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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 35 August 18, 2018

Mapping Rape Protests through Feminist Imaginations of Justice: Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi

Thursday 16 August 2018


by Piya Srinivasan

India’s “disturbed areas” have always had a contentious relationship with the state. Women’s bodies often become the surface on which violent practices of nation-making are inscribed in these regions. There is no graver proof of this than the January abduction, gangrape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal community in Jammu. The crimes involved eight perpetrators including local SPOs Deepak Khajuria and Surinder Kumar, a teen, Parvesh Kumar, and Vishal Jangotra, the son of the mastermind Sanji Ram, a retired revenue official and custodian of the Devisthan temple in Rasana village of Kathua district where the girl was raped and held captive over days. A sub-inspector and head constable were complicit in failing to collect important evidence and colluding to destroy evidence.

The crimes were part of a series of strategies to drive the Bakarwals, a marginalised and landless community that was granted Scheduled Tribe status in 1991, out of the region by the Hindu community of Jammu as assertion of the State’s hegemonic nationalism. The rape propagates the imagination of a majoritarian nation-state where Muslim bodies become sites of violence and mutilation. This case becomes imbricated within the militarisation of Kashmir and the use of rape as a weapon of social control and political violence on Kashmiri bodies. State impunity in trivialising the incident continued when the newly assigned J&K Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader, Kavinder Gupta, referred to the rape as “ek chhotisi baat”. The girl’s rape in a temple and the February protest march led by the Hindu Ekta Manch—a newly formed Hindutva group that supported the accused SPOs and marched the streets brandishing the Indian tricolour—becomes part of the symbolic arsenal of a virulent Hindu politics. Attempts by the Kathua Bar Association to prevent the chargesheet from being filed by the Crime Branch reveal the depths of lawlessness that gripped the State. Moreover, these indicate the brazen violation of the nation’s secular ideals and loss of constitutional morality. The role of the state as an aggressor stands out in its recent dealings of rape cases.1 This becomes prominent in the Kathua case where rape becomesa a masculinist performance of state sovereignty, especially in silencing the margina-lised minority populations.

Cries of justice for the victim spread across the nation in the weeks after the chargesheet against the accused was filed. Protest marches have, however, failed to emphasise this crime against Kashmir’s tortuous relationship with the Indian state.2 In thinking about constitu-tional morality and state impunity, literature provides one of the best critiques of rape as a violent state practice. Mahasweta Devi’s short story Draupadi is a scathing indictment of the rape of its protagonist, Dopdi, a tribal insurgent, by agents of the state. In the story, counter-insurgency forces chase Dopdi and Dulna Majhi who are instrumental in masterminding the Naxal peasant uprising in West Bengal, culminating in her rape and the dramatic confrontation with encounter specialist Senanayak. The terse narrative reveals the human cost of maintaining the sovereignty of the nation-state, critically examining questions of justice in relation to marginalised populations of India. It also exposes the disjunction between the lived experiences of minorities and narratives of social justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

I highlight how Draupadi becomes an allegory for constitutional injustice by exploring contestations of power in the use of law, voice and deployment of the body. Written at the intersection of state power and sexual violence, the story inverts the narrative order of violence by rewriting the script of the violated female body. It presents a radical feminism that challenges patriarchal complicity in state power and scripts narratives of resistance that come together to form a feminist theatre of justice. I use Devi’s story to read how dominant narrativity within the framework of the Indian Constitution suppresses its democratic, egalitarian imagination. This reading examines the rot beneath discourses of national security and unjustified state action perpetrated on women’s bodies.

The Naxalbari movement aimed to reinstate peasants’ rights from exploitation by landowners whose nexus with government officials ensured a cyclical system of oppression. The inability of the state to counter the political violence stemming from dispossession and resentment becomes justification for the use of force, leading to the suspension of democratic practices and human rights provisions for those acting against the mandate of state security. This becomes an unconstitutional move that violates human rights and reproduces the conditions for this imbalance, thwarting “alternative constitutional visions of a radical democratic India that is not Bharat”.3 There is no recognition by the state of the exploitation of agricultural workers by landlords, money-lenders, state officials and middlemen which perpetuates cycles of poverty, landlessness and servitude.

At the start of the story we are told: “By the Indian Constitution, all human beings, regardless of caste or creed, are sacred. Still, accidents like this do happen.”4 Instantly, we are alerted to the hierarchy of bodies that matters within the Constitution. The text highlights constitutional betrayal in many ways. A Left-centric criticism of the Constitution is the prevalence of class dominance within its provisions, representing how “the making and the working of the Indian Constitution celebrate the rights of the propertied classes over the proletariat”.5 The constitutional challenge represented by the Naxalite revolutionaries to bourgeois state power is the best example of how the state misrecognises armed insurrection in pursuit of distributive justice as a threat to the stability of the Indian state and the production of docile bodies. “Any form of popular (mass) action/movement that exposes legality and illegitimacy of the ruling ‘development’ paradigms invite legal, even constitutionally justified repression.”6 The upturning of dominant legalities to achieve an egalitarian society promised by the Constitution is harnessed by the disciplinary power of the state.

The failure of state operations to catch the couple results in Senanayak’s arrival. There is a metered dissonance between his militaristic ambitions and Draupadi’s ways that are rooted to the land. Devi structures these oppositions of civilised and uncivilised, law and anarchy, state violence and tribal anger towards a specific end. An expert in combat politics and faithful to The Army Handbook, Senanayak’s knowledge performs a regulatory function: the military tactics and textbooks used to apprehend the duo become ways of classifying subjects to make them knowable in the eyes of the state. The use of militaristic methods of warfare locates him within a major idiom of law: that of rationality and order. The story shows the pitfalls of privileging military warfare as a mode of knowledge, power and control which reinforces the status quo of dominant legalities and ignores the question of equality. The law adhered to is “the law of confrontation” according to which “they are shot at the taxpayer’s expense”.7

There are two distinct discourses in the story: one the militaristic state discourse, of rank and file, apprehend, search and destroy, eliminate, surrender, camp, police convoys,crunch-crunch-crunch of marching boots,cordons, and machine guns. The other is rooted in the language of nature and its use as an ally—a language of signs, ululations, the sounds of birds and animals’ sounds, the gurgle of water, the tip of the wooden arrowhead, the use of kerosene, hatchets, scythes, bows and arrows, the forest as cover. These discourses show two different modes of experiencing the state. One is the protocol-based adherence of the major idiom which yields a harsh, regimented, violent state order while the other is the raging, subversive, fluid living of the minor idiom, much like the tactics of guerrilla warfare.

On the run, Draupadi meets sympathetic tribal villagers who advise her to run away. She states the futility of such action: “No. Tell me, how many times can I run away? What will they do if they catch me? They will counter me. Let them.”8 Counter, the indigenised term for “encounter”, defines both her rape and the infamous encounters that led to the killing of rebels by the police. The rebel woman is doubly vulnerable to such speech because it gains new meaning through its audience. “When they counter you, your hands are tied behind you. All your bones are crushed, your sex is a terrible wound.”9 The gendered dimension of torture involves inflicting complete dominance over the woman’s body. While a man is tortured, a woman is tortured and raped. In response, to counter also becomes a performative act whose fugitive workings in political discourse are appropriated by Dopdi through its recognition. Countering challenges the very idea of the encounter, performing a mimicry that displaces meaning and disrupts the modalities of power that order the native subject. By appropriating it, the word becomes inappropriate through an inversion of the gaze, in its legibility.

Dopdi’s statement also demonstrates how there is no running away from the state. The parameters of citizenship which inscribe the welfare of its citizens and define the terms of their engagement with the state can be read in how one lives with the state, as Sunder Rajan (2003) says.10 The exploited and marginalised are in a permanently antagonistic relationship with the state. Living with the state means being a participant in its social, economic and civic life, with rights and responsibilities. But the deprivation of marginalised communities in the narrative of progress and development prevents a meaningful exchange of economic, natural and cultural resources between citizen and state which impinges on their loyalty to the idea of the nation.

The pursuit of Dopdi by Senanayak results in her capture near the Naxals’ forest hideout by Senanayak’s officers. She is gangraped by the officers through the night, then handed a piece of cloth to cover herself and ordered to go to Senanayak’s tent, upon which she frenziedly tears the cloth with her teeth. The guard runs to Senanayak who is rendered speechless at the sight of Dopdi. “Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds.”11 Hands on her hips, she laughs an ‘indomitable laughter’ and spits blood on Senanayak’s shirt, asking: “You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?”12 The story ends with her demand that he counter her as he cowers in fear.

Senanayak is stricken by the narrative’s reversal of power through Dopdi’s utterances after her rape. Dopdi’s speech is a reversal of legitimation through which it resists state power. The extraordinary sexual violence performed on her body with the impunity of the state is reversed through her narrative assertion of his emasculation, of denying his manliness. The patriarchal expectation of tacit submission is radically undone by the corporea-lity of Dopdi’s battered body brandished as a feminine marker of resistance. In this act, she not only reclaims her body from the legal imagination of the raped woman but also inserts the pain of the subaltern into history through the symbolism of the body. Her refusal to be clothed and demand to be countered marks her confrontation of the gendered body as a site of violence, performing a politics of resistance that challenges the authority of the state over her body. In her rejection of the patriarchal imposition of brute force as structuring her experience of state power, she reclaims both narrative and agentive power. Her defiance becomes the final frontier of unknowability for the state, breaking with previous representations of women in Indian writing.

The Naxal insurrection against the state gave men and women equal footing to lay siege to the state’s authority, exhibited in the comrade-like marriage of Dulna and Dopdi. The display of female agency through active participation in the movement postulates women as equal and threatens the patriarchal assumptions upon which state power rests. The power relations premised on the subordination of women which informs the political economy of the state is undone by Dopdi’s corporeal challenge to masculinist state power. This contempt also unmasks the fear of the other that presents itself as a challenge to the developmental discourse of the state, what Upendra Baxi calls the “matam” of constitutional discourse.13

Draupadi is a battle-cry mocking the failure of governance and the abnegation of constitutional duties. It contests the state’s recalcitrance to address the rights of its disenfranchised subjects without violent suppression, depicting the struggle of the marginalised to gain socio-economic benefits and social justice by narrating the political and sexual violence that emerges from a skewed narrative of development. It also showcases the pride of the indigenous subject and the fierce, violent resistance to being excluded from participatory development. There is a constant awareness of the differences between marginalised tribal communities, their rights and the rational, bureaucratic, law-oriented state apparatus.

Mahasweta Devi scripts a gendered response to not just the disciplinary politics of the state but also constitutional injustice represented in this fictive encounter. The story provides a framework for articulating women’s grievances against the state’s violent politico-sexual dominance by its patriarchal representatives. This undermining of the revolutionary potential of women’s participation not just in movements but active public life is challenged by new forms of engagement generated by women. As Misri (2011) notes, the social life of the text extends beyond its immediate political context into future frameworks of protest by women addressing questions of gender, violence and state power.14 It also gives birth to forms of activism that challenge the hegemony of the state over narratives defining women’s bodies.

The story fuels future political frameworks of protest in the 2000s in Manipur. Draupadi was adapted into political theatre by renowned Manipuri theatre actor Heisnam Kanhailal to embody the resistance of Manipuri insurgents to state-sponsored terrorism and human rights violations after the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to quell Manipur’s stalemate with lawlessness, sovereignty, and competing internal power struggles. The illegibility of the emergency law amidst the narrative of secession and self-determination in various North-Eastern States in India creates a crisis that emerges out of a state of exception.15 The character of Draupadi, played by theatre doyenne Sabitri Heisnam, becomes the first instance of representing the naked woman on stage as a political idiom and inaugurates a new critical vocabulary of Indian feminism.

Attracting attention to the state’s excesses through the cultural medium of theatre not only inscribes the story and its symbolism within regional memory but also produces its own social effects. The story famously generates the performance of politics by a group of Manipuri women in response to the draconian forms of state suppression through the imposition of AFSPA to maintain law and order in the country’s North-East. In July 2004 a group of twelve Meitei mothers or Imas stood naked outside the Assam Rifles headquarters protesting the torture, rape and extra-judicial killing of Manipuri activist Thangjam Manorama Devi, taken from her home by the Assam Rifles paramilitary unit under suspicion of being an underground militant and informant of the banned People’s Liberation Army of Manipur. In a chorus they shouted “Indian Army, rape us! Kill us!”16 before they were arrested by the police.

