No crisis, it seems, can stem the flow of hate on online networking platforms — or in the real world, for that matter. As a humble microbe brings humankind to its knees, many Indians on social media have kept up a tsunami of virulent Islamophobia against Muslims at large and in particular the anti-CAA protest — forcibly discontinued by the police just this Tuesday — in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Some are demanding communal profiling of those testing positive for the novel Coronavirus. Meanwhile, our fellow-citizens from the North East are facing hostility based on uneducated assumptions about their racial links to China from where the first cases of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease) were reported.
You might imagine that trolls are too pre-occupied with their Corona-related bile to care about everyday misogyny. Wishful thinking. Since the hanging of the four men convicted in the 2012 Delhi gangrape this weekend, the Army of Animosity has found time to pop open bottles of virtual champagne to celebrate the rapists’ deaths while also turning on those who oppose capital punishment for rape.
Not everyone in favour of the death penalty indulges in vulgar displays of joy over what should instead be a sobering moment for all of us, but it is a peculiarity of those who do, that while they claim to stand for women’s rights, they respond with misogyny to any dissent from women. The aggression this time round adheres to the template that is fished out every.single.time there is a nationwide discussion on capital punishment for rapists.
And so when activist Radhika Radhakrishnan tweeted just hours after the hangings, “We are not at war. The state should never kill,” her timeline was deluged, not with polite disagreements but with sexist jibes and sexual assaults. The rapists “should be allowed to roam free so that they know where you live,” said one chap called Sid. But the vilest was the Twitter handle @HeyBhardwaj run by a fellow identifying himself as Manish Bhardwaj, “Sanyaasi CEO” and New York City resident, who wrote (warning: graphic imagery coming up), “Stick a couple of rods into yourself and twist them around, then take your intestines out and place them on the road.. Your thick skull will finally get it.”
A man wishing rape on a woman who objects to the death penalty for rape because he advocates death for rapists as a means to end all rapes — can there be a greater irony than this?
If ever there was a perfect illustration of patriarchy at work, it is this. Activists in the field have cried themselves hoarse for decades explaining that the death penalty does not deter rapists, a certainty of conviction does. Feminists have also underlined the phenomenon of people demanding town-square justice for rape in a bid to satisfy their own bloodlust rather than from any particular empathy for rape survivors. This explains why many of those who cry “hang the rapist” … “no trials for rapists” … “let the public lynch them” … “they should be stoned” … “hang them in public” feel comfortable also directing verbal brutality, including rape threats, at women who disagree.
For men like the troll who spewed venom at Radhakrishnan, women are a protectorate, a group that requires protection and control in equal measure. By their logic, rapists must be hanged for the good of women, and women who are against these hangings — read: women who do not know what is good for women — must be shown their place, if necessary with the very violence that is sought to be ceased by the capital punishment these men recommend.
It is from this same psychology that emerges the societal sanction for fathers to police their daughters’ choices, for families across India to prevent their daughters from marrying Muslim or lower-caste men. The reasoning is always the same: the girl does not know what is best for her, Daddy does.
In addition to the male parent, patriarchy confers authority over the woman on her male sibling, her husband, even the community — for her sake, of course. The rules of this protectorate are echoed by those whose condemnation of wife-beaters comes with the addendum, “but she must have done something to deserve it”. This is just an extension of the stance that William Shakespeare’s Petruchio meant well when he used mind games to “tame” his wife, Katherina “The Shrew”. Just as it is argued that love drove Shivudu to rape and subjugate the rebellious Avanthika into (as so many defenders of that scene in SS Rajamouli’s Bahubali put it) “discovering her inner femininity”.
Violence against women has been socially justified, romanticised in the classical arts and contemporary cinema to such an extent, that those who subject women to violence — emotional, verbal and physical — and seek to restrict women’s freedom in the guise of fighting for them, often buy their own patriarchal propaganda. In her book Fearless Freedom (Penguin, 2020), political activist Kavita Krishnan speaks of “the dominant discourse around women’s rights, which coded ‘women’s safety’ as curtailment of women’s mobility and autonomy, confinement of women to homes or hostels, and subjection of women to a relentless regime of surveillance and control.” This includes thought control and curbing the articulation of opinions — again, for her sake, of course.
The troll** who attacked Radhakrishnan does not see himself as an attacker at all: he is really guarding a woman from her stupidity because obviously he knows what is in her best interests, and if she does not, she needs to be set right as society tells us an errant sister/wife/daughter must be. On being inundated with criticism from activists and other members of the public, he got further abusive, explaining that he spoke from anger against “rapists and their leftist enablers”.
