were awarded the death penalty (CNN 14 September 2013, ‘Court sentences 4 men to death in New Delhi gang rape case’). At the time of writing, their appeal against their conviction remains to be ‘heard’ by India’s Supreme Court, the apex appellate court in the country. The unnamed minor was tried and convicted under the Juvenile Justice Act, and released on 20 December 2015 after the completion of his three-year sentence (CNN 20 December 2015, ‘Convict in Indian gang rape, murder case is released’). 


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