Monday, May 01, 2006

Silencing These Lambs

Incestuous Child Sexual Abuse in India and the Social Censorship faced by its victims through the politics of silence and of denial.

Unedited term paper for the Literature and Censorship course.


This paper interprets and offers ‘social censorship’ as a representative phrase for all forms of suppression of information and repression of the victim’s voice by general consent of the social institutions to which the victim and the perpetrator of the crime belong.

Censorship is, in essence, a post-facto phenomenon. A text – be it a novel, a magazine, a film or a picture – is censored after it is released in the public domain. In the rare cases of pre-emptive banning, the texts involved are those which follow in the wake of an existing controversy and are more often than not banned on grounds of legal technicalities on that count. Even then, the ban comes into force only after the content of such a text – be it a press-release, a film trailer, a pre-release interview or an abstract of the text – has been made public. Anything less than that would be thought policing because what the world does not know of, it cannot legally ban.

Social censorship (in the indicted sense), however, functions differently. To keep it’s sustaining structures from collapsing, it clamps down on any kind of disclosure of the malfunctions of these institutions. The effort is therefore centred on preventing the information from reaching public domain, so that most instances of the kind of sexual crime under discussion here go unnoticed and certainly unreported. Documented instances and available statistics of Child Sexual Abuse in India, especially those of an incestuous nature, are largely inaccurate. Indeed, going by the number of reported cases, the malady hardly exists; because of course, what the social system cannot silence, it denies.

In 2000, journalist and writer Pinki Virani – self-proclaimed victim of child sexual abuse – wrote Bitter Chocolate , which was and still is touted as the first Indian book to address the issue outside the protective and often vaguely romanticised guise of fiction. This paper takes Bitter Chocolate and the startling statistics it presents as its starting point, and hopes to present incestuous instances of Child Sexual Abuse as valid examples of social censorship and examine the causes thereof.

Also, in concurrence with Virani’s book, this paper accepts Emily Driver and Audrey Droisen’s definition of Child Sexual Abuse as ‘Any sexual behaviour directed at a person under sixteen years of age without that person’s informed consent (my emphasis).’

Borrowing Virani’s structure, we commence with a case study :

Ila and Jagdish Pandey lived in Karvi, Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh. In February 1999, their three daughters were eleven, nine and four years old; and the eleven complained of inappropriate affection from her father. Ila confronted her husband and was brutally beaten up, and took quite a while to recover. After her recovery, she fled to her parents with her youngest daughter. Jagadish forcibly retained their two elder daughters.

When three months of constant appeals went unheeded, Ila went back to Karvi and collected her daughters in her husband’s absence. She was supported morally and legally by two non-governmental bodies, the Social Action and Research Centre of Varanasi and Vanangana of Karvi/Chitrakoot. When Jagadish discovered his daughters had been taken away, he, according to the women of Vanangana, threatened them with rape and murder. His brothers filed a First Information Report against three women who aided Ila: Madhavi Kukreja and Huma Khan of Vanangana, and Manju Soni, a local social worker. The FIR listed the women under:

  • Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code (kidnapping or maiming a minor for forcing him or her into begging)
  • Section 366 of the Indian Penal Code (kidnapping, abducting or inducting a woman to end her marriage)
  • Section 380 of the Indian Penal Code (theft in dwelling house)
  • and ironically, Section 387 (putting a person in fear of death and/or grievous hurt for extortion)

All these offences are cognizable and non-bailable. Which means Kukreja, Khan and Soni could have been imprisoned at any time and remained that way.

The media coverage of the affair was revealing. A national news channel interviewed the local police and district officials. During one such interview, an official said: “These things should remain in the family, it should not be encouraged to come out in the open or more people will be influenced to do such things.”
Jagdish’s colleague at the government’s dairy department remarked, “Well, the wife was sick all the time so what is a man to do?”
A judicial official of Chitrakoot said – ‘with a smile’, notes Virani – “Child Sexual Abuse cases are ugly and disgusting. Such things should not be made public.”

In October of that year, Ila and the women who supported her held an unofficial jan sunvaai or ‘public hearing’ of the Pandey case in Karvi, which they hoped would serve as an awareness campaign. The women, however, were surrounded by very large groups of threatening men and members of a student’s body with fundamentalist affiliations, who demanded the arrest of these women because they had destroyed the sanctity of their own homes and sought to urge other women to do the same.

The Pandey case is paradoxically both similar and distinct from such cases of Child Sexual Abuse in India. It displays the hesitancy of the average Indian towards making such matters public and the reluctance to universally see the perpetrator as a criminal. A sexually unresponsive wife is often considered a valid excuse for a man to transfer his attention to the available children of the house. Thus even when his actual act is considered perverse, he is assured of sympathy from those that really matter: his family, his colleagues, possibly even his wife’s family, his neighbours, and unfortunately, the judiciary that tries him. On the other hand, not only is the child-victim (especially if she is a girl) alienated from her immediate society, he or she also runs the risk of being explicitly vilified as a tempter/temptress and initiator of his or her own abuse.