[**Note: On 24 March, the Twitter handle @HeyBhardwaj disappeared. In response to an email query on whether the user Manish Bhardwaj deactivated his account himself or had been shut down (as punishment for violating Twitter’s rules), a Twitter India representative said they “don’t comment on individual accounts”. However, as per the Help Centre section on the site, the notice — “this account doesn’t exist” — seen when you now search for the handle, indicates that Manish Bhardwaj aka @HeyBhardwaj deactivated his own account. If he quit because he could not take the heat or feared offline repercussions, that is good news for those who favour civilised debate, but it also means he was around for three or so days after posting his rapey tweet to Radhakrishnan since Twitter did not suspend him despite complaints. Twitter’s high tolerance of invective aimed at women merits a follow-up article.]
Radhakrishnan has a take on the mentality of such men. “If we thought of rapists as humans, it would be harder to justify killing them. So, rapists are thought of as monsters, and that is why many men don’t find themselves reflected in these extreme representations of rapists,” she explains. “This makes it difficult for many men to understand how they are complicit in rape culture, and to see the connections between rape and other forms of gendered violence (rape threats, discrimination, stereotyping) which seem less monstrous in comparison.”
She speaks of how, by othering rapists, men avoid acknowledging their own role in nurturing a social set-up that is a prime hunting ground for rapists. “Monsters rape, but humans discriminate. So men keep contributing to the latter, even if they may not rape,” says Radhakrishnan. “But the underlying cause of both remains the same — patriarchal attitudes.”
Regarding the vitriol she faces for denouncing hangings, she adds: “Men who send rape threats support death penalty for rapists because they want to believe that they are different from rapists — “I can abuse women online, but at least I don’t rape!” They think of rapists as monsters so they can feel good about themselves.”
Ironically, women are not the only ones at the receiving end, nor are men the only ones who get personal in such circumstances. There is a template too for use against men who are anti death penalty — their critics rarely send them rape threats or wish rape on them. The standard response was in evidence when Debraj Mookerjee, associate professor at Ramjas College, Delhi University, wrote about the Delhi hangings. “No noose is good noose … I remain opposed to the death penalty. I’m all for justice. But I’m against enforced death. Especially state enforced,” he began his long Facebook post on the subject. As if on cue, a reply came from a woman who identifies herself as a member of the French faculty at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) — she asked Mookerjee to use his imagination to put his own daughter “in Nirbhaya’s place”.
This kind of commentary can only come from a society that views women as the repositories of men’s honour, standard-bearers of family and community honour, and rape as the destruction of a woman’s izzat (honour). In such a scenario, telling a man that a woman he loves is — or might be or could some day be — a rape survivor or a sex worker is seen as the ultimate insult to him. That such a distasteful remark should come from a woman is a reminder — if any were needed — that women are often conscious enablers and/or unconscious participants in patriarchy.
Mookerjee believes this offensive Facebook encounter mirrors a larger social malaise. “Overall I think the quality of our public culture has diminished. This decline has enabled random people to feel entitled to cross all lines, especially on social media platforms,” he says. The woman who invoked his little daughter to provoke him, he explains, “violates her own premise about the vulnerability of women and the commensurateness of the punishment for the enormity of the act perpetrated on Jyoti Singh. By violating the sanctity of a little girl, she exhibits her own insensitivity to gender issues.” He adds: “I feel with many such individuals, more than the desire for justice, it’s anger and collective machismo at work. And this to me is a product of the type of masculinist, identity-based politics that has taken over India in the past six years.”
Linking the online conversation about death penalty for rapists to the ongoing chest-thumping nationalist discourse is not a stretch. A scrutiny of the social media accounts of pro-death-penalty hate-mongers reveals that many are not focused on specific persons or communities, but switch from one object of hate to another with ease.
Cases in point: the trolls harassing Radhakrishnan. For one, an inspection of @HeyBhardwaj’s account before he exited Twitter revealed contempt, cynicism and condescension in equal measure towards women, Muslims, liberals and Leftists, he is a fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fleetingly indicates a liking for US President Donald Trump and a dislike of Christians. (His Facebook page is tame in comparison.) As he shops for targets, you have to wonder whether his seeming commitment to his bigotry is just a vent for vast reserves of pent-up resentment.
Once you delve into his mindset and the socio-political context in which he operates, his disturbing behaviour should come as no surprise. After all, when the rape of women is not your actual concern, when your focus is your own thirst for blood, when your goal is pleasure-seeking through retribution, it is not unexpected at all that you would commit sexual violence — verbal or otherwise — against a woman who does not back your solution to the sexual violence you claim to oppose.
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