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Not long ago, the University of Delhi dropped Mahasweta Devi, an extremely significant author whose works challenge the larger oppressive structures like family, religion, and the State, from its undergraduate syllabus. In such a time when dissent has been moulded into a crime, questions pertaining to the idea of belonging, or the inherent burden of patriotism that comes with holding a passport, or the question of identities of marginalised people in a nation which is on its way to align a religious identity to the State identity, become ways in which we understand the larger dynamics of fear, control, and violence. Thus makes it potent for us to discuss what Mahasweta Devi wrote in her short story, Draupadi, that made it so dangerous for state apparatuses to function.
‘Draupadi’ is the story of a girl from the tribal areas of Bengal whose journey takes us into the real picture of the brutality of State violence inflicted on these tribal groups as a means to control them and their activities. Dopdi Mejhen, as her name is spelled in the local dialect, is hunted down, beaten, and raped by Senanayak and his men from the armed forces. Even after being raped continuously for days, the story ends with one of the most powerful images of women in Bengali Literature: Dopdi drenched in blood, naked, and fierce, claiming through her body that those men of power, even after having taken away everything that their masculinity could take away from her, couldn’t break her indomitable strength.
Moving ahead with the idea that women’s bodies have historically and culturally been seen as sites of war and been equated with territories to conquer, Draupadi raises further questions into this analysis. When wars take place, we see a manifestation of two kinds of direct violence; men who die in the battlefields at the hands of each other, and the subsequent raping of the women of the losing community or clan. It is assumed by the Victors that raping the women of the losing side is equivalent to ripping them off their lands or properties that they once possessed. The burden of this rape falls on women, again in two ways. Masculinity doesn’t allow men to believe that they were incapable enough not be able to protect their properties from being defiled so a lot of narratives claiming that women wanted or invited that sort of violence is very prevalent since they did not do much to prevent it. Secondly, the children born of these rapes become constant reminders of the loss of the territories; both the land and the women. Therefore, these mothers along with their children become the site where violence in the form of domestic and verbal abuse is meted out. Rape is also justified as a means through which men in the army, who have been at war or away from home for months altogether, can release their frustration. This is another way through which, the similar idea of reducing women to the status of a piece of land meant to be conquered and ruled over, is passed on in popular imagination.
In this framework, Brahminical Patriarchy exposes women to different kinds of violence because of certain beliefs inherent in the system. First is that which arises out of the idealisation of women as the State. This happens in cases of women like Draupadi from The Mahabharata who are upper castes. Women belonging to the upper castes are portrayed as the image of the Protector or Defender of the State, a very typical example could be the popular use of the slogan Bharat Mata Ki Jai. This idealisation lifts women up to a category that demands certain duties out of them by the virtue of being females- they are expected to be caring, kind, and sacrificing. Second are women like Dopdi, who are lower caste tribals, seen as an abhorrent representation of femininity and who need to be annihilated for the protection of the image of the pure virgin feminine figure. That is why instances of structural violence by the State towards these communities are never questioned because it takes place under the garb of upholding the unity of the Nation State which is shown to be under constant threat if the activities of these “separatist groups” are not checked.
The kind of violence that is inflicted on these tribal women then becomes not only direct and structural, as it is sanctified by the Indian State and mitigated by the armed forces, but at the same time, cultural. I use the word ‘culture’ here as just a representation of a way of life which has to be upheld. This way of life is something that the upper castes have formulated and laid down as the guidelines to a dignified and codified life. It is this culture that dehumanises untouchables, homosexuals, and women. And because it reduces them to a position below what humanity can incorporate, it is made acceptable in the society to deny them their basic human rights. This is also the reason as to why violence against these underprivileged communities was hardly ever talked of, until recent times.
Foucault, in the book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), talks about the nature of Power and how it is manifested. He talks of the Panopticon (an idea which he borrows from Jeremy Bentham) which is a design of an overarching prison structure where a guard can stand in the centre and be able to see all prisoners in a 360 degree angle vision but the prisoners cannot see him. Foucault says that this is an ideal situation since it ensures a three level check on the prisoners: surveillance, normalisation, and examination. This would help keep prisoners always in check since they would constantly examine their behaviour for the fear of being caught doing something undesirable. With time, they would normalise this state of living under constant fear and would behave in the way the system wants them, without even intending to. By the end of the book he says that the structure of the Panopticon can be applied to a lot of institutions and not only prisons- like a university, a mental asylum, or even factories. Power is not only in the hands of that guard but also in the hands of all of us, because we have internalised the standards of how to behave.
It is through this structure of the Panopticon that we can understand the reason behind the constant patrolling of citizens under a democracy, some more than others. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is meant for nothing but this; manufacturing and normalising fear in the mind of any person in “disturbed areas" who don’t identify with India. It is because of this reason that we hear news of tribals in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, etc. being hunted down and executed. This is also why rape becomes an acceptable form of punishment for a woman who tries to step out of her boundaries. By pinning her down and violating her, she is shown her position in the society, which is always below men, and this position is normalised in her consciousness through the use of force and systematic violence.
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There is another dimension to how violence is portrayed by Mahasweta Devi in her story. The name of the story, ‘Draupadi’, comes from the name of the female protagonist of the Hindu Epic, The Mahabharata. It is the story of a feud between two groups of cousins over the kingdom of their fathers, and this also involved the disrobing of the common wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi. Popular belief is that the disrobing was unsuccessful since Draupadi prayed to Lord Krishna for help and he extended the cloth of her saree till Dushana was tired of attempting to violate her. It happened in a courtroom full of courtiers, all of them being their family elders. Even today, Draupadi is blamed for the battle of Kurukshetra along with the issue of the dispute over their kingdom. Mahasweta Devi, through the character of Dopdi, shows us the other side of the picture. Dopdi embodies all those lower caste women who haven’t found a voice in the midst of the men of their own caste as well as the high end officials and police personnels. She is shown in contrast to Draupadi, who had five husbands, thus making her a complete woman with desirable men who had all the qualities of the Uttam Purush combined. Dopdi, on the other hand, was raped by several men for a stretch of many days, thus rendering her voiceless. This story shows us the dichotomy between the violences that occurs and how power relations and stature in a society play important roles to determine the kind of vulnerability one is exposed to. But even after being defeated in body and mind to the core, Dopdi rises in protest and uses that same body to register this defiance of authority which was used to violate and dehumanise her. This is her empowerment. This violence then becomes her means to rise again.
By Ananya Bhardwaj
Ananya Bhardwaj is currently working with The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust to curate the first Partition Museum in Delhi at the Dara Shikoh Library. She is a postgraduate of Literatures in English from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She is also the founder of Museum of Shadows of Partition which is a digital repository of inherited Partition memoirs which have been passed on to successive generations of Partition survivors in the forms of anecdotes, heirlooms, and documents.
Spivak, Gayatri Introduction to “Draupadi" Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, Writing and Sexual Difference. (Winter, 1981), pp. 381-402.
Foucault, Michel (1975) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison