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December 31, 2012



I have been reading a fair amount about the incident and its aftermath, and I have to say that I have to disagree with almost everything you say in this post. First of all, the excerpts are not particularly probing or insightful - the same issues have been raised by multiple people. The basic problem I see with this kind of tangent is that when people protest about one injustice, it does not help to ask why they are not protesting about other injustices. For example, to take this thread further, one could equally well ask Madhuri Xalxo and Urvashi Butalia why they are not protesting against (or writing about) the attack on Malala Yousufzai and countless other women in Pakistan, or the rapes of Tamil women by the Sri Lankan army, or the rapes in the devastating wars in the Congo, or the outrages in Darfur.

Secondly, your comments introducing "moral communities" into the mix look to me like sophomoric social anthropology. There is a much more parsimonious explanation for why people at large do not react to the many incidents of violence taking place in the world everyday: distance. The news media can, of course, reduce the distance through insistent coverage. The better question to ask is why the news media selectively highlight some incidents and not others. This too is better understood (at least in the case of violence perpetrated by armed forces around the world) in terms of the media being deeply invested in the notion of the general righteousness of their armed forces.


I chose the excerpts specifically to focus on the selective nature of both media coverage and public outrage, on which I wanted to comment. I continue to find both essays probing and insightful. Butalia's op-ed is wide-ranging in its concerns, Xalxo's is more raw and personal, while raising a point that ought to remain absolutely central to discussions of all gender-related injustices in India.

Both authors ask, in the quoted excerpts, why the mainstream media behaves so differently. Both authors rightly suggest that it is not just a matter of distance. And it clearly is not! Brutal rapes and gang-rapes of Dalit / Adivasi girls happen all the time in and around Delhi but they don't get much attention. You would be deluding yourself if you think that the partisan media coverage is not heavily shaped by who runs the media and for what audience. There are hardly any Dalit or Adivasi journalists in mainstream news organizations. Even if there were, and they covered atrocities on women of their communities, they would still fail to ignite the outrage of the vocal urban upper-caste folks, who are unable or unwilling to relate to the plight of these women. This is the point about inhabiting exclusive moral communities.

"The basic problem I see with this kind of tangent is that when people protest about one injustice, it does not help to ask why they are not protesting about other injustices."

Except it can! It helps to ask why one rape evokes wide condemnation and another doesn't. This line of reasoning is necessary in exposing institutional biases and wider cultural prejudices. I mean here is an example. A few years ago, a couple of Indian students in Australia were assaulted and/or killed in hate crimes. The India media roared, levers were pulled at the highest political levels, much angst was expressed over how inhospitable Australian universities were becoming for Indian students, etc. Distance was clearly no obstacle. It is important in this situation to ask why the same middle class communities from which these students came — and the media institutions they control — are so serene about the inhospitability of Indian educational institutions towards low caste students, driving dozens of them to suicide.

Indeed, there may be natural limits to what provokes moral outrage, where factors like distance, insufficient time, and ignorance play a bigger role. The Indian media covered Malala's case well enough (not the least because it was a global story), but in most faraway cases, outrage can't even accomplish much, given the bounds of citizenship, governance, law and order, educational systems, and the jurisdiction of other institutions of state. Xalxo has to choose her battles, which does not mean she can't relate to the rapes of women in Sri Lanka or Darfur. My contention is that most urban upper-castes, even their prominent members, and the institutions they control are apathetic to the travails of women of low caste/class; they don't relate to the latter. The concerns of most urban, upper-caste feminists in India suggest that they operate in a different space. To point all this out, as Xalxo does, is both necessary and in the cause of gender-related justice in India.


The institutional biases and cultural prejudices in India are extremely well-known. Continuing exposure of them, while being a laudable effort in fighting the good fight, does not offer new insights, either conceptual or practical. My line was meant literally - do you think it would help to confront the protesters on the streets of Delhi and ask them why they were not protesting other rapes that occur in India ? Then, why restrict ourselves to rape alone ? Why not include other forms of violence ? You think Xalxo has to choose her battles and that this does not mean she can't relate to the injustices elsewhere. I agree. Why should we expect the protesters in Delhi (or for that matter people elsewhere in India, who also have been demonstrative about their outrage) to be any different ? They are choosing their battles too. You bemoan the lack of large scale sensitivity to caste-based violence, I am appreciative of any sign of sensitivity in the public at large to violence against women.

Academics, journalists, people with a liberal orientation, or any reasonably well-informed person has been aware of the culture of violence against women in India - it is the existence of widespread public outrage in this specific instance that is unusual. Why one individual tragedy, as opposed to so many others, catches the public attention is not easy to explain.

