I was no older than 12 when I first read about Phoolan Devi in an old copy of the Outlook magazine.
"They passed me from man to man."
"Say it!" shouted Shri Ram. "Tell them what happened to Vickram."
Admit it, bloody b****! Admit you killed him."
Those were Phoolan Devi's words from I, Phoolan Devi, the only first-hand account of the gangrape of the dacoit-turned-politician. In the weeks that followed, I shrunk inside myself, trying to make sense of what I had read. Space that emptied, as I shrunk inside myself, got filled with fear. Sexual abuse is ubiquitous, yet no one talks to women about this, we are just socialised into accepting this as usual. We feel it, sense it, and intuitively know it long before it ever touches us. We change, transform and constrict ourselves to fit into categories, labels, and expectations. Like fluids, we learn to take the form of the oppression that contains us.
A decade later, in my 20s, I saw the movie Bandit Queen amongst a mostly white audience. By then, Phoolan Devi had been gunned down at the age of thirty-seven. The controversies and critique had withered, and the film had gone on to win awards and universal acclaim. In the post-film Q & A, a sociologist and a political scientist held court, without ever once mentioning the word "caste" or how its violence plays out in India's rural and urban landscapes. Instead what preoccupied this elite gathering was whether "violence begets violence". "Whether Phoolan Devi's killing the men who raped her made it inevitable that she would one day suffer the same fate." Two things have been central to the stories about Phoolan Devi, her gangrape in the village of Behmai and her subsequent return to the site of her “greatest violation” for revenge. Where she is alleged to have lined up 22 men and shot them.
When alive, Phoolan Devi objected to the film, its portrayal of her and the reduction of her agency. She said that the film showed her “as a sniveling woman, always in tears, who never took a conscious decision in her life.” She fought to have the film banned. Arundhati Roy in 1996 wrote, “Private screenings have been organized for powerful people. But not her.” In the post-film discussion, no one debated the morality or the ethics of directing and performing the real-life rape of Phoolan Devi when she was alive and had openly denied and disputed the portrayal.
Phoolan Devi spoke, we just never listened.
There was no consent, yet Bandit Queen director Shekhar Kapur felt that he had the right to retell it. When Seema Biswas, the actress who played Phoolan Devi in the film, initially expressed discomfort with the scene, Kapur told her: “I am showing the height of humiliation, it is the ugliest moment...It should be like a woman suddenly mowed down by a speeding bus, people watching it should be so brutalized that they wouldn’t want to look at it again.” Kapur's response and his gaze capture everything that is wrong with how we think about women, caste, and sexual violence. But more importantly, how silence, erasure, and apathy work together to not hear women.
Women are brutalised all the time, and Dalit women are brutalised because they merely exist. What Kapur forgets is this — when women are mowed down — it’s never sudden. The pleasure derived from the brutalisation drives almost every act of violence against women. It’s a performance that the patriarchy enjoys, a woman's body is also the society's Colosseum, it is here that the most brutal of violence is enacted, and played out as a spectacle sport.
On 23 October, 13-year-old Dalit girl Rajalakshmi in Tamil Nadu was beheaded in front of her mother Chinnaponnu because she refused the sexual advances of the 26-year-old Kumar, belonging to the Mudaliar community, the dominant caste in the region. "Kumar arrived with a sickle. He abused them by targeting their caste and beheaded Rajalakshmi, in spite of Chinnaponnu trying to protect her. He took Rajalakshmi’s head and went home, where his wife Sarada advised him to discard it elsewhere."
While newspaper reports have trickled in, Rajalakshmi’s gruesome murder remains seen but not acknowledged, heard but not listened to. Singer Chinmayi’s #MeToo story received nauseating coverage in Tamil Nadu, but Rajalaskhmi’s story has not. Reporting around #MeToo, even when the women have the privilege of caste, class, and visibility, has been reduced to salacious slut-shaming. The murderer Kumar is already being portrayed as "mentally unstable". This silence and untruths around Rajalakshmi’s death is not an aberration. It is merely violence reproducing itself over and over again.
In a photograph published since her death, Rajalakshmi’s mother Chinnaponnu and her father stand on a dusty road. Both look exhausted, stare into a lens with glazed eyes. Chinnaponnu looks small and frail. In another video on Twitter, Chinnaponnu is rudely questioned by journalists from the Tamil paper Dinakaran who asks :
இது வன்முறை மேல் வன்முறை. மகளின் கொடூர கொலையைப் பார்த்த ஒரு தாயிடம் இப்படி தான் கேள்விகள் கேட்பீர்களா? மரியாதையின்றி பேசுவீர்களா? ஊடக நெறி இல்லையென்றால் மனித நேயம்கூட இல்லையா? #ராஜலட்சுமிக்கு_நியாயம் #JusticeForRajalakshmi #Metoo pic.twitter.com/1qCXrcPWDO
— Lois Sofia (@Red_Pastures) October 31, 2018
“When police first called you, did you go to the station?"
"Why didn't you tell them this happened to your daughter?”
“Why are you speaking today?”
Chinnaponnu, still in shock, tries to speak, the father says, "We did."
The journalist responds:
“No. No. She didn't tell them about the sexual advances then.”
Just as Chinnaponnu breaks down, student activist Valarmathi intervenes:
“She saw her daughter's headless body the day she went to the station…it has taken her a day to get to a place where she can speak…what would you do if this was your child? You wouldn't be standing, you would have died…She is speaking now, listen to her.”
Gayatri Spivak in her classic essay Can the Subaltern Speak? says, “And the subaltern woman will be as mute as ever." The woman is never mute. She is never silent, she screams, cries and speaks. The easiest way to silence her is to shift the burden of proof on her, demand that she first prove her humanity first. Even as she struggles to articulate the violence, we demand that she prove herself “worthy” of being heard.
The argument is violent in its simplicity; we don't see Chinnaponnu or Rajalakshmi as the proof of the violence they endure. Their words are never enough to articulate the justice they seek. We demand footnotes and annotations even for their lived experience. We refuse to see them as full persons. We refuse to listen. As activist Jason Jeremias says, “Rajalakshmi was 13 years old. She said no, and she was killed because she was resisting sexual assault by an adult. She spoke up, and the man returned executing her in front of her mother."
Local activist Kausalya, whose husband Sankar was killed by her family for being Dalit, speaking to The Wire, made an important observation that this was a caste crime and a sexual crime, one doesn't exist without the other. Sexual violence against women, particularly Dalit women, has become a socially and culturally acceptable means of asserting power. Acts of violence against them are considered not just normal, but completely acceptable within the norms of the community. Here, violence and caste are inexplicably linked to each other. In 'Good laws, bad implementation', political scientist Vasundhara Sirnate writes about “judgments from non-constitutional bodies like khap panchayats and kangaroo courts” that sanction extrajudicial sexual violence against women.
The social contract between the Indian state and its most marginalised is unequal. Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills referred to it as the "racial contract." Applying Mill's analysis to India, it becomes amply clear that like race in America, caste is the organising principle of the Indian state. This caste-based contract becomes the building blocs of the republic — casteist polity, a casteist bureaucracy, and a casteist juridical system. In this system humanity, justice, and even freedom, are granted not by the Constitution but where one resides within this caste hierarchy.
Student activist Valarmathi, in the same video, says, “This is violence upon violence. Is this how you question a mother who witnessed the brutal murder of her daughter? Even if you don't have journalistic ethics, where is your humanity?”
Where is our humanity indeed?
The author is a barrister-at-law, and the Executive Director of The Polis Project.
Updated Date: Nov 03, 2018 20:02 PM