Strange Fruit

This post contains some graphic descriptions of violence. None of the links contain disturbing images.

It’s been a bumper year so far for this particular crop in Uttar Pradesh.

Since the rape and hanging of two teenage cousins (May 29) and the ensuing protests in the province, attention has refocused on gendered violence in India, and is, as always accompanied by media analysis. This BBC article published on June 12 is a fairly typical example, and seeks to ask why sexual violence is a common occurrence in this province and what the significance is of this manner of death.

Nilanjana S Roy, writing for the BBC explains this phenomenon as a manifestation of caste-based violence, which exists at the intersection of gender, caste, poverty and official corruption. Her analysis, however, largely concentrates on caste:

As terrible as the lynchings in Badaun are, this incident was not an isolated one. Nor had the killings and caste atrocities inflicted by high-caste perpetrators against lower-caste or tribal men, women and children miraculously ceased over the last four months.

The preceding months had seen their full freight of witch-burnings, caste rapes and other caste-driven acts of terror against men, women and children, domestic violence cases and dowry deaths.

Due attention is given to the gendered nature of a great deal of crime in India, but her analysis, like that of so many other journalists stops there: Why are caste-based crimes so often committed against women? Why does it so often take the form of rape? Existing discussions of rape and other gender-based violence and their intersection with class are success stories of second-wave feminisn, which placed rape and gender-based violence front and centre of its analysis. This analysis and insight, however, is often missing from current media discussions of domestic and international sexual violence. Motive is still framed as purely sexual, and aspects of power, control and vengeance are rarely mentioned. Poverty is blamed, as is caste, and race is often implied. Often, the victims themselves are further victimised as they are made to shoulder the burden of guilt for their own rapes. There is an elephant in the room that cannot be named, but until it is, male violence will continue to be seen as their privilege, and women will never be liberated.

Explanations are offered by Roop Rekha Verma of Sajhi Duniya (Shared World), a Lucknow-based organisation which works with women. She attributes the upsurge in murder as an accompaniment to rape to recent legal developments in which penalties for rape became harsher, even including the death penalty for particularly brutal cases. This, she believes, puts women in greater danger:

“The victims are being killed because the rapists want to finish off the main witness,” Ms Verma says.

“The law is very good now and they know they will be in serious trouble if a woman in her testimony points at them and accuses them of rape, there is little chance for them to escape.”

Certainly, this phenomenon was seen in 18th and 19th century Britain, where the tariff for 220 crimes was death, which made leaving witnesses alive rather pointless. This was one of the justifications for the amendments to the law of the mid-19th and 20th centuries. This explanation, however, may address the choice to kill, but it says nothing about the choice to rape in the first place.

Explanation for the method of killing is offered to the BBC by governmental and law enforcement sources. These often involve a degree of victim blaming, or rather victim’s family blaming, and posit that families that wish to cover up “honour killings” may attempt to pass their crime off as rape and murder/suicide. Interestingly, a local forensics expert weighs in with his apparent support for the ‘cover-up’ hypothesis:

The head of forensic medicine and toxicology at Delhi’s AIIMS hospital says hanging is “generally a method of suicide” and is “very rarely” used for murder.

In his opinion, it’s too difficult to hang another person.

I’m not buying it.

For me, the mode of death is unsatisfactorily explained, because it is never placed in its wider, historical context of public, summary violence.

When I saw the image of the two hanged girls on my Facebook feed, my reaction was intensely visceral: flushing, a sharp, stabbing pain in the lower abdomen, and that horrible, creeping feeling over my scalp. I was aware that my breathing had changed, and was probably experiencing mild hyperventilation. Afterwards, the scene stayed with me, and even the branches of trees appeared more sinister than before. I believe I’m not the only one who was affected like that, and I imagine the villagers guarding the bodies felt the same way when they first came across the girls.

That’s what’s meant to happen.

A victim of a lynching is suspended above the earth and seems no longer a part of it but instead hovers between the safety and security of the ground and the freedom of the sky, creating a surreal effect. The agony of a short drop death by slow strangulation marks the victim’s face and body after death: eyes bulge, the tongue lolls, the neck is bent unnaturally, the underwear is soiled. Carrion and weather also play their parts in the construction of this horrifying exhibit.

This is a tableau designed to intimidate its audience and is remarkably easy to create. We’ve had a lot of practice. Think of the lynchings of African Americans, which reached a peak in the aftermath of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Think of the collective violence committed against the indigenous populations of the former British Empire. Think of the mass, public hangings of partisans in Belarus during the Nazi occupation, in which women and adolescents often played a starring role. Very often the hanging itself is the climax of a process that included kidnap, rape and torture. Backlash against emancipation or perceived success is often at the root of these events that are intended to keep a population weak, cowed and in fear. Power and control are symbolised on these ravaged bodies.

And their bodies are themselves the message: Don’t get above yourself.

In the contemporary West, we like to see ourselves as too civilised for lynchings, and aften there is an almost colonial contempt in reports of such violence in India. But how many times have we seen media lynch mobs go after successful women and people of colour?  How often do we see gleeful reports of women and people of colour being brought down a peg or two? Why is it that women who name their abusers are abused and threatened? We still pay a price for uppitiness it seems.

For me, they only way to do anything about the problem of male violence is to cease viewing it as a phenomenon of the developing world and acknowledge it as a universal and historical experience of women and other oppressed classes. Of course, it’s a difficult task and requires men to acknowledge and accept their own culpability, whether as perpetrators, bystanders or beneficiaries. It also requires complete freedom for women, regardless of their race, class, age and ability, to name their oppressors and organise themselves.

Most importantly, liberation will never be granted: it must be taken else we return to the more overt coercion and violence of Uttar Pradesh.