India and rape: Spotting some tricky ghosts

In about 99 percent of the mainstream news reports you will ever read about India and religion, there will be a reference that reads something like the following, from a Washington Post story that I have been meaning to get to for a week or so. This is part of the wave of coverage — totally justifiable, methinks — about rape and women’s rights in that land.

The crucial language, as is the norm, comes right at the end of the feature-style lede that frames this hellish drama:

BANWASA, India — The teenage girl was overpowered by four men at a railway crossing near this village and bundled into a car. For five days she was kept, imprisoned and naked, in a windowless outhouse on nearby farmland and raped repeatedly.

Despite its brutality, the September incident merited just a few lines in a domestic news-agency story about a string of such crimes in the northern state of Haryana. It was headlined simply: “Four more rape cases.”

Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in rural areas just a few hours’ drive from India’s capital, where police and activists say rapes are common and increasing, such incidents draw scarcely any attention, let alone outrage.

In India’s modernizing but still deeply traditional society, social and women’s rights activists say rapes occur with virtual impunity, and women who betray flickers of independent thought and challenge the male-dominated status quo are especially vulnerable.

The key words are found in that passing reference to India being a “deeply traditional society.”

What, precisely, does that mean? What are these traditions? Might they have something to do with religion?

I have several friends who work in the mainstream press in India and, in conversations with them over the years about American media coverage of their land, they have expressed amazement at the degree to which U.S. journalists are afraid to talk about the elephant in the living room in these stories — the caste system.

Is it more common for police and other officials to look the other way when crimes are committed against members of the lower castes? Of course it is. In India, ignoring the role of the caste system would be akin to ignoring the role of gravity in physics. Yet many journalists are afraid to venture into that maze of, yes, religion and tradition. It’s safer to simply call India a “deeply traditional society” — wink, wink — and then move on.

However, this story caught my attention because, after the usual “traditional society” language, the team at the Post foreign desk delivered some crucial details that added depth and reality to the news.

For example, consider this transition passage:

The regularity of rapes and the resentment of women who question traditional roles are just two examples of this country’s vast gender inequality and wobbly rule of law — among the factors economists say are keeping India from its goal of being a global power. According to government statistics, the number of rapes reported nationwide rose 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, when police registered 23,582 cases. Over the same period in Haryana, a state of 25 million people, the figure rose nearly 85 percent, to 733. Police and activists say part of the increase might be attributable to more reporting, but they also insist that incidents are rising.

In October, a senior Haryana police officer interviewed by an Indian magazine blamed the increase on girls and women who are “easily influenced” and wear Western clothes. Police interviewed after the New Delhi case were more circumspect, vaguely blaming socioeconomic factors.

Some right-wing Hindu nationalists have tried to blame rapes on the influx of Western values or portray them as an urban phenomenon. But in rural India, the status of women is so low — and a family’s honor their exclusive burden — that such crimes often go unrecorded. When police do take up rape cases, rural communities tend to rally around the accused and ostracize the accusers.

As I read this story, I wondered if the Post would dare to GO THERE, citing the ultimate example of sexism and the low status of women in this unbelievably complex land.

Imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Such is the premium on males in India that sex-selective abortions are common. Haryana has the lowest female-to-male ratio in the country, with just 830 girls to every 1,000 boys 6 years old and under; the national ratio is 914 to 1,000. Jobs are scarce, and the state is home to a small army of idle young men.

And what about the caste system itself? Would the Post pin a name on that ghost, as well?

The answer, again, was yes. The crucial information is all here.

In many cases, such as the rape of a 15-year-old from the village of Dabra in September, upper-caste boys prey on Dalit, or “untouchable,” girls, knowing they can be threatened into silence.

The Dabra victim said in an interview that she was kidnapped by two men, drugged and driven to a dry riverbed. There, she said, she was raped for several hours by between eight and 12 men. The perpetrators then circulated a video of the assault throughout the village. After viewing it, the girl’s father committed suicide by drinking pesticide, his wife said.

The girl’s family and their attorney say the police deliberately transcribed the girl’s statement incorrectly to suggest that she had given her consent and that the perpetrators were landless Dalits rather than upper-caste Jats, who dominate the government, police and rural economy here.

By all means, read it all, and dig into other coverage of this crucial issue. How could anyone cover this issue without explaining the caste system and it’s roots?

Many attempt to do so. But this Post report is a fine example of how easy it is to cover the obvious.

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  • Dave

    Given the positions on issues on this blog I am impressed that you designate caste as the elephant in the room, rather than sex-selective abortion. I agree that caste is the great hole in general coverage of this story, and laud you for spotlighting it.

    As a pro-choice person I also acknowledge that sex-selective abortion is the elephant in the pro-choice room.

  • tmatt


    Thanks. Obviously sex-selection abortion is an important issue, but it’s not the clear link to that “traditional culture” language. You could say that the rape crisis AND the sex-selection abortion are two important issues that, in the context of India, are impossible to discuss and cover without discussing the FORCE OF GRAVITY — the caste system.

  • Jerry

    Yes, it’s an elephant in the room or perhaps a thundering herd of elephants in the room. But I do agree with Dave. With sex selection abortion you have a large number of men who will never get married. So both caste system and the historical low status of women are factors here. And both are, no surprise, related to religion.

  • sk

    A further point is that the protests in Delhi were based on the rape of a pre – medical student, not the Dalit girl in a rural area. It also shows the protest represented the urban,educated,middle class,upper caste anger and rage. The focus on a medical student makes sense as to its more relatable and in the immediate vicinity. I guess since the focus was the pre-med student, caste was not factored in unless the story covered rapes in India in general.

  • Ben

    I guess I would say caste isn’t as relevant as patriarchy and purdah. Depends on the case — wasn’t really an issue with the Delhi bus case, but obviously was in the case of the village men preying on Dalits. Why do western reporters shy from caste? A couple thots: it’s a complex system that’s in major flux as India changes so goodluck saying something definitive, and secondly there is always tremendous pushback from Hindu nationalists who will claim the foreigner journo is racist and doesn’t understand India. It’s great to see it when caste gets written about in Western press.

  • Julia

    It’s my understanding that much of the push-back violence against Christians is their work with Dalits, who make up a lot of the converts.

  • Julia

    clarificatiion – hit the button too quickly. Much of the violence against Christians in India is push-back against Christians working with Dalits. That’s another caste story that is under-reported.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The little coverage I have seen sometimes implies that the cause of the violence against Christians in India is their aggressive proselytizing Thus the violence against Christians is portrayed as almost justified on those grounds. But to understand what is truly happening news coverage must include information on the Indian-Hindu caste system and the desire of many Dalits to escape it . More coverage like what the Post provided is needed.