When I wrote in December of last year, after the brutal gang rape and murder of the woman who came to be signified as “Nirbhaya”, “Amanat” or “India’s braveheart”, I was angry. The anger now has subsided, or replaced by a cynicism of sorts. However, in that anger, I'd written that I wouldn't have any qualms if the courts give a death sentence to the six accused. In a way, I did anticipate that. However, now that the four accused (the main accused allegedly hanged himself in jail; the other, a juvenile and reportedly the most brutal, will walk away in three years) have been given the death sentence, there is, I suspect, a deeper malaise, or a sense of unease. And this, let me clarify, has little to do with the ethics of the death sentence. It has more to do with the ideology of it.
The verdict itself is not surprising. “Justice”, we knew, would get served – no matter how problematic its connotations. The country’s reaction to it, judging by the response on our TV channels and social media timelines, is veering between sordid celebration of death, and a cautious criticism of the unethical institution of the death penalty.
In ways more than one, the verdict has betrayed the spirit of the Justice Verma commission's pertinent and timely intervention of interpreting and changing the laws that deal with rapes and sexual violence in India. Writing for Tehelka, Revathi Laul argues that if “we must strive for a less barbaric society that produces fewer brutes, then our impulse to punish must also come from higher, less barbaric reasoning...not by descending to something that is, by all measures of modern day jurisprudence, barbaric.”
But the recent gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai in August – and the swift arrests of the perpetrators (the incident forced us to reflect back on the Delhi incident), throws us into a similar quandary. The similarities are striking: the social location of the victims, and the perpetrators; a decadence of geography, of a city whose parts are left to ruins; and the moral outrage both cases have evoked. Therefore, I believe it is time that we ask deeper and more critical questions concerning the very nature of what I have called the patriarchal moral-political economy.
Some notes on the patriarchal moral-political economy
In a previous post, I have attempted to explain what I meant by the ‘patriarchal nation-state’, drawing from the Marxist-Althusserian and Foucauldian notions of “ideological state apparatus” and “governmentality”, respectively. However, that term is somewhat limited in both its scope, despite its theoretical richness, to analyse the events that have unfolded in the last couple of weeks. Thus, I find recourse to the term ‘moral-political economy’ more useful.
First of all, the term moral-political economy entails a wider and more fluid understanding of networks of power in patriarchal societies. The notion of ‘nation-state’ is limited by what the term represented. With the moral-political economy, that scope is somewhat widened. Power is thus conceptualised outside the rigid binary of genders, and is placed in the intersecting discourses of masculinity, class, caste, religion, ethnicity, social geography and spatiality, media and representation, knowledge economies, legality, and a critique of institutions, to name a few. At the same time, there are certain assumptions that are central to its formulation.
First, is the fact that there is no one model of the patriarchal moral-political economy; because its formulation is deeply invested in culture, history and geography, there are moral-political economies. Each engenders different cultural aspects, and yet rests on the fulcrum of hegemony and dominance, and subsequently, resistance and recalcitrance. Second, is that the moral-political economy is Janus-faced in nature. The moral-political economy sustains itself as a hegemonic enterprise; it needs to manufacture conscience and outrage to legitimate the violence it can inflict on certain bodies – of both, men and women – that do not conform to it. The idea of “legitimacy” is of extreme importance here, and is something that I shall deal with later on. Third, is the category of the masculine. Moral-political economies, much like political economies, derive their power by investing it in an ideal-specific category: for socialism, for instance, it would be state, or collective ownership; in capitalism, it would be profit-motive, private property and a free-market economy. In patriarchal moral-political economies, I argue, it is the category of the masculine, or more so the dominant definition of the masculine, which is central in understanding how way power flows, and is configured. The concept of hegemonic masculinity is important in this regard (more on that later).
And finally, using the fulcrum of masculinity, exclusion and hegemony, the usage of the term moral-political economy allows for the conception of power in both, meta-structures and micro-networks; a power that flows through the social body and networks, and at the same time, one that is deeply invested the real and normative structures of the real political-economy.
However, it must be remembered that since the very structure of the patriarchal moral-political economy is fluid and diffuse, nothing can be set in stone. It is as historical as it is contemporary; it constantly shifts, because it needs dynamism to sustain itself. And, more importantly, it pivots on exclusion; it pivots on the operation of dominance, and violence against bodies and spaces; the attacks on each, legitimated by the need to defend or preserve something - be it the dignity of women, children, nationhood, or so forth (what Iris Young calls the masculinist logic of protection). However, while the term itself refers to an oppressive system, it also engenders within it the scope for resistance. That is, in its usage, there lies the possibility of exploring avenues and strategies where it can be resisted, subverted, if not entirely thwarted. This idea is indebted to the legacy of feminist and Marxist praxis and, itself, seeks to formulate a post-feminist and post-Marxist one.
These points, although incredibly sketchy, are essential in understanding the contemporary discourse of gender and violence in the country. Not in the least because the question of violence is very real, and very glaring, but because there is an ever present danger of public discourse slipping into a space where recourse to the patriarchal moral-political economy is seen as the only viable option for safety. The truth could not be any further from that: in fact, it is entirely the opposite.
