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The Raghavji case: It's about consent, not sodomy

“MP minister Raghavji quits as servant accuses him of sodomy.” It might make for an attention-grabbing headline. But it misses the real story.

Should the issue be whether Raghavji sodomized a member of his domestic staff or not? Or should the issue be whether it was consensual or not? The media’s leering fixation on the actual sexual act feels like a rather prurient parlour game – how many times can you say sodomy in one piece of copy. But in its obsession with the act, it misses what is actually all-important – the issue of consent.

Raghavji was Madhya Pradesh’s finance minister. He’s resigned his post after a member of his domestic staff said he had sexually abused him. There’s apparently an incriminating “obscene” CD in circulation as well. The BJP acted quickly to control the damage. State president Narendra Singh Tomar announced at a press conference that Raghavji had resigned. The Times of India reports that Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister was “furious when reports of the alleged CD surfaced.”

But again, the question is, has Raghavji lost his job because he’s accused of being a sodomite? Or because he is alleged to be a rapist or a sexual abuser? Sodomite and rapist are not the same and in a rush to judgement, we should not conflate them. However headlines like “Man accusing MP Minister of sodomy turns up after disappearing” do exactly that.

It’s clear the reason is gender. When film star Shiney Ahuja’s maid accused him of sexual misconduct the charge was rape. When Raghavji’s male domestic staff accuses him it becomes sodomy.

According to Section 377 sodomy does fall under “sex against the order of nature” as the Brits defined it. That made it criminal. But the Delhi High Court read down Section 377 in 2009. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on the appeal to that decision. At DesiQ, an international conference for LGBT South Asians over last weekend in San Franciso, Anjali Gopalan, the executive director of Naz Foundation International in India stressed that all important issue of consent.

“Section 377 was also used against child sex abuse,” said Gopalan. “So we could not ask for the law to removed altogether. Instead we need a reading down of the law to exclude consenting adults.”

The media, in its coverage of the Raghavji case, seems to have missed that point.

The victim, in this case, who comes from a poor family in Vidisha says he has been sexually exploited for three years. He says the minister promised him a regular government job and threatened him with dire consequences if he revealed the abuse.

That, if true, is the real crime, not the sexual act he might have performed.

 The Raghavji case: Its about consent, not sodomy

Former Madhya Pradesh minister Raghavji has been expelled by his party – BJP.

When Section 377 was still in force, the act of sodomy could have been a crime as it was in Queen Empress v Khairati in 1884 – one of the first reported cases under Section 377. In that case, a eunuch named Khairati was arrested upon being found singing dressed as a woman. Alok Gupta writes in Trikone, that the police argued “with the help of a medical report, that the orifice of the anus of Khairati was distorted into the shape of a trumpet – a mark of a habitual sodomite and therefore deserved to go to jail.”

The problem here is also how the law views rape in India. Though activists pushed hard to make the rape law gender-neutral at least as far as the victim was concerned after the Delhi gang rape, that did not happen.

“In case of male rape, men raping men, men raping transgender, hijra, kothi or someone from a gender identity somewhere between male and female – that rape is not a crime,” said Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy in an interview about the new anti-rape bill when it was being voted on in parliament. In that case it could be prosecuted under Section 377 as non-consensual sex against the order of nature but that is a different kettle of fish altogether. “You should criminalize male rape because it’s an act of violence,” said Nandy. “You don’t criminalize male rape because it’s an unnatural act against the order of nature.”

Raghavji’s case points to that glaring loophole in the law. And because of that loophole male rape victims, even gang rape victims, often have to suffer in silence. After the Delhi gang rape, Vinodhan wrote on the website Orinam.net about how he was gang-raped at the age of eighteen. The men made a video of it as well, one he dreads will someday show up on the internet.

Vinodhan writes he is even afraid to speak about his ordeal because “people will forget the rape and will only blame me for hooking up with a stranger, for wanting sex, for wanting sex with another man. I fear that I will have to deal with the blame on top of dealing with bodily memories of violence.”

Men can be raped. And they often are. Human Rights Watch issued a report that estimated 22% of male inmates have been raped at least once during their incarceration. Male rape does not just happen in prisons. 6.5 percent of male combat veterans and 16.5 percent of non-combat veterans reported in-service or post-service sexual assault according to a story in the US. A U.S. Department of Justice report found that 3 percent of men had been raped.

The world is slowly waking up to this reality. It’s hard to ignore it when it becomes tabloid fodder as when the assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University was accused of sexually abusing boys. Since 2012, the national crime statistics on rape in America will include both male and female victims. That’s at least some kind of a beginning in acknowledging the reality – that rape is not just a crime against women.

Indian law might still not recognize that reality. But the media can. And the case of Raghavji and his domestic staff could be a good place to start.

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2013 15:04:31 IST