Reacting to rape: what the Mahmood Farooqui case reveals about us
Mahmood Farooqui, co-director of Peepli Live and a well-known exponent of Dastangoi, was convicted of rape under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code on 30 July, and has been sent to judicial custody.
He was arrested in June 2015 after a US-based research scholar allegedly accused him of sexual assault in March 2015. The Delhi Police has sought maximum punishment of life imprisonment and the court will pronounce the quantum of punishment on 4 August.
But unlike Khurshid Anwar, a social activist who committed suicide in 2013 following rape charges against him, the media is not hounding Farooqui. This could be because the media may still be shaken from that event, and the suicide of Prof Ramchandra Siras of Aligarh Muslim University for that matter, as it was an unfair media trial that led Anwar to jump off a building. But that's something we'll understand only with the passage of time when another case presents itself to the media's scrutiny.
Since Farooqui is an influential person, it is very likely that he will re-appeal in a higher court. He may even get respite. Given the clear deposition against him by Danish Husain, Farooqui's long standing friend and Dastango, and the email records of Farooqui's apologies to the victim presented as evidence in court, the decision could have been received with more enthusiasm and jubilation - even shrill and targeted vilification campaigns that usually characterise cases of sexual assault/abuse/harassment.
Surprisingly, reactions to his conviction have been very measured.
This presents an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on why we take irresolute and vacillating positions in cases of sexual offence - ranging from sexual harassment at the workplace (usually perceived as a 'mild offence' where the victim is viewed with suspicion) to cases perceived as more 'heinous' where sexual abuse is coupled with physical violence and/or murder or subsequent suicide by the complainant (like in the GK Arora case where the accused has also been charged with abetment to suicide).
Our reactions to these cases, however, aren't conditioned by the degree of assault or consequence of crime, as anyone who followed the cases against GK Arora or RK Pachauri (TERI) would agree.
What instead appears to shape our reactions, positions and outrage (or the lack of it) in such cases is the class of the accused and the class-equation between the complainant and the accused. The rapists in the Nirbhaya case were faced with uncontained outrage because 'we', the average middle-class netizen could not accept the fact that a bus driver (the main accused, Ram Singh), a lower middle class male who probably thought 'women who are out on the streets with male friends at night ask for it', raped her.
It's no wonder that we are trained to view people like Ram Singh as 'the other'. Though the outrage against him and his accomplices was not misplaced at all, we did not erupt with sorrow or against lapses in jail security when he was found hanging in his jail cell at Tihar.
Farooqui, on the other hand, conveniently escaped the focus of our anger because he is one of 'us'; because his victim is an American woman who we see as 'loose and forward' and thus can very conveniently be 'othered' by us. So what we have seen in the Mehmood Farooqui case is not an adverse trial of the accused but instead a reverse 'trial by silence' of the complainant.
My concern here is that the self-righteous middle-class social conscience appears to be functioning in khap panchayat style, over-eager to pass judgments on
those we see as the 'other', while being very conservative and lenient with the 'educated' and 'cultured boys' of 'our' society, who we do not see as 'class enemies' and more importantly see as 'one of us'.
Which is why even though people like Farooqui or Pachauri may be useful to the society, it is the wider culture of fair trial and social solidarity with the law taking its course that will always be much more useful to the cause of furthering gender-equality and justice.