Theorizing Rape and Potential Rapists

Sculptor Giambologna's "Rape of Sabine Women". Just as he delighted in solving the complex spatial problems of three intertwined figures in this famous sculpting, detached from the nature and act, the theoretical exercise too appears the same. (Image: Wikipedia)

Sculptor Giambologna’s “Rape of Sabine Women”. Just as he delighted in solving the complex spatial problems of three intertwined figures in this famous sculpting, detached from the nature and act, the theoretical exercise too appears the same. (Image: Wikipedia)

I have often felt that the urge to theorize does more disservice to the disciplines apart from the waste of time and resources that happens anyway. The discontent is about the sort of scholarship prevails that has no link to practice. Then that begets the question if one should even care for such scholarship. It is not meant to be a tirade against theory.

At the university, someone proposed a seminar on rape and specifically on the thought – if all men are potential rapists. Fantastic timing to have a faculty seminar on such a topic in India, where the frequency of rapes being reported in the newspapers as well as the number of high profile cases coming to light is at an all time high. The intention and personal motivations of the researcher are not suspected. Considering that they are well meaning beyond doubt, the method and arguments are reflected upon. To attempt a framework about how to understand a phenomenon in the society – particularly of extreme forms of sexual violence towards women is understandable.It is not just this particular case of presenting theory on rape that I am referring to. It is about a variety of opportunistic research that is pursued in the academia which sort of gets into a discipline because the ‘time is right’. No problem with this as long as the reasons reflect integrity and coherence. For instance, the historical background of rape and how women have been raped in every recorded century is irrelevant to a question of contemporary sexual violence against women in India. Theorizing rape in the following way is at best an opportunistic move and lacks practical sense or relevance. Here are the assumptions which drove the thought on rape in the seminar and why they are contentious –

  1.  Taking an ‘immanent’ position in theory – While the intellectual honesty in proposing a position where the researcher himself is located within the world which he is examining is appreciated, this doesn’t explain why this position should be the most ethical of other positions in theoretical exercises. The danger that is often talked about is that researcher cannot occupy a moral high ground when he speaks of subjects like desire and violence. The propensity to commit to these acts in him is as much present as in the ‘others’ that he is directing his enquiry on. And therefore, instead of being located somewhere outside the system and examining the ‘others’ he must be located within this system. This is the immanent position. However, does this automatically incorporate high and desirable ethical standards in the theory? The presenter seemed to think so. The point I am making is that it is not enough to indicate a position in a theory. The work must also reflect this at every assertion that it makes. Being located in the same system as the observed (in the binary of observer and observed) and yet not being able to grasp that rapes are not only an ‘opportunistic’ behaviour among men but are also driven by motivations – like ‘teaching the woman a lesson’ by outraging her modesty. Such a phrase is not unheard of in India. How does it escape a consideration here is not quite clear.
  2. That ‘desire’ is the only driver of rape: This is a psycho-analytical hangover that keeps manifesting itself in studies which are better of without such a lens. This can get tiring besides being frustrating – the idea that there is violence in all of us, subdued within and that this finds expression when one gets an ‘opportunity’. If ever there was a depressing take on the human condition it is this. It is baffling that one can label all men as desirous of raping women, restraining themselves because they have not got the opportunity to do so.
  3. Use of history in this analysis – This is by far the most contentious aspect of theorizing rape in the current times, for me. How does one use historical evidences and to what effect is worth reflecting on. If one cites the rape of Sabine women in ancient Rome as an evidence to prevalence of the tendency of rape in men then it is either a serious error of judgement on the researcher’s part or that historical information is being distorted to the effect of making one’s point forcibly. How is the rape of Sabine women committed by roman men in 750 BC suggestive of anything related to propensity to rape by men today? Besides this, the implied meaning of “rape” in the form that it was recorded in history may not have been of ‘sexual violation’ but that it meant ‘abduction’ (i.e. Latin form of ‘rape’ and not the modern English usage).  Not stating this doubt about the intended meaning and ambiguity in the use of word ‘rape’ is a serious issue. On this basis alone, one can call off the entire exercise to be of dubious nature. 

At our company, while conducting field research for clients we have often observed the big disconnect between theories in a discipline such as social sciences and the real action on ground. Out of maybe 10 theories in sociology only about 2 or 3 theories are likely to have any bearing on the patterns observed in real world. But this is just our experience. Many of these theories as our friend proposed right in the beginning remain at an ‘immanent’ level – i.e. a mental act performed entirely within the mind.