When I use the word "distance", I mean it metaphorically. We often read of outrages in Bihar, which is within 700 miles of Delhi, but is culturally a world away. In fact, even Haryana, with its Khap panchayats and periodic murders of those transgressing caste boundaries, is enormously "distant" from the worlds of many Delhi residents.

I am unfamiliar with publicly known feminists in India, leave alone "upper-caste feminists". Wouldn't Urvashi Butalia count as one ? My awareness of caste atrocities over the years has been informed by the Indian media - newspapers such as the Hindu and magazines such as Outlook. Clearly, these outlets are islands in a vast sea of pathetic journalism, but it is through them that I have read articles about the injustices faced by women in India, and I cannot recall detecting any specific upper-caste biases - which is not to say that they don't exist. I will be happy to be cured of my ignorance if you can point me to such biases.


I have no interest in confronting the protesters in the streets of Delhi with awkward questions. Paagal kutte ne kaata hai kya! I am very glad they are protesting and freely choosing their battles. I too am free to analyze their choices and to understand this response in sociological terms: who is protesting, what social and ideological worlds they inhabit, what battles they typically choose and why. To try and understand this is not to diminish the fact that these protests are genuine and deeply felt in their own way (and may even have some positive outcomes like faster response and higher conviction rates), rather it is to make note of systemic biases and prejudices — for which "metaphorical distance" might as well be a euphemism — that remain major obstacles to justice reaching lower-caste women.

What are the chances that this crime brought out these protesters largely because the victim's identity was withheld and the media presented her from the start as a casteless 'daughter of the nation'? This allowed the urban upper-castes and the media they control to imagine her as 'any-modern-Indian-girl', one of their own. For the protesters in this case, the reduced "distance" then is obvious enough: the woman is seen as a young urban student of a modern profession, with a male companion, returning after a movie evening, waiting for a bus in south Delhi, waylaid by bus driver types. To be clear, responding selectively to horrors that one fears might visit one's own family or moral community is not a sign of weakness in individual responders; it is indeed quite human. The opposite however should be said for social/state institutions — media, law, governance, policing, judiciary, NGOs, etc. — that are supposed to serve all citizens fairly. These two women (and I) are pointing this out, and noting the ongoing cost of such circumscribed institutional responses for justice to other Indians.

You say: "institutional biases and cultural prejudices in India are extremely well-known". I disagree, or at least want to say that what good is this knowledge if it's not internalized and does not translate into changing the institutional biases? Public prejudices may be harder to change but, as I wrote in my 2010 essay on caste privilege, where is the "commitment to diversity in the elite institutions that decide what is worthy art, music, and literature, or what is the content of history textbooks? In book after book of stories for children, both the protagonist and the implicit audience are elite and upper-caste." How many prominent upper-caste academics have critiqued revered Hindu classics and their caste depictions? Not to mention the more critical biases in the media, judiciary, law enforcement, public health, and other institutions of state. What was the official response to the recent "19 gang-rapes of dalit girls, one more gruesome than the other, in a single month" in adjacent Haryana?

Much has been said about how caste is a whole new vector of discrimination for women, and why upper caste feminists (and leftists) don't usually get it. If they get it, as I think Butalia does, they still don't write about it as insiders. Butalia, to her credit, devoted a full chapter on the experience of Untouchables in her study on Partition, The Other Side of Silence. But again, just as it is problematic to have men define feminist concerns, it is problematic to have upper-caste feminists define the contours of Indian feminism. Here are some appetizers.

Feminism And Dalit Women In India by Cynthia Stephen
Dalit Feminism: A Perspective on Bama's Sangati by Likhari Tanvir
Indian feminism and the patriarchy of caste older article from Himal

A few mainstream outlets do focus on caste. Add Frontline and Himal to the two you mention. Good as this is, the coverage is one-sided, like reading a white liberal mag on racism in America. It needs balancing by mags run by blacks. There's a wider discourse on Dalit-led sites. The texture of the conversation and polemic is more diverse. It's of course not all high quality or polished, but it's different and often astute and educational. I find in it a sensibility that's more refreshing — rooted in a secular, radical egalitarianism and civil rights talk — than in my social class. I often drop in on sites like Round Table India, Savari, and Counter Currents, read Dalit/OBC intellectuals like Teltumbde, Limbale, CB Prasad, and Kancha Ilaiah, and follow news, analysis, and debates among anti-caste activists on social media networks.

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