Burning of women in India, most vividly of rape victims, is neither unprecedented nor inexplicable, and is an extension of the sociocultural habit of gender invisibilising. Contemporary and historical contexts reveal reversible and irreversible invisibilities imposed to achieve seclusion and even the absence of women. According to the latest NCRB report, there were 33,356 rapes reported in 2018. Popular rage against the burning of victims has oversimplified the issue in two ways. First, the media-deployed terminologies such as ‘charred body’ and ‘90 percent burns’ highlight the rapists’ attempts to hide evidence, as in the Telangana case, the Unnao case, the less-reported case in Tripura, or the several deaths due to women-burning in Uttar Pradesh. Second, ever since the Nirbhaya case, there has been an unceasing demand for capital punishment, disregarding the fears that this might lead criminals to wipe out all evidence.
Both arguments, however, overlook the failings of DNA testing prone to anomalies, erratic results and survey inaccuracies. The contamination of genetic material by investigating authorities is a real prospect, as seen in the Aarushi Talwar case. Postmortem tests to detect rape are subject to criss-crossing medical authority and questionable political oversight, as in the Shopian case. Also, all evidence is not removed through burning, like in the Telangana case where the site revealed the victim’s clothes, handbag, footwear and a liquor bottle. The fear of incriminating evidence, therefore, is not the only reason for women-burning.
Such acts, in fact, have a long and gruesome history. In Contentious Traditions, historian Lata Mani reports that the number of Satis in ‘the area around Calcutta city’ alone was 8,134 between 1815 and 1828, with its primacy among Brahmins being high. In The High Caste Hindu Woman, the scholar-activist Pandita Ramabai writes that even after abolition of Sati in 1829, it was replaced with slavery, disinheritance of property, enforced austerity, de-feminisation for the living widow and excommunication for the re-married widow.
Ambedkar points out that both Sati and child marriage were aggressively practised by the aspirational middle and lower castes to emulate the patriarchal and endogamous Brahmins. The deification of Sati through the staged burning of Roop Kanwar by the Rajput community in 1987 and the posthumous Devi-worship testifies to this.
Women’s activism around the recurring trend of dowry deaths (very often through orchestrated kitchen fires) resulted in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1986. But even with this, the NCRB report shows that reported dowry deaths were 7,166 in 2018, while dowry prohibition violation acts were 12,826. The 2019 Gender Violence in India: A Prajnya Report suggests that even when case law allows acts of cruelty to be reported in ‘a reasonable period’—and not necessarily in minutes or hours before the dowry death—this has been difficult to prove.
Burning of Dalit women in caste violence has been less visible. Fought over better wages for landless peasants, the Keezhvenmani massacre was marked by the trapping of children and Dalit women in a hut set on fire. The Tamil film Asuran briefly re-enacts scenes from this systematic caste massacre. In May 2019, a Dalit girl was gang-raped and burnt to death in Muzaffarnagar in UP but this got relatively less attention, like many such cases.
So, what does women-burning achieve for the criminal? The physical invisibility of women is an essential part of reinforcing and maintaining their dependence culturally, socially and politically. The Constitution cannot apply to individuals who do not occupy physical space as citizens like, for example, a woman in a public place at night is absent and, for that moment, so are her rights and freedoms.
The invisibilisation of the female is of two kinds; reversible and irreversible. First, the reversible invisibilisation. Gendered spaces are interior, secluded and guarded by the male and subject to social customs.
The physical absence of women from work spaces, from late hours, from dark streets, etc., is an extension of their seclusion at home and in community. The physical presence must be mediated by the male, who is free to restrict such presence and to allow it, making it reversible. Second, the irreversible invisibilisation. Death is the irreversible termination of the physical visibility of the female. The sociocultural habit of gender seclusion promotes the removal of the victim as a norm, just as in the case of the bride-burning or female infanticide.
The final and irreversible removal of a woman through death is not only a constant possibility, but also inevitable if protection by people around her is withdrawn.Therefore, proof, whether in rape, assault, domestic violence, harassment, etc., has to first establish the presence of the woman. The visibilising of the woman is a much bigger challenge because it requires reversing a historical habit. This is evident in the struggle with the law, especially in filing of police complaints, FIRs, and also in lack of social support for survivors or punishment of perpetrators. By extension, this challenge of visibilising the woman also extends to grappling with stereotypes and failures of sensitisation.
Kota Neelima is an author and researcher, and writes on farmer suicides and rural poor. Her latest book is Widows of Vidarbha, Making of Shadows.
Tarangini Sriraman teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is author of In Pursuit of Proof: A History of Identification Documents in India