Sri Lanka, India & Small Businesses


This has been a busy week with fieldwork, travel and working on our business. Last evening I caught up an aidworker friend, who is taking a break from the regular string of assignments by doing something different – consulting on projects which are easy in their pace and aren’t quite critical as the ones he has been working on in troubled geographies like horn of Africa and South Asia. The conversation led to some insights into the civil situation in countries that he has worked in and incidentally they are those in which we plan to expand our scientific instruments business. Businesses and aidwork have a lot in common we find. With this, Sri Lanka was back in our discussion, which made me realize that it has been over two months since I traveled to this country and over a year for my friend @praveenasridhar. So, we had three different points back in time to talk about this country, with the aidworker amongst us having seen some serious action as we worked in Jaffna during and at the end of the war against LTTE. The three of us seemed to agree on the fact that it is essentially a military rule in the country and could get more stifling as the country goes ahead. The military pervades all the sectors of their economy.

Colombo appears busy late in the evening which is unlike pre-war days

Colombo appears busy late in the evening which is unlike pre-war days

A new found assertiveness (perhaps military regimes are always so) and a trend of being vocal about its position on larger issues which have implications in the international arena can be seen. The Chief of UNHCR’s visit and the British Prime Minister’s visit during the recently concluded CHOGM are two instances. India’s Subramaniam Swamy, a senior BJP leader was in Colombo participating in a defense seminar organized by the Sri Lankan army apart from UNHCR’s visit during the time I hung around on the streets of Colombo and counting the number of heavy duty cranes dotting the city’s skyline from the Galle Face road to the port. Both these visits made headlines in the daily newspapers and for reasons which the Sri Lankan government is sure very edgy about. The country has apparently moved on except those whose family members have disappeared, killed and who turned refugees in those years of the war. The senior politician from India spoke of India’s stand on the Sri Lankan tamils – that they should expect no support from India and that the expression of concern in Tamil Nadu for their cause was a ‘knee jerk’ reaction by the local political parties. This was interesting because it came just a day ahead of India’s offer of building two submarines for Sri Lanka in its Goa shipyard. These are in addition to the two warships given to Sri Lanka in 2007.


Eight weeks later, we hear the Indian PM announcing that he will not attend the CHOGM. This speaks volumes about the messed up situation back home in India when bilateral relations with Sri Lanka are concerned. The ruling UPA government chooses not to attend CHOGM in Sri Lanka (no reasons given, as far as I know) and a prominent leader of opposition party on a visit to the country says India has moved on and supports the Sri Lankan government. This is quite frustrating as this flip-flop has affected business between the two countries.

After the war, the country is booming with economic activity especially large infrastructure projects. Almost all of them have gone to the other big neighbour of India. In addition to this the perception of Indian businessmen in Sri Lanka is that of opportunistic men with little business ethics to show. In the post-war Sri Lanka there are good chances that rule of law and economic growth will pick up and the country might even race ahead in measures like FDI, exports and revenues earned through the major port project in Colombo. Elsewhere, the Indian automobiles company Mahindra and Mahindra launched several of its models in the Sri Lankan market today. They are bullish on the market here. Observing the general business environment and markets here has been a very interesting experience. Colombo’s skyline is a busy sight. Construction cranes working in all directions, Chinese workers, a massive theatre still being given finishing touches, a busy management and finance faculty at the University of Colombo and with the massive port cranes shadowing from the western end, the economy seems to be picking up traction.

All of these could generate tremendous business opportunities for small companies like ours. Indian diplomacy as well as the government is to be blamed for not making good use of this opportunity. The strong and forceful voice of the regional parties from Tamil Nadu is a major impediment to the process. This is not to argue that we must turn blind to the human rights abuses that have happened in the war. But hasn’t India dealt (and traded) with nations proven to have engaged in human rights abuses earlier? What of the business with Myanmar? India has perhaps the strangest ways in its diplomacy. And as we try venturing into newer geographies this ambiguity and strange behaviour on the international front is being felt stronger.

So, going ahead small companies like ours would benefit immensely if the diplomacy and bilateral relations between the two countries are not arbitrary. The game is different for large companies as they have the resources and size to get in without much requirement of facilitation from their home governmnents. Bilateral relations should definitely have a long term view than looking at smaller and politically inconsequential events like CHOGM. This wasn’t so crucial politically for India but nevertheless could have sent a very positive message (of India being a responsible, valuable partner in the group and available as a support for smaller countries) had the PM attended it. The other aspect is that of using its size and power responsibly. A similar arbitrariness is prevalent in India – Bangladesh relationship as well. It is about time that Indian diplomacy starts working for its small and medium enterprises than printing those blue catalogs and organizing boring expos on business opportunities in the subcontinent.

On a sharper note just one way that Indian missions abroad could have helped (no, those FICCIs and CIIs are not for the smaller fishes like us. They are too busy abroad for their patrons than helping smaller companies in a proactive manner) is – when we got into the country looking for opportunities to do business, a small information booklet on business in Sri Lanka and current trade including a directory of companies in the country could have been very helpful. Next, they could back us up with introductions and meeting facilitation with Sri Lankan businesses. Whereas, the fact is that one needs to make a great effort in getting in touch with Indian officials in that country for whatever reason that one might want to.

Disaster Preparedness: What works

A quiet and serene morning four weeks after cyclone Phailin. Puri, Odisha

A quiet and serene morning four weeks after cyclone Phailin. Puri, Odisha

As I travel out of the districts affected by cyclone Phailin and head back, folks at CFR’s Asia Unbound blog ask a similar question that we have been studying here in the region – why was Vietnam (and in our case the Indian state of Odisha) was better prepared for the natural disaster (typhoon and cyclone respectively) and what worked for them?

Interestingly, the lessons from Vietnam appear to be quite similar to what we have been saying about Odisha – that the governments in both these cases showed an unprecedented coordination and communication across all its departments. And more importantly that both these governments labelled the approaching typhoon and cyclone as the most serious possible emergency.

Preparedness in Odisha’s context took just about three days of work with only 24 hours available for the administration to make its arrangements before the cyclone made its landfall in Gopalpur. In these 72 hours, the district administrations of four most prone districts had managed to evacuate every single person out from the villages and transport them to cyclone shelters (special purpose buildings made after the Supercyclone of 1999) and to designated cyclone shelters (usually schools, colleges and any other larger permanent structure which could withstand the cyclone). Vietnam did exactly the same thing and evacuated over 800,000 people from the prone areas before the landfall.

The other thing that worked for both is – learning their lesson. Odisha lived a devastating cyclone in 1999 which has scarred the memories of several of its officials whom we spoke to. A block development officer recalled his horrendous experience of walking through dead bodies in one of the villages during that time and contrasted it with the cyclone last month where not a single life was lost. Previous experience seemed to have made the government officials at every level invest make a high personal investment in the response efforts. Vietnam too appears to have learnt its lesson from the 2004 tsunami and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, to have made adequate preparations for the typhoon.

In short, governments today cannot afford to ignore the meteorological warnings of natural disasters likely to occur or approaching their countries. If it doesn’t happen, all is good. If it does then the costs can be so high that the country might get pushed behind by years on its development track, as we now see happening to Philippines. So, a disaster plan (preparedness, relief, rehabilitation and mitigation) is not a ‘good to have’ thing anymore but a ‘must have’!

Return to Freud (via Lacan)


The “unconscious” isn’t a bathtub bubble emerging from a good theoretical lather in which the intellectual has been wallowing. I have been wrong about it. And being contemptuous of psychoanalysis as a discipline was too uninformed (didn’t people say psychoanalysis is dead?). In fact, a realization waylaid me this morning that the idea of unconscious is not mere an abstraction but  something that can make itself felt if one is attentive enough to see whats happening. At the university, I brushed aside all the papers on psychoanalysis thinking that it ain’t something I need to bother about. My location today is at the other side of this opinion. I read a little bit of Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents & Interpretation of Dreams) and even less of Lacan. For I thought that the stuff these guys talk about is hardly real. That was naivete. Finishing Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote –

“Insight such as this falls to one’s lot but once in a lifetime”.

And such is this moment as this post is being written. Freud’s distinction of conscious/unconscious is presented as a theory for the constitution of the mind. For him the mind is divided into two – the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious is a mental process to which an individual bears no awareness. This is comprised of – ID, Ego and Superego. The processes in the unconscious amount to the major psychic events that occur in an individual’s life. The conscious is what an individual lives by and is guided by in his social world.

However, when one reads Freud through Lacan it begins to make better sense as Lacan takes a step forwards and says unconscious isn’t just theory but theory and practice both which confronts the individual. Zizek puts it as –

 “It does not show an individual the way to accommodate him- or herself to the demands of social reality; it explains how something like “reality” constitutes itself in the first place.”

