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Not a new phenomenon in colonial or post-colonial nations, the body’s subjugation completes its arc in rape or, at times, the threat of rape. Rape and rape threats to adivasi women and even women activists working among them rarely evoke outrage outside forested areas of states like Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Jharkhand that are witness to state violence pitted against Maoist violence. Elsewhere too, caste, communal or state violence often includes sexual forms of violence as well.
“Looking at the history of places where the state is extremely violent and where adivasi and Dalit women face its brunt, I am not surprised if individuals, especially from the neo-middle class, are replicating this violence,” says Ashwani Kumar, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “These threats are just another form of violence related to the body. The placement agency does the same, knowing how it would affect the girls and their families.”
Rape as a tool of suppression—whether in political conflict or, as this cover story highlights, by placement-for-trafficking networks—thus has clear ethnic markers. For the adivasi girl or family threatened with rape, it is an extension of the other forms of violence they routinely face. “Adivasis and Dalits are the worst victims of violence on the body,” says Kumar, who compares placement agencies bringing mostly Santhal and Oraon girls from Jharkhand or Bengal to Delhi and other big cities to the phenomenon of most farm labour hired in the green revolution belt or in the tea gardens being from the marginalised castes.
“The threat of rape works with the knowledge that the police won’t protect the interests of an adivasi girl seeking justice.”
This has been going on for a very long time—the tribal family migrates to an estate, their children work there, then their children’s children and so on. The placement agency is only replicating that age-old trend. More and more girls have been moving to the cities in search of employment since the 1990s. “Under this new labour economics, women are sought to be monopolised so that they become voiceless and invisible once again,” says Kumar.
Social movements too have responded to the crisis of threats, which have occasionally overwhelmed social media as well. “To issue a rape threat is to conduct violence by words, and this cannot be resolved by adding another section, another specific crime, to the Indian Penal Code,” says Kavita Krishnan of AIPWA, a CPI(ML)-affiliated women’s organisation.
It is not just the threat that silences women, but the fear it provokes of the social opprobrium rape can result in. “The threat of violence embedded in the rape threat works with the knowledge that the police won’t protect your interests, if you are, say, an adivasi girl from Jharkhand,” she says. That is how the threat of rape acts as a deterrent to justice. Besides silencing someone with the stigma associated with being raped, there is also the fear of bodily harm and of something worse happening to a woman in addition to the wrong for which she was seeking justice.
This is how the threat of rape is institutionalised. “If you are less confident of being taken seriously by the police, a rape threat could be enough to silence you,” says Krishnan.