The reason the Pandey case is distinct from most such cases is because Ila broke the mould of the archetypal cowering Indian wife (also a prominent figure in most reported cases) and decided to fight her husband for sole custody of their daughters. Unfortunately, and ironically, it is Ila and her three daughters who have gone into hiding and are still constantly on the run from Jagdish and his family, who seek to reclaim these their four lost ‘properties’, with little sympathy and no help from the administration.

The inadequacy of the judiciary or the police is not, in cases of Child Sexual Abuse within the family, always a wilful one. The Indian Penal Code has so far been unable to furnish the judiciary and the police with a distinct framework for this emerging category, despite even the conservative police speculations conceding that an average of 40% of girls and 25% of boys below the age of sixteen are victims of Child Sexual Abuse. This, incidentally, does not include physical violence against a child, child rape and child prostitution, which the police classify separately. Even then, the violation of a child’s body against its willing and informed consent is not considered rape unless there is evidence of penile penetration. What is truly distressing, however, is the sympathetic view courts take of offers of financial compensation for a girl who is, by almost universal consent, assumed unmarriageable .

In 1997, Sakshi filed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking to widen the scope of the term ‘sexual intercourse’ to include forced oral sex and object-penetration. The Supreme Court offered certain placatory measures in May 2004, nearly a decade later. The measures were certainly helpful. Victims of rape or abuse cannot now be forced to answer ‘insensitive’ and ‘crude’ questions during the trial. Defence lawyers will have to make a prior submission of all questions to the presiding officers who would then tone down or edit them as they see fit. Also, a screen can now be used so that the victim doesn’t have to directly confront the perpetrator or feel intimidated by him or her. However, Sakshi’s cause remains unfulfilled even today.

As Dr. Neelan Tirchelvam points out , the India Penal Code, drafted by Thomas Babbington Macaulay in two days when he was still a young man of little experience, is in need of immediate revision to accommodate the new social requirements that have developed since 1836.

[…] The second relates to the growing sensitivity to the reproductive health rights of women and the right of an individual to have control over and to decide freely on matters related to her body and to her sexuality. A related concern relates to the health risks to which women are subjected to as a result of unsafe abortions, which threaten the lives, particularly, of the poorest and youngest. A third development relates to the need to be responsive to the alarming incidence of sexual exploitation of children, including the phenomenon of child pornography. Finally, there is a need for the law not to discriminate and punitively deal with persons with different sexual preferences, and to move away from puritanical attempts by the law to legislate morality.

The reason for quoting the second of Tirchelvam’s three new ‘developments’ in the context of Child Sexual Abuse is the alarming rise in teenage (and sometimes even pre-teen) pregnancies in the country. In accordance with the prevalent culture of preservation of family honour through silence, the girls usually undergo painful and unmedical abortions at home, often causing permanent damage to their bodies. The risk of death at childbirth increases manifold for those that try to give birth to their unwanted children, because their bodies and not anatomically mature and equipped to deal with the rigours of pregnancy yet.

Tirchelvam’s last point, addressing the discriminatory attitude faced by homosexuals involves Child Sexual Abuse to quite a large extent as well. Several surveys conducted by functional non-governmental organisations indicate that the abuse of little boys is on the rise. Or perhaps, more realistically, a greater number of young men find themselves capable of stepping out of the masculine image they have been culturally conditioned to inculcate. Amongst the 5,00,000 children that are trafficked annually into prostitution in India , prepubescent boys form a growing section of the groups sent to prominent sites of sex-tourism in the country .

However, the abuse of minors by people of their own sex is not something only foreign tourists indulge in; it is as much a part of India’s secret family traditions as heterosexual abuse is. Virani’s research and interviews reveal that closet homosexuals (especially gay men) abuse children in their family not just because they are convenient, but also in the hope of initiating a few more into their way of life. Sodomy – though usually object-penetration – as a form of punishment and ‘disciplining’ young boys is also prevalent in several places, including gender-specific boarding schools.

Comparatively, lesbian relationships are less physically violent unless they involve a sadistic perpetrator, but the connotation of power born of class hierarchies and the financial ability to employ is much more pronounced in them. Young girls employed as domestic helps also often serve as – to employ a somewhat melodramatic word – sex-slaves, in that they are not offered any gratification in return. Virani’s interviews with married or closeted lesbians show that is quite a common practice: the girls are recruited and then ‘…slowly trained’ till they can satisfy their employers’ sexual needs .