When Lacan suggests a ‘return to Freud’ he means a return to understanding consciousness as not a subdued, adjusted self with neutered unconscious or a return to ‘the core of the Freudian revolution’ as Zizek interprets it. The most appealing aspect of Lacan’s interpretation of the unconscious is that he finds unconsciousness as structured as a language. He argues that it is not an irrational drive but that it has its own grammar and logic – that the unconscious ‘talks and thinks’. It is a site where the actual reality, the true and bare core of reality locates itself. This reality is not what an individual has to adjust with or identify with. But that this is what he has to learn to live with.

The intention of this post is to get at this. The unconscious is not a wild terrain which plays in unpredictable manner within an individual. It is the basal layer of all truths that constitute and affect the individual’s life. And with this unconscious, one doesn’t ‘adjust’ neither one makes room for it. Sooner or later he has to return to it and live with it, by it. Also, it appears that all along in one’s life things gradually move towards the manifestation of the unconscious. But that this is happening takes effort to know and realize.

Trigger for this thought was a recent french film that I watched – Amour. About an ageing couple who live by themselves and the painfully hard decision that the old man has to take when he finds that he can no longer care for her bedridden and completely incapacitated wife. A must watch. For some serious hard-hitting real life drama! 

“Transformative” Use: Authors Guild vs Google


For those who have followed theAuthors Guild vs Google Inc case (which has been on for over 8 years now) would know that the court has ruled in favour of Google’s book-scanning venture, ruling against the charge that this will deprive authors of their income from their books.

The District Court judge used a rather interesting term to define the reason for this verdict. He says, Google’s move in scanning the books (over 20 million of them is Google’s target) amounts to a “transformative” use of the knowledge generated by authors in the form of these books. This I find is a progressive interpretation of a company’s venture with no direct commercial use specified. Google’s lawyers have been categorical in specifying that scanning of books and making them available on the internet (not complete books but snippets) does not “directly” add to their revenue. Besides this curious use, it is worthwhile to know about the emergent understanding in the judiciary that technological advances can create situations in which the choices to be made may not be clear and no simpler answers to them exist. In cases such as this, then what matters is the perception and understanding of implications of ventures and how it would also set a precedent for similar cases to follow.

I had a slightly different point to make about Authors Guild. First, which age are you guys living in? Second, did it even make sense to spend all those millions on litigation, preserving your imagined status quo? If not google books, the pirates on those zillion p2p sites are anyway uploading a world of books and making it available for readers across the world. So either way this is bound to happen – that books will get digitized, they will be available for a larger set of users across the world and technology will always prove disruptive for older order. But not all is bad about it. Authors Guild finds it problematic to acknowledge that increasing availability of snippets of books online is turning favourable for its authors, by providing visibility. And a genuinely interested reader is sure converted into a customer if the book is worth his interest. Isn’t this the way it happens in bookstores across the world. And why do the authors then undertake a book tour (frenetic and breathless) if they aren’t interested in reaching out to newer readers? This is being done and in a much economical way by making the books available online.

Besides the fact that the general perception of this book-scanning company is that of being evil in their intent, not everything that they do is evil. And as far as this venture is concerned, I am a satisfied user who has discovered new books, accessed old out of print, hard to access books as well as gone ahead and bought some by using Google Books.

Bottomline is that technology has been disruptive for a wide range of businesses. Some emerge in the face of newer technologies and some become obsolete immediately. Such an environment calls for a renewed ability to see that fighting the pace of invention and development of technologies will be wasteful. Instead, thinking about how to stay relevant in the new technology environment and to prepare for it, appears a more workable strategy.

In our company, we have risen through and established our development sector consulting practice by locating ourselves in the direction of the change that technology is effecting in functioning of organizations and their processes. And hawking old ideas in the changing business and technology environments ain’t a wise thing to do.

Anatomy of a Disaster: Cyclone Phailin


High speed winds sweeping states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh (Image: Deccan Chronicle)

This month we are on an assignment which takes us to cyclone affected districts of Orissa. Reflecting on what we saw from our travel in the region in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin (which struck India’s eastern coast on October 12, 2013) it appears that Odisha’s preparedness and response to the disaster is an extraordinary example of what states can achieve if they really get themselves up to it.

