There has always been an unspoken institutional side to rape. For conquering soldiers or powerful caste or class groups, violation of the woman’s body has been one of the most favoured signatures of dominance. But rape as punishment by sentence of an elected constitutional body is a different order of darkness altogether. The panchayat of Sankarikala in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh decided that a teacher in the local primary school should be “gangraped” as penalty for having sexual relations with a male colleague. The decision was arrived at after a meeting of the panchayat with approximately 700 local men from which women were specifically excluded. Reportedly, the “trial” was occasioned by revenge. The teacher had hauled up one of her colleagues earlier for sexist jokes and gestures. It seems some students were incited to complain that they had seen the teacher with a male colleague “in a compromising position”.
The background is immaterial. So is the outcome, in which the husband of the woman prevented the sentence from being carried out. It is rather the virtuous sense of right to perpetrate hideousness on the part of the panchayat that is most remarkable. The phenomenon is deeply familiar after the Gujarat pogrom. But the panchayat decision goes one step further. An official announcement that one woman should be gangraped in a situation which cannot even be imagined as conflictual unashamedly elucidates the logic behind violent righteousness.
The specificity of the righteousness is as significant as the specificity of the violence. Both are indices of the woman’s status in Indian society, and there is no way to shrug them off as relevant only to a tiny rural corner of Madhya Pradesh. The “evidence” of two minor children was enough to convince the 700-strong male gathering that the woman “deserved” to be raped. That the teacher was the only woman among the teaching staff of the primary school suggests the reason for the all-male fury. Sexual violence and humiliation are the only punishments befitting symptoms of “freedom” in a woman. Allegations of sexual impropriety both perpetuate and confirm society’s prejudices, and help it most in “taming” women.
Yet this is a typical, rather than an exceptional case. A sentence of gangrape by a panchayat may seem startling, but village councils, groups of elders and caste heads order strippings and the naked parading of women on quite a regular basis. A woman was raped by four men by panchayat order in Pakistan recently. Making rape an “official” punishment makes public what everybody already knew, that sexual violence is an “acceptable” mode of control and that women must be “kept in their place” by stripping them of courage, dignity and sense of self. Campaigners for the improvement of women’s status yet have many layers of darkness to penetrate.