The question, ‘why children?’ has, perhaps, already been answered. Children and their trust are easily available. Indian children, especially, are easily subdued and intimidated by their socially designated ‘elders’. Which also rules out the use of physical strength on behalf of the child. Not only are children naturally weaker than their abusers, the concept of physically challenging an ‘elder’ is alien to most Indian children. Most importantly, however, children are helpless and unable to defend themselves, in more ways than one. To begin with, most children do not understand what is happening to them, and if the experience is pleasurable , they see no reason to complain. However, even if it is not, to express what is being done to it is quite beyond the scope of a child’s language. Children do not, literally, have words to describe what they are going through; and this is discounting the threats and coaxes abused children undergo to keep their little trysts with their abusers secret.
Beyond everything, lies the notion of the sacrosanct Indian construct of the perfect non-violable family. In a brilliant display of destructive irony, the victim’s family allows the continuance (if only passively) of the complete violation of those very values they think they are protecting by refusing to speak out.

However, when we speak of children, which children do we speak of? The emerging pattern from the previous examples are somewhat exclusive (in the reverse sense of the usual use of the term), in that they identify those children who are, in addition to their natural helplessness, also disabled by their social background. Apart from the boys who can afford to go to boarding schools, all children mentioned so far belong to, at best, the middle class and at worst, to those living below the stipulated poverty line.

This, actually, was quite a common perception till the Delhi-based RAHI decided to conduct a survey aimed specifically at financially comfortable women. The 600 women interviewed were English-speaking middle and upper-middle class women from Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Goa and Chennai, between 15 and 66 years of age. The following is a brief synopsis of the survey findings:

76% of these women had been sexually abused in their childhood.

Of them:
  • 40% had been abused by at least one family member.
  • 71% had been abused by other relatives and family friends.
  • 2% were abused before they were four years of age.
  • 17% when they were between four and eight years of age.
  • 28% between the age of eight and twelve.
  • 35% between twelve and sixteen years.

Another survey, conducted in Bangalore in 1996 by Anita Ratnam, Lucy Kumar, Dr. Arun Kotenkar and Dr. Shekhar Sheshadri (India’s first specialist in Child Sexual Abuse) for the NGO Samvada among 348 female students from eleven school and colleges is now considered a landmark in the history of documenting Child Sexual Abuse in India. If the previous survey indicates the number and age of the victims, this survey revealed what was done to them. The statistics of this survey are as follows :

83% of the girls interviewed had been the targets of Child Sexual Abuse.

  • 13% of this group were also visually harasses before they were ten years old.
  • 47% had been molested, 15 of them before they were ten, by male relatives, often for masturbation.
  • 15% had been raped, forced into oral sex and penetrated with foreign objects. 31% of this group, before they were ten years old. 75% of the abusers were adult family members.
  • Roughly 50% percent of the molestations happened within the children’s homes.

However, an often-neglected effect of being molested or of watching or being forced to watch pornographic material (all of which come under the premise of Child Sexual Abuse) is the rape or molestation perpetrated by children on children. In some cases, it is merely imitative behaviour. However, more frequently, it is the sign of a prematurely sexualized child doing to weaker Others what has been, or is being, done to him. Virani cites the case of three pre-teen boys gang-raping their seven-year-old female neighbour in Calcutta on the 12th of February, 2000. A similar incident happened in Krishna Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, where the boy wanted to ‘see what it was alike’. An eleven-year-old boy from Hyderabad mutilated his nine-year old sister so savagely that she bled profusely throughout the day. They were playing ‘doctor’. Perhaps tellingly, perhaps not, their father is a child specialist.

And these children, forcibly made to internalise their trauma by a society that simply will not allow the idealised notion of its most basic device of control ,the family, to collapse, will soon grow up, and possibly, have children of their own.

Given our collective talent at forcibly obliterating all proofs of an insistent presence we would rather not acknowledge, one shudders at the prospect.


Srin said...

Very disturbing. And true.

kaichu said...

wasn't ur paper longer? did u edit it for the post?

oh, and i thought it was a really good effort..

panu said...


Lonely Feet said...

Dear Rimidi

A few more thoughts about CSA:

There are things that I would have liked mentioned in the article, if finally the child as a grown up adult speaks out, she gets branded as hallucinatory, into drugs, too much eduation messed up with her on and so forth.

Not only that suddenly she remains no more the victim, but in a sad turn of events, becomes the 't├Ąter' or the perpetrator of family unhappiness, breakups and taking peace away from other people.

She even has to face questions like why now she wants to speak about it? It happens to everybody (I'm afriad I do not want to know the 'real'statistics - if that is available, of CSA in indian soceity) and if other people can get along with life and not be so dysfuctional why should she. She is repeatedly asked for explanations!

I speak from a recent incident I witnessed. Saddest was, people beleived her, as if it was the most plausible thing, but they all asked her why now she wants to talk about it, and it was egoistic of her to do so, and why she couldnt keep shut. I think, we in India can take it in our stride to have victims in the family, but cannot come clear with te fact that the same family can house a perpetrator. Infact having a silent victim somehow adds a certain melodrama that people can immolate.

but nobody even wants to hear if one were to speak out.