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.
But more importantly that Waco image by itself encapsulated the essence of the story that DuBois wanted to convey to the public -- the black youth strung up by mob justice. That was all it needed to convey for his purposes. In Badaun, the image has shock value but in India all rapes are not equal. Some rape victims find the police prompt in filing an FIR. In this case the girl's father says the police who also belonged to the Yadav community "took the side of the culprits" and "abused and misbehaved" with him.
That back story cannot be conveyed by the photograph. It's a story that's not just about rape. It's about caste and power and property -- and that includes the bodies of women. It's about who owns land and who does not.It's about how the lack of toilets translates into lack of safety. It's about not just raping someone but also making an example of them.
In a report for India Ink, Neha Dixit gets at some of that complexity of caste and power, as she probes the back story of another rape in Bhagana, Haryana. There too a teenaged Dalit girl and three of her friends go to relieve themselves in the wheat fields belonging to the Jat community. They claim they were then attacked and raped by Jat men and abandoned in Bhatinda, Punjab more than 90 miles away.
But as Dixit discovers it's not just a story about bestial men. It's a story about a fight over a plot of land granted to the village council to divide among the community. It's a story about an alleged bandi or boycott of Dalits for daring to complain about what they felt was unfair treatment. It's a story about Dalit labourers taking advantage of a government social program to not renew their low-paying employment contracts with Jat farmers. None of that context can be captured in any shocking photograph. And certainly no photograph can begin to convey how the conviction rates for the rape accused in India plummet even further when the victim is a Dalit woman and the perpetrator non-Dalit.
In India there is rape. And then there is rape.
In 1916 America, it might have been against good taste to publish those photographs but it was not against the law. In India, it's a different story. Indian law does not allow revealing the identity of the rape victim. There can be a separate debate about how effective such a blanket ban is and whether it inadvertently reinforces stigma by making rape an especially shameful crime. But as of now that's what the law says and the unedited photographs brutally violate the privacy of those young girls even in death.
The gang rape of the young woman in that bus in Delhi touched a national chord and spurred the government into action into passing a stricter anti-rape law. That did not require us to see her brutalized body. If indeed we now need to see the "strange fruit" on our mango trees to be shocked, it begs the question about what kind of people we have become anyway.
Another version of this story appeared on Firstpost.com.