Pictures of an Adivasi woman running naked through a street in Guwahati, while men clicked photos of her from their mobile phones flashed across newspapers and television news channels on Sunday. As the nation watched in horror at the utter barbarism and shamelessness of the act, I was left wondering where does this take us. India, a country riddled with class and caste dogmatism has always shown an affinity towards collective brutality and a painful sadistic pleasure at barbarism. From the killing fields of Gujarat and Nandigram, to the ‘lesser one-off incidents’ happening everyday around the country, the nation seems to almost like this type of reprehensible violence. Pictures signifying such irredeemable shame seem to have multiplied in the last few years signifying a most dangerous trend.
It seems that the men who stood photographing the desperate tribal woman as she raced away down the street had an old wish fulfilled. Humiliating women and their tribes and communities by forcing them to parade naked has long been a favored ‘penalty’ and signature of class domination among village authorities among much of rural India. Perhaps, these men have always wished to be there. To have achieved a similar deed in the middle of a street demonstrates a level of barbarism that is rarely reached even in this country. A city pretends to be, or at least aspires to be, civilized. Such an incident shows just how thin that veneer of civility is. It takes just one excuse of violence to tear off a woman in a contemptuous assertion of power to find expression.
But the point is not just the desire to humiliate. A woman can be beaten into submission, as many husbands, fathers and brothers would be willing to testify. The point is the nakedness: the desire to expose a woman’s body to a world of prurient gazers- and photograph her as she runs away frantically. It is the focus on the body of the woman that says most about the dangerously skewed ideas about sex, violence, domination, purity and ownership that lie at the root of India’s attitude towards gender, sexuality and sexual morals. The net result of all this is the total lack of value attached to a woman’s life, work, beliefs and sense of self. No public gesture can destroy all these together and reduce her to a flesh for one’s enjoyment more than stripping her. It is time that Indians began to think not just about the effects but also about the causes of such hair-trigger explosion of violence. There is little time left before the nation would be forced to acknowledge that it is a country of murderers, rapists and strippers of women.