Thus, as the events unfold outside Saket Court, the death penalty has acquired immense ideological significance to bolster the legitimacy (of the hegemony) of the patriarchal moral-political economy. What the death penalty – and those in support of it – represents is the Janus-faced nature of the patriarchal moral-political economy. And it is this Janus-faced nature that: a) manufactures and appropriates the so-called 'collective conscience', 'collective outrage' of the people, and b) legitimates violence against the bodies of criminals, not because of the crime they commit, but because who they commit it against; and, finally, c) in doing so, through its various institutions, it creates and reinforces network of hegemony, that defines criminality (transgression), and its (selective, and often brutal) punishment.
The problem of rarity and the legitimacy of violence
Terming the December gang rape-murder case as “rarest of the rare”, and seeing the sheer brutality and depravity of the violence acted up the 23 year-old victim’s body, the Additional Sessions Court judge, Yogesh Khanna, stated that “gruesome crimes against women are becoming more rampant”, and that is why “we need to send a message that this will not be tolerated”. Politicians, like Sushma Swaraj – who called the Delhi victim a zinda lash (or 'living corpse') – have “welcomed the verdict”, and hope that “it would work as an effective deterrent.”
While there is more than sufficient evidence to indicate that death penalties don’t work as deterrent (nor do castrations), that is not to say that death penalties do not have any effects at all. It is an existentially warped notion that a sovereign, democratic state, backed by the will of its people, can mete out judgements in death. As some have put it, death sentences might offer closure to the families of those affected, but I am uncertain of the cathartic abilities of the hangman’s noose.
Shuddhabrata Sengupta's post on Kafila dissects the absurdity of the death penalty, and is incredibly relevant to our discussion on the moral-political economy, and especially since they engender a very pertinent question about legitimacy of violence. Sengupta argues that the notion of rarity in "the rarest of the rare" is constructed by means of a hypothetical sliding scale of refinement and intensification of cruelty. He further argues that:
The ‘rarest of rare’ argument automatically devalues the experience of millions of people, because, on the one hand it upholds the principle of the severest retribution, and on the other hand it rations out that (flawed) understanding of justice on the basis of the sliding scale of the ‘lesser’ and ‘greater’ horrors of different crimes.
Sengupta's arguments underscore a very pertinent question about legitimacy of violence. The notion of rarity also creates a hierarchy of violence that is informed, not so much by the nature or extent of violence, but by who it is directed against, how it is directed and to what end.
Guardian's Jason Burke elucidates on the multiple factors – urban-rural migration, the economic transformation of Delhi, the aspirations and failures of those who do migrate, and the rising decadence of urbanity in Delhi – that came together in brutal coordination, and intersected that December night.
Burke also argues that one of the striking elements of the case is the similarity of the background of the victim and the killers. Burke's systemic critique penetrates and destabilises many assumptions about the December gang rape-murder, and about the social etiology of rape (after all, rape in India has been described as an “epidemic”). The perpetrators, he writes:
“…were thus all representative of a substantial element of contemporary Indian society. They were semi-skilled and poorly educated, like so many other products of the country's failing education systems. They were migrants from the country to the town…There was nothing very extraordinary about them. Yet within hours they would commit acts that would prompt outrage across the planet.”
I do think that Burke’s larger point is a necessary intervention in understanding the operation of the moral-political economy in the nitty-gritty of urban spaces. However, for the wider discourse, and for the moral-political economy itself, simplicity is a very powerful ideological device. And the ideology of the death penalty seeks to negate this very problematic.
With the Mumbai Shakti Mills gang rape(s), it might do so again (although its justification of rarest of the rare will not hold true; partly because the area as a site of prior crimes; and the victims of those crimes do not have equal access to the law). What is important in this case, is that the state chooses to act violently in the name of justice – for women, supposedly. And that’s also precisely where the patriarchal moral-political economy is Janus-faced.
It constructs legitimacy for its violence – in the case of death penalty for rape, violence against the bodies of the perpetrators. It is also important to note that the perpetrators in both the Delhi and Mumbai gang rapes were men from lower socioeconomic statuses, and were partially employed and, more importantly, prone to violence before (the accused in Mumbai have committed rapes in the very space before). Cordelia Jenkins, too, cautions us against this demonisation of the rapists. Writing on the coverage of the Mumbai gang rape, she notes that the problem with the attitude of dehumanizing is:
“…that it overlooks the fact that the young men who did this horrific thing are citizens of this country too, although in our collective anger and shame it is much easier to ignore that, to paint them as monsters, evil to the core, or outcasts. Like other kinds of terrorists, it’s hardest to imagine that they could be home-grown.”
In constructing the identities of the accused – as “footloose migrants”, “north-Indians”, “Biharis”, “Bangladeshis” – the violence against their bodies is legitimated. Any claims that the perpetrators might have citizenship are forfeit – more so, denied to them; they are dehumanised, demonised, and are put on the gibbet for society’s collective violence (the death penalty backed by sovereign will) to act on them.
