Living through India’s race and gender war

In India, efforts to proactively curb gender-based violence and discussions on assaults on indigenous women are negligible with accountability very minimal.

Published: 30th September 2022 01:03 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th September 2022 07:34 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only. (Photo | PTI)

Image used for representational purpose only. (Photo | PTI)

The 2014 murder of Nido Tania in New Delhi sparked a nationwide movement against racism in India, especially violence against people from the Northeast Indian region. In 2012, Richard Loitam’s murder in Bengaluru brought shame and condemnation. Richard and Tania’s names, faces, and stories became an impetus for public policy and media debates on the future of race-related issues in India.

Amidst the outrage against the December 16, 2012, gang rape and murder in Delhi, a woman from Sikkim fell victim to a gang rape in a moving car in Gurgaon. Unlike Nirbhaya, she survived after being thrown out of a moving vehicle. Violence against indigenous women in India’s metropolises continues today; between 2014 and 2020, the country witnessed several assaults and deaths, including two women from Assam and Manipur. Several women from the NE residing in various Indian cities reported sexual assaults during the peak of Covid-19. The pandemic exposed the Indian faultlines—race and gender-based violence, to name a few.

In India, efforts to proactively curb gender-based violence and discussions on assaults on indigenous women are negligible. The accountability from government, police, media and civil society is also minimal. The failure to highlight and demand accountability for the countless indigenous women killed or assaulted in India’s metropolises leaves a lot of women from the NE region feeling unsafe and unaccounted for in the face of our continued vulnerability to racialised sexual violence.

In July, two men assaulted me verbally, ending with a note on nationalism and ‘Indianness’ in a south Delhi cafe. Two weeks later, a young man followed me to a public park in south Delhi one morning. He spoke good English and tried to force himself on me; he said he wanted to have sex and practice yoga with me. I had to push him and run, scared for my life. In just 40 days, I was subjected to sexual assault twice.

The events that occurred in the past weeks are not unique to me; they reverberate around most of the Indian society, but the global race war and gender-based violence are a reality. The role of race has been overlooked for a long time in feminist theories.

Intersectionality, a theory coined by African-American academic and writer Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, through black women’s experiences, first exposed the many facets of racialised gender vulnerabilities in the US system. Crenshaw discussed the need for an intersectional framework to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect”.

In the Indian case, the ‘burden’ of sexuality attached to indigenous Indian women, primarily from the NE region, has resulted in unwarranted desires in the form of sexual assaults. Our ethnic identity exposes a type of unique vulnerability and sexuality, often described as promiscuous.

In 2017, while visiting my friends at a hotel in south Delhi, I was assaulted in a lift by hotel guests. Two men enquiring about my “rate” offered me sex for the night. Naturally, the encounter was unpleasant, eventually involving the hotel management and the city’s SPUNER—The Special Police Unit for North-Eastern Region.

Well, things aren’t easy even after the assault. Police violence, in the form of little or no action against a complaint made by women from the NE, must be investigated. Indian police, like the rest of the Indian society, generally have no qualms about displaying their biases towards the people from the NE region, particularly women.

My 2017 rendezvous at the hotel is a classic example. In the aftermath of the assault in the hotel’s lift by two inebriated hotel guests, the police, to a great extent, profiled me on my ethnicity and wouldn’t heed my complaints until I called up the NE helpline and visited the local police station with a male friend.

The 2010 Dhaula Kuan rape case signalled a similar foreboding—the intersection of gender, race and sexuality. In this case, a Mizo woman’s assault was almost “justified” because of her sexuality attached to her ethnicity. In another case, according to reports, the police officer in charge assumed the two women complainants to be from the Northeast and delayed the registration of a sexual assault complaint. The complainants were women of Chinese descent from Singapore on vacation in Goa.

The National Crime Records Bureau released its latest on nationwide crimes last month, and Delhi is, yet again, the most unsafe city for women in India. Facilitating women’s safety is central to India’s claim to an independent and modern nation-state. Despite my years of efforts to integrate with Delhi, I, like millions of other migrants, do not have a political faculty. Because of the relentless violence on us, writing has become just a necessity.

India’s colonial history bestows the systemic war on race and gender. The sexualisation of indigenous women’s bodies in post-colonial India, without a doubt, is constrained by imperial regimes of power and patriarchy. Ensuring indigenous women’s safety and well-being in the cities requires developing a language that adequately represents and fosters indigenous political visibility. To understand the why and how of assaults on women from the NE Indian states, we need a collective introspection beyond the rhetorical headlines, “NE woman assaulted”. Crenshaw’s intersectionality is, perhaps, a way to examine indigenous women’s agency in cities like New Delhi.

Addressing police violence in Indian cities towards women from the NE is also crucial. It requires broadening the public conversation, informed by robust research, analysis, and advocacy. Visibility of such violence necessitates reforming existing frames of examining race-based gender violence. However, it is also essential to introduce structural reforms such as criminalising racial crimes and add new provisions in the Indian Penal Code, i.e., Section 52B, 153C and 509A, which will allow us to define, criminalise and penalise racial offences in India.

Writer and researcher, Jawaharlal Nehru University


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