Identifying the action in the simplest fundamental sense is necessary to inform discourse on disaster preparedness and response. Given the meteorological information available from IMD this disaster which was almost certain to occur. But was it expected to be as catastrophic as it ended up being, is an open question. Cyclone Phailin, a Category 4 storm (for reference: Hurrican Katrina was a Category 3 storm, of lesser intensity than this) was estimated to make a landfall (approaching from Bay of Bengal) on October 12, 2013 by the Indian Meteorological Department, in the coastal town of Gopalpur in Odisha state. It made a landfall at 9.15 pm IST. During its approach winds sped through the coastal areas at about 200 km/hr speed along with generating huge waves on the coasts. On October 8, 2013 four days before the cyclone, the Principal Secretary to the state of Odisha communicates information on Cyclone Phailin to the district administrations, particularly to those of Ganjam, Mayurbhanj, Puri and Balasore districts. These lie on the coast and were likely to be severely hit by the cyclone. In the next three days before the cyclone gathered strength, these four districts were to make an evacuation plan, a relief plan, a micro plan for all the blocks of every district to ensure maintenance of essential services like telecommunication, drinking water availability and food. Along with this teams to act on all these aspects were to be constituted and operationalized.

The unexpected element in this disaster was floods due to an extremely heavy rainfall in the aftermath of the cyclone. As soon as the cyclone left, coastal districts were flooded from the sea inundating large stretches of land as much as 20 kilometers inland. This was not anticipated. Further, the excessive rainfall triggered another round of floods and this time in interior districts as well. Neither the state nor the district authorities were prepared for the floods. This made cyclone Phailin unique in its impact. `

This, to those familiar with Indian bureaucracy and the political context would attest is a task which would take months together and certainly hard to realize in a three day period. Yet, the records now show that over 1 million people were evacuated within this period, housed in cyclone shelters and supplied with essential items – food, water and sanitation. Many senior officers are reported to have worked round the clock during this run up to the landfall of the cyclone and for several weeks for relief and rehabilitation after the cyclone had passed. The scale of the response mounted grew and proceeded with unprecedented rapidity. This is where the question lies. How could a state and the proverbial Indian bureaucracy known for its slow response operationalize such a large operation and perform flawlessly, delivering lowest ever lost of human lives while braving the severest natural disaster that has hit the eastern coast of India in the last 14 years?

It is remarkable that Odisha lost only 59 lives in Cylone Phailin which is dubbed as the most powerful and dangerous cyclone that has hit the eastern coast of India. It was more severe than the Supercyclone of 1999 which had caused very high loss of life and property in Odisha. “Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction. The state government, which fixed the target of “Zero Casualty” during the cyclone, had earlier said it had evacuated as many as 9,83,553 people from the coast. (FirstPost)

So what worked for Odisha?

A defining characteristic that we observe in the government’s response to the disaster is that government officials consistently went beyond their outline duties and made several moves which went beyond their duties. The highly localized action taken by various functionaries of the government departments was a consequence of human decisions, indecisions, trial and error rather than rationally organized action. In this dynamic entity, they reconceived their own role as insignificant by itself yet essential to the whole (an argument by Sarat SS and others in the “sociological citizen”). For instance, upon receiving a telephonic report of a marooned village in floods, the Block Development Officer rushes with relief supplies late in the night with a farm tractor trucking the supplies driving through the high levels of flood water. The officer’s brief does not necessitate such an action yet he makes a rather foolhardy attempt to reach the marooned village. These instances are exactly the kind of actions that the paper seeks to find an explanation for. Dismissing them as random acts of individuals would be far from reality because in every tragedy such acts are reported and there appears to be several such individuals risking their lives, going beyond their briefs as public officials.

The difference could be that the individual in times of crisis is a “sociological citizen” The following discussion from Silbey et al (Silbey SS, Huising R and Coslovsky SV, L’ Annee sociologique, 2009, 59, The “Sociological Citizen” Relational Interdependence in Law and Organization) appears instrumental to the argument that I make here.

“Where other fail to act, the sociological citizen is enabled and endowed by that web of constraining associations, which provide the material and symbolic resources for intervention and reconstruction. In other words, by recognizing one’s location in an extended network of associations (Latour, 2005) a sociological citizen has an extended, rather than constricted, set of opportunities (resources, schemas, persons) with which to fashion solutions to local problems (Burtm 2004; Granovetter, 1973).”

For those familiar with the work of humanitarian and relief agencies of the UN and several independent ones, it would be easier to recognize how difficult aid workers find comprehending the situation that they see in places suffering any of the tragedies that are indicated in the paper. It is in the interest of these humanitarian and relief agencies as well as governments to understand what lies underneath the individual behaviour that they see in the field. Accordingly, they would be required to promote and encourage some behaviours and curb others. An informed decision on these can be taken when one understands the sociological basis of their actions. The consequent understanding, it is hoped, will drive better disaster preparedness and responses by all those who are affected by it and of course government agencies primarily.