Two Girls in a Tree: Why the Indian Rape Photos Are Inexcusable
By Sandip Roy( Cal.USA)
Sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words.
Last week India was shocked by a picture that looked ripped out of the American south from decades ago. Two young women, raped and strangled, and then left dangling from a mango tree in a village in the Badaun district of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The two girls, cousins, both teenagers, poor lower caste Dalits had gone out at dusk to the fields because their homes had no toilets. They never came back. When the father went to complain to the police, they didn't pay him much attention. The police belonged to the Yadav group, also a backward caste but higher up the pecking order. And the men suspected of abducting the girls were Yadavs as well.
The next morning the girls were found dangling from a mango tree by their own headscarves.
The photographs went viral on social media and caused a firestorm. On one hand it's been blasted as the "pornography of rape". On the other hand, it's been described as a jolt to wake up a blasé society where rape, especially out in the badlands of northern India, is commonplace enough that it does not make front page news anymore.
There is a point there. We are so inured, so numbed by the never ending horror story of rape that it seems we need to descend ever lower into the pits to be shocked to attention. It's as if faced with a rape story, the media has to ask the question, "What's new about this one?" Is it a toddler? A foreign tourist? Or now is it the horrific spectacle of these two teenagers hanging from a mango tree while a crowd of villagers including children gawk?
But in the end this picture is not worth a thousand words because it cannot begin to unravel the context behind the story.
And that's where the analogies with the photographs of lynching victims in segregated America start to fall apart.
In 1916, Jesse Washington, a teenaged black farmhand was lynched in Waco, Texas, accused of raping and murdering the wife of his white employer. A professional photographer took pictures of the event and they were printed and sold as postcards. That spurred national outrage. W. E. DuBois, the co-founder of the NAACP used those photographs on the cover of his organization's newsletter. It was a controversial decision even within the NAACP. But DuBois pushed for it saying it would shock white America into supporting their anti-lynching campaign. Also, he was actually subverting the images that were being sold as postcards by using them to spur outrage.
The photographs of the Waco lynching didn't end lynching but in her book Lynching and Spectacle, Amy Louise Wood says it was a turning point and with it "lynching began to sow the seeds of its own collapse".
Could the Dalit girls of Badaun be a Waco moment for India's rape crisis? Unlikely.
In 1916 America, the public at large could pretend that lynching was not really an issue because it happened far away from them in some small town in a southern state. In 21st century India, there is no spot that is safe from rape - not an abandoned mill in Mumbai, a public bus in Delhi, a taxi in Kolkata, or a village in Haryana.
America needed to see what Billie Holliday later sang about as "strange fruit hanging from poplar trees" to shock it out of its romantic magnolia-scented stereotypes of the "pastoral scene of the gallant south." In India, the problem is not of young girls routinely hanging from mango trees in the fields of UP. It is about rape as routine. This barbaric scene in a way is an exception - a grisly twist to a more commonplace story. This story is really a story about lynching not just rape.( Cont on page 2)
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