Unknowability and illegibility forms a large part of extra-judicial encounters emerging from AFSPA, the emergency law that provides impunity to security forces for search without warrants, summary arrests, and orders to shoot and kill. The act of rape challenges the legitimacy of women as equal social agents and seeks to quell their insubordination. But in demanding their own rape, the women display similar political agency to Dopdi in transforming the discourse surrounding the female body from its mystical, unknowable state to a corporeal, political tool that gains a new critical vocabulary in the public sphere. The feminist rebuttal to Manorama’s encounter death not only takes the primacy of the female body as its instrument of resistance but also contributes to challenging the discourse around rape through an inversion of the trope. Regional memory develops this fiction into a feminist political theatre of resistance that confronts institutional patriarchy represented in the state apparatus and the discourses sanctioned by state institutions. Fiction becomes a way to visualise the implicit nature of constitutional violence and highlight the disjunction between expectations of social justice and the reality of social violence.

I conclude with certain reflections for the present context. The hyper visibilisation of the Kathua rape victim in the media and the protests, by repeatedly invoking her name on TV, in banners, and social media posts, exposes the belief of lesser respect for the anonymity and privacy of victims belonging to the minority and marginalised populations. This becomes a tacit symptom of practices of othering by well-meaning civil society interventions. Despite outrage over her rape and murder, the violation of her legal entitlement to anonymity, and the lack of acknowledgement of her vulnerable political context puts a question-mark on these protests themselves as the preserve of upper-class morality. I conclude by thinking about the hierarchy of lives that are deemed deserving of state protection. What would be more relevant is if protests percolated spheres of action that challenged the very premises of abrasive masculinist nationalism and women’s subjection to axes of violence on which the discourse of rape as a violative state practice is constructed.

Notes and References

1. The Unnao rape case, where an 18-year-old girl was allegedly raped by BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar in June 2017, came to light around the same time as the Kathua case when the victim tried to immolate herself outside Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence in April to draw attention to her case one day before her father, imprisoned on petty grounds, died in police custody, allegedly succumbing to wounds inflicted in jail under political pressure by Singh who used his influence to tamper evidence, obstructing the registering of the crime, the medical examinations of the victim, and moulding the law and order machinery to his advantage. He was arrested after the Allahabad High Court’s scathing indictment of the lack of police action and ordered to be taken into custody.

2. The conflation of the Kathua rape with the Nirbhaya outrage of 2012 during protests and marches across the nation erases the historical complexity of India’s history of military violence in Kashmir. Condemning the rape without acknowledging its political location presupposes the tacit complicity of mainstream public opinion on questions relating to the Indian occupation of Kashmir and the presence of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which gives immunity to security forces and removes the compulsion of appearing before a civilian court. Added to this is the element of majoritarian nationalism which precipitates violent processes of state-making.

3. Baxi, Upendra, ‘The (Im)possibility of Constitutional Justice: Seismographic Notes on Indian Constitutio-nalism’ in Zoya Hasan, Eswaran Sridharan, and R., Sudarshan (eds.), India’s Living Constitution: Ideas, Practices, Controversies. Delhi: Permanent Black (2002), p. 45.

4. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (trans.) ‘“Draupadi” by Mahasveta Devi’,Critical Inquiry, 8: 2, Writing and Sexual Difference (1981), p. 392-93.

5. Baxi, p. 44.

6. Ibid., p. 37.

7. Spivak, p. 395.

8. Ibid., p. 397.

9. Ibid.

10. See Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari, The Scandal of the State: Women, Law, and Citizenship in Postcolonial India, Delhi: Permanent Black (2003).

11. Spivak., p. 402.

12. Ibid.

13. Baxi, p. 51.

14. See Misri, Deepti. “Are you a man?”: Performing Naked Protest in India. Signs, 36:3 (2011), pp. 603-625.

15. See Agamben, Giorgio (trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press (1998).


The author is an SYLFF Fellow at the Centre for Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and writes articles for various online portals. She has previously worked with MintLounge, Mail Today and Save The Children India. She can be contacted at piyasrinivasan[at]

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