What was pleasantly surprising about the Pinki Pramanik case was the speed and dexterity with which the police acted upon a complaint of rape. This instance is in stark contrast with the numerous other rape cases in which the police show utmost reluctance to file even a first information report or to make an arrest. It is also surprising that Pramanik was taken to a hospital for a medical test immediately after the arrest was made. Considering that Pramanik was the accused in this case and not the victim, it is baffling that an immediate medical test for her was necessary.
Then again, the premise upon which this rape charge (which later proved to be false) was based is most unusual. Whether Pramanik had raped her live-in partner depended on whether she was a man or a woman. If she proved to be a man — as her partner claimed she was — she could be charged with rape for having sex with the ‘victim’ upon the false promise of marriage. But if she proved to be a woman, the rape charge would not stand, simply because a woman cannot lawfully marry another woman in this country, no matter what promises she makes. So, it would seem that the crime Pramanik was accused of was not exactly sexual violence, but of being a man who looked like a woman.
The dubious grounds on which the rape charge was filed and the frantic medical tests to ascertain Pramanik’s gender would lead one to believe that the authorities desperately wanted her to be a man. Otherwise, either the question of marriage between two women would have to be dealt with (even if theoretically) or the entire case would become moot. But the more difficult idea to digest in this case seems to be the possibility of a woman being charged with rape. Rape is a ‘male’ crime; it bears the stamp of masculinity, and is often the expression of ultimate male dominance. To see a woman as a rapist is somehow far more repulsive than the crime itself, perhaps because this would place the typical victim in the shoes of the archetypal perpetrator, and thus turn the tables somewhat.
It is interesting that shortly after the rape charge was brought against Pramanik, the Union cabinet decided to approve a proposal to make rape a gender-neutral crime. It seems to have finally dawned on the authorities that creatures other than men can also commit sexual violence, that same-sex rape is not an unimaginable proposition, and that even men can be the victims of sexual assault. But more interesting is the fact that along with this amendment, the term ‘rape’ is also being obliterated. Henceforth, any sexual crime is to be called ‘sexual assault’.
A gender-neutral blanket law could pose serious problems for the law-enforcement machinery of a country such as India where crimes against women are abnormally high. But the proposal to change the name of the crime points to a deeper problem. Why is changing the term necessary? Why not just change its definition? The various amendments to rape laws so far have ensured that rape is no longer limited to the forcible penetration of a vagina with a penis. Many other alternative forms of violence have been recognized as rape time and again. So why not call rape a gender-neutral crime rather than change the term into ‘sexual assault’ — which, in turn, is considered gender-neutral? Is rape, then, a word so loaded with masculinity that it is difficult even for law-makers to imagine females or transsexuals as being accused of the crime? If it is indeed so, how does this new law expect to do justice to the victims of what it earlier termed specifically as rape?
There is one other disturbing side to the Pinki Pramanik case. The rape charge, the gender test, the debates, all revolved around the question — man or woman? The prospect of Pramanik being neither, or both, was hardly considered with any seriousness, despite the medical tests suggesting just that. Our society, despite all its liberal rhetoric, has failed to accept the reality of the transsexual — in relation to marriage or rape. The suffering of a transsexual is therefore always up for display — to be seen with curiosity and disgust, but never easy to deal with for the law.