“The fighting’s started in Jaffna again,” said the woman at the shop.
I knew the incident she was speaking of: a hartal, a protest of sorts; police tear-gassing the crowd; a hundred and thirty people arrested; a lot of top brass in Jaffna being transferred away. The woman went on to discuss the Jaffna problem at length with her customer. Then, at some point in the conversation, they touched on the root of everything that had happened:
“All because of what happened to that girl, neh? Aney pau. No one should have to suffer like that.”
The incidents that happened over the last ten days in Jaffna have been ethnicized, politicized and (if you read the newspaper reports) possibly lobotomized as well. Let’s review what we know, minus the political accusations:
- S. Vidhya, 18 years of age, did not show up for school on the 13th of May. Nobody raised the alarm until school was over, and when they did, the police assumed she had eloped. The next morning, she was found, raped and tortured and tied up inside an abandoned house.
Note: I am not going to take this picture down, though I take no pleasure in posting it here. My purpose is to show you what the media deftly reduces to “a schoolgirl was raped”. Understand that “rape” is not simply a occasional curse word or a Pornhub filter. This is the savage act that rape is – and by ignoring it, by refusing to see it, we paint over the horrifying ugliness that would otherwise churn our hearts.
- The suspects were a local gang, including a Swiss national of Tamil descent. Locals say that they had a long history of crime to which the police turned a blind eye; police have not commented on this. Vidhya’s rape was apparently recorded on their mobile phones.
- The suspects were arrested.
Villagers attempted to assault the suspects while they were being transported to the Police station. The police used a Navy transport to take the suspects into custody.
- The suspects were NOT brought to court.
- Shit hit the fan. Protesters surrounded the courthouse and threw stones at it. The police responded with tear gas and the arrests of 127 protesters. Five police people were arrested.
This is not a “Jaffna problem”. It is a human problem. A girl was brutally raped. Her suspected killers were caught. They weren’t tried like they should have been. But there are two sides to this coin.
Firstly, the people. Let’s clarify something: 200-odd protesters acting on a clear breakdown of justice are not Jaffna. They’re not an ethnic or political group. (If that were the case, our annual university protests would be tantamount to armed rebellion).
To be honest, we don’t know what the police did under the previous regime. We know that the suspects, back then, enjoyed tremendous influence. We believe that the police were, and possibly still are, corrupt. There certainly are suggestions that at least one of the suspects may have had “connections”. There are also these photos being circulated, though take the photos with a grain of salt: there’s reason to believe that the one on the left is of an unintentional doppelganger.
Naturally, people feared that the suspects would be let off the hook again. Out of fear, anger was born. Out of anger, hatred. Protests. Clashes. Conflict. I’m neither for nor against the police on this issue, but consider the facts.
It’s sad that people are using this to call for public stoning and all manner of other gruesome punishments – cures administered to a dead body will not make it live again. It’s even sadder that the media seem to be focusing on the protests rather than the reason behind them, which is . . . rape.
Sri Lanka does not talk about rape. It’s indiscreet. Women are raped all over this country, and if you believe the stats Powerpoint’d by every starry-eyed activists, one in ten men are rapists. We don’t talk about these problems. They’re hushed over. Pictures aren’t displayed. Names aren’t discussed. Polite people do not think of these things; they just go on willingly blind until one of their own gets raped. Monks get fired up about women wearing short skirts to temples and children not respecting their parents, but something as heinous as rape? Oh no, not here. We’re like a bunch of ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand.
As a result of this social and cultural blindness, we also end up with a civic and legal blindness that tries to avoid these issues and move on to the next case. Sometimes the only thing that can pierce this veil is a shout and a clenched fist and a stone thrown in the right direction.
Now the police. Are the police worried? Yes, they are.
A policeman has a double duty: to protect both the citizenry and the criminals under his care. It’s not a pleasant job. You’re asked to be a line in the sand – a human shield with the thugs, murders and rapists on one side of you and the innocents on the other. Sometimes the line is clear – the thugs are out there and it’s your job to stand up for the weak. But once you make an arrest, the tables change. You’re told to stand and protect those who have murdered, looted, raped. You’re asked to be their defense against the mob.
What do you do, stand aside and let Everyman tear your charges from limb to limb? To wait as that inevitably escalates – as it surely must – into the total breakdown of law and order?
The irony is that at this point, it doesn’t really matter if you were a good cop or a bad cop. The duty requires that you protect those in your custody and not let something like, say, an angry mob rip them apart. It is easy for us to sit in our armchairs and write open letters and condemn people, but the cause-and-effect chain is apparent. Remember that at the end of the day it’s not the corrupt top cops and bigwigs under the firing line – it’s the constable told to shut the fuck up and get his riot shield and get the fuck out there.
What will solve this? Not an inquiry or a protest, or two, or two hundred. What will quell the protests is when all of Sri Lanka justly protests the rape of any woman, of all women: not as a mob, not as citizens and police, but as a society swiftly moving to set a process into action. What will prevent this from ever happening again is when each and every one of us understand rape for the horrifying crime it is and demand justice in every instance.
Because, you see, this system is not the police: it is not the government alone. We are a part of this system. We – you and I and that woman in the shop and all the other souls in this country – are the largest part of this system. We cannot just demonize the policemen and pin all the blame on them. This blood is on our hands, too. When a rapist knows with absolute certainty that every man, woman and child will be against them; when they know there is no door, no stone, no tree, no bush for them to hide behind – that is when this problem stops. Not before.
I’d like to point out that good things are coming out of this incident. Sri Lanka is reacting to this – not as Jaffna, or as Hambantota, but as a country unified in its disgust and horror. Wijedasa Rajapakshe publicly shamed a racist media person. In this incident, we’re not Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala, but simply human.
Small victories, but victories nonetheless.
So talk. Talk about rape. Break the ice. Bring it into conversations. Break the dogmas that let rapes go unreported and unpunished. Let the idea spread – not through stones, but through minds. Society is a system of ideas enforced by action. To change the system, change the ideas.