Power and sexual abuse is an injustice we’re willing to talk about only from a distance
We’d like to imagine we’re aware of all the nuances
that make up our exhausting diversity.
In the bubble that is Bangalore, we watch the nation as spectators. We’d like to imagine we’re aware of all the nuances that make up our exhausting diversity. We chronicle sociological trends, exceptions, and ironies that play into religion and identity. We watch cities burn, and we agree/disagree on what defines fascism in New India. While we’re at it, we succumb to the polarities that the media define our opinions within. We sip our iced-lattes and go to work, assured that the thick smoke of these incendiary times won’t be inhaled by us.
Perhaps the most existential question a ‘socially concerned’ urbanite grapples with is measuring the effectiveness of our opinions and declarations of what constitutes justice. I’ve always advocated for acknowledging our social privileges and working within that same structure to create the tiniest of changes. After all, the best outcome of opinion is the possibility of shifting the way we collectively think.
India deals with our bad boys in the currency of Gurus. Our demons are gentle, loyal, compassionate, and, in the case of Guru Ram Rahim, mega trendsetters.
What is it about a sexual assault case and the seemingly indestructible reputation of a Guru that compels our consciousness to lengthen its news cycle? Does it really change anything about the heart of the issue? Because at the heart of it is power and sexual abuse.
In India, we need things to be almost cinematic in proportion. A rising cult, an idiosyncratic Guru who not only gained his social standing by offering identity and social dignity, but converted his power into vote banks. These make up the elements of the story that asserts our imagined moral position. Perhaps, that’s what gets my gut. The idea that sexual abuse is best obsessed over when the abuser in question has so many public stakes. Everyone likes an unlikely villain.
Nikita Gupta, child sexual abuse advocate and educator from Mumbai, pointed me to 2007 report on child sexual abuse in India. The obvious things to note is that a large majority of people never report sexual abuse. What is compelling, however, is that of the respondents it was clear that 50% of assaulters were someone that was not only known to them but someone in a position of trust. A similar statistic can be observed in adult rape cases as well. Most of our assaulters, molesters, and rapists are someone we know—someone we regard with respect. One out of three children in our country today is the victim of some form of sexual abuse.
Guru Ram Rahim is just the glorified representation of what power, identity, and micro-social contracts can result in.
There have already been a plethora of insightful articles that dived right into the roots of Ram Rahim’s followers. How do thousands and thousands of people hold their faith and allegiance to one man without a single critical bone in their body?
Sarita Talwai, a writer from Bangalore, told me about her recent trip to Amritsar. “Although, Sikhism is based on equality, there is a simmering sense of discontent between the obviously upper caste Sikhs and the others. A Sikh gentleman I met also mentioned that the Sikhs have not forgotten or forgiven Blue Star and 1984. This makes for a dangerous cocktail. It is difficult to vocalise discrimination when everybody insists that your religion preaches equality. It is all out there in the case of Hinduism, the demon of casteism has a face and a figure. Thus, you can arm yourself and aim at it. But when the world insists that you are equal, when you’re obviously disenfranchised, you then seek haven in deras, where people like you listen to you. And then an alpha male gets to play God.” she said.
I agree. This chance of recognised identity and community can make even the most intelligent of us susceptible to defending it. The eternal developing world truth remains: if New India only benefits a fraction of our population, then we must acknowledge the fact that many other gurus will rise and rule factions of our nation in unpredictable ways.
And this is where I want to redirect our conversation a little bit. In the righteous noise of justice, we are forgetting how our affinity for respecting figures of authority, chaste virtues, and superficial hierarchies play strong roles in rape and sexual abuse in our very own homes. It’s the respected uncles, aunts, and the everyday family and work members we’ve been taught to respect who most commonly abuse both children and adults.
I spoke to Amandeep Sandhu, author and political writer, about Punjab. He goes into detail about the realities of inequality and invisible casteism that started after the Green Revolution. When I asked him about the politics of sexual abuse and power he opened up another angle for uncritical allegiance. Many women started to idolise leaders and gurus who encouraged men to leave the bottle and pursue a more purposeful life. If anything, a voice like Ram Rahim disguised itself as an ally for women’s rights.
“It is an aspect of a largely primitive society being pushed into modernity and economic success. Yes, families have heads, heads behave erratically, and women try to provide continuity. The reality is: In the last 70 years, there has not been a single women’s movement in the land. My young women friends tell me how they can’t be outdoors after 8pm alone—forget villages, even in towns and cities in Punjab. Yet, like the recent march in Chandigarh showed, women are now beginning to assert themselves in public spaces. As the power of men is challenged, I see in the next decade women coming out, asserting the power they already have but have not fully realised. Yes, we make a big deal out of one Ram Rahim, but sexual violence is all pervasive, it exists at many different levels and layers of society, starting from the family,” Sandhu says.
As humans, we like our evildoers to be blunt and in your face. We want to take action when we don’t have to ruffle feathers or confront the people closest to us. And perhaps this is why special glory has been devoted to this case. Two brave women literally risked their lives to call out a man who had a ‘family’ that was ready to burn the nation to defend him.
Ram Rahim reflects our own family/tribe/class microcosm. Beneath the critique, which we have for the social complexities of Dera Sacha Sauda, lie the insecurities of our own identity. Our caste, class, and food obsessions. Our need for validation through certain jobs, alliances, marriages, and social niceties. We are the grand old Indian family. Each microcosm might have different gods, gurus, and traditions. But identity, my friend, is something we all battle for. Threaten it and we will exhibit the very same ‘uneducated’ behaviours we blame his followers for.
The rise of the Hindutva rhetoric in India right now is a pointed example of an India struggling for power. Struggling for one identity that can make us feel better about the number of perceived injustices we face on an urban, semi-urban, and rural level.
The fall of Guru Ram Rahim is one victory in the middle of a million rising injustices. Urban bubbles can pause, and see we don’t have to be spectators. We can channel our national learnings into our own houses. We can topple the figures of abusive power in our living rooms. We can take pride in aligning with certain beliefs while still be critical of them.
Because once we, the privileged, start to move out of our own comfort zones, that’s when we can start to feel a tiny fraction of what it is to be a part of unequal India. We must acknowledge that there is power to poke—even in the thickest of bubbles that exist in a nation that has always been chanting for change.