This ideology of the death penalty – the legitimation of violence through dehumanisation – is, also, a problem of the meta and micro structures of the moral-political economy that I mentioned in the beginning of this essay. The court’s verdict, and the “collective will” it represents, is the operation of the ideology in but one space, and one form of Janus-faced nature, of the moral-political economy. Informal, normative institutions that are outside the domain of civil society are as much a part of it. And that is precisely why I think it is important to place the violence inflicted by institutions like Khap Panchayats in the same discursive framework. The “honour killings” perpetrated by the Khap Panchayats, especially in the state of Haryana, while not directly concerned with rape (I would keep the rapes of Dalit women by high caste men separately), functions on a similar ideology of punishing transgression. While many object to the term “honour killing”, I retain it precisely because it articulates the doublespeak of legitimacy: the very act of transgressing the normative patriarchal lines of caste, and caste endogamy, dehumanises the victims, to the extent of family members brutally murdering them. Thus, in the brutal landscape of gendered violence, the legitimation of violence and death echoes the sentiments of the legal (and ironically backed by our structures of governments) death penalty – that it is meant to set a precedence; in both cases, the “collective will” is invoked, defended and preached. Death sentence becomes the necessary evil.
Thus, the Janus-faced nature of the moral-political economy certainly is not limited to the (legitimated) violence enacted on the bodies of male perpetrators by the masculine state; it includes the bodies of all those who dare transgress the notion of legality and normativity (for instance, of caste endogamy). The problem of the masculine, thus, is central to the understanding of the patriarchal moral-political economy, for which we must take recourse to understanding the problematic of masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity, masculinist protection & gendered violence
The intersection of gender, space, social and economic capital, and violence articulate a network of hegemony, that is best articulated by the notion of hegemonic masculinity, and by its extension, the logic of masculinist protection. The definition of the concept of hegemonic masculinity offered by R.W. Connell is:
“The ability to impose a particular definition on other kinds of masculinity… [it is] rather, a question of how particular groups of men inhabit positions of power and wealth, and how they legitimate and reproduce the social relationships that generate their dominance.”
Connell also states that there is a necessity to recognise the complex interplay of between gender, race and class. ‘Hegemonic masculinity’, thus, “is not a fixed character type…it is rather the masculinity that occupies the hegemonic position in a given pattern of gender relations, a position always contestable.”
The merit of this concept is in the formulation of a theoretical framework that states that the relationships within genders are centred on, and can be explained by, the relationships between genders. The idea of hegemonic masculinity, when looked at from the wider perspective of the patriarchal moral-political economy, allows us to see the multiple, intersecting (and problematic) lines of justice and injustice in the terrain of rape and sexual violence against women in India.
The power entailed in hegemonic masculinity, then, allows rapists to display both, a sense of impunity – that they destroy the personhood of the victim, robbing them of agency, and thus, of dissent, too; and, a sense of entitlement – that by the virtue of them being men, they can lay claim to the bodies of those the weaker sex (but not always, female). These two ideas are inextricably linked in patriarchal moral-political economies. The death penalty, in this case, is an extension of that logic of punishment. The punishment given to the accused (in the Delhi gang rape-murder, and the Shakti Mills gang rape), then, can be seen as one for them transgressing their spaces, and perhaps, less for the crimes they committed.
The revelations about the prior rapes committed by the perpetrators in the Shakti Mills compound, too, speak volumes about how the moral-political economy operates. The photojournalist was not the first one assaulted there. The other victims – a rag picker, a sex-worker and a transgender – were raped there before. But their complaints were not registered by the police; in fact, some of them were insulted by cops. The same can be said about the countless rapes of Dalit women in Haryana, or women like Manorama, who were raped by the Armed Forces. It is because, in the moral-political economy, the bodies of its victims do not warrant protection from (and against) the state and other normative institutions of governance; because they are, in a tragic case of irony – like the accused in urban India – not seen as citizens, let alone “India’s daughters”; the violence against their bodies – irrespective of who inflicts it – is erased, and they exist only as that: bodies that lack agency, or autonomy (although their struggles are very real, political, and at times, ameliorative). Their erasure from the discourse of the moral-political economy allows them to exist as epitaphs, for polemics such as the one I write; they exist as motifs, which we use to criticise the state, patriarchy, and so forth; nothing more and, unfortunately, nothing less.
At the same time, rape engenders the very same patriarchal moral-political economy’s attempts to crush dissent, and manufacture legitimacy for, and from, it. People who very rightly raise the question of justice in the numerous rape cases by the Indian armed forces in the North East, legitimated by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), miss out the insidious operation of the ideology of rape (and its punishment): the difference that is drawn between rape-as-punishable-by-death, and rape-as-punishment. This contradiction is at the heart of the Janus-faced nature of patriarchal moral-political economies.
Acknowledgments: There are a number of people I would like to thank, who in many ways helped me build and defend the arguments I present in this post. First of all, a big thanks to Vaishali J, Ketaki Haté, Malathi Jogi, and Vivien D’costa, for their suggestions and comments on the older draft; to Nolina Minj, for her constant support, encouragement, motivation and love. And, to Shubhra Rishi, for the sustained discussions that have now spanned months.