“Nirbhaya” – What’s in a name?

protests

A few days ago, the Finance Minister of India read out the annual budget for the country for 2013-14. In it, he made provisions for a women’s security fund of Rs.1000 crore. He called it the Nirbhaya Fund, to honor the 23-year-old victim of a gruesome gangrape that took place in Delhi on 16th December 2012. The name of the victim cannot be publicly announced because there are laws in India that guard the privacy of a rape victim to save her from social stigma. In the days that followed the incident, several names were thrown out from different sections of society as substitutes – Nirbhaya, Damini, Jagruti, Amanat among others. The name Nirbhaya became the most popular, and that is how she is referred to by everyone now. While I understand the need for a law to guard a victim’s privacy, I fail to understand how one can honor someone by using a name that is not even theirs. What was even more disgusting was how our country’s leading newspaper, The Times Of India, jumped up the next morning to take credit for the name, saying that it was the one to coin it the day after the rape.  Kudos, you guys! What great service to the nation, I must say! (And now, even the US Govt, in all its generosity, is honoring the “Delhi Braveheart Nirbhaya”, another proud moment for The Times Of India)

There are several underlying issues with this entire phenomenon of naming the victim and honoring her posthumously with a government fund. They reveal some deep-seated psychological traits and biases that Indian society has functioned on for ages.

Firstly, the name itself! Nirbhaya means someone who is fearless (the media translates it to “The Fearless One”, though I don’t know who speaks that kind of English anymore, certainly not the Queen). It is intriguing to think of why someone would come up with such a name, and why this would be the name that would stick to the minds of people the most, if one was needed at all. What exactly about the entire incident was “fearless”? Are we assuming that she did not feel fear when six drunken beasts of men attacked her, sexually violated her and left her to die on the side of the road? Isn’t that a gross trivialization of what the girl must have gone through that night? What living being (man/woman/animal) would not feel fear at not only being violated but also living the next few days in hospitals with severely damaged intestines facing the prospect of losing their life? The name itself reeks of how we choose to oversimplify all problems, paint them in black and white, and pass them off as “all’s well in the end”. It’s almost like saying – “well what happened was bad, but she was quite fearless and that kind-of makes up for it”.

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Secondly, the nature of celebration in the name is equally abominable. In keeping with our inability to face difficult truths and instead coating them with layers of optimism, we chose to call her something “nice”, for example “fearless”. There is nothing optimistic in this extremely sorrowful incident. The girl was heinously raped, dumped on the road, picked up by the police much later than she should have, hospitalized and treated till she lost her life. Why couldn’t have we called her “the sufferer”, “the victim”, “the violated”? Because it makes us sad and shameful and squirm in discomfort at how our society functions – not just the rapists but the innumerable auto-rickshaw drivers who refused her a ride that night, the policemen who were patrolling the streets while she was being raped in the bus, the citizens who drove past while she lay in a pool of blood on the side of the street. It is akin to how we choose to depict the episode in Ramayan when Ram, after returning to Ayodhya, asks Sita to leave the palace because people in the kingdom are questioning her sexual purity (since she was in Raavan’s captivity for so long). Again, there is nothing celebratory about a man turning his pregnant wife out of the house, the wife who was kidnapped for his deeds and spent years waiting for him to come rescue her. It is despicable and shameful. Yet we choose to celebrate this episode as Ram’s sense of duty to his subjects over that to his family. In 2013, can we still afford to look at things this way? If we do, then we are clearly incapable of looking ourselves in the eye and acknowledging a social malaise, let alone uprooting it.

Thirdly, we thrive on symbolisms. Gorgeous weddings with a thousand people of all ages dancing are supposed to be symbols of a big happy family, a Muslim holding an Indian flag is supposed to be a symbol of his patriotism, an old man “fasting unto death” against corruption is supposed to be a single-point solution to the country’s deeply-entrenched problem of corruption and fast-eroding value system. We love these! We thrive on these! These drive us to tears! These make us feel proud of ourselves and our country! The Finance Minister has played on these very sentiments. Regardless of what is in the women’s security fund, the fact is that rapes are still happening in the country everyday, the Vice-Chairman of the Rajya Sabha is an accused in a rape case, the media has been gagged on the Delhi rape case so the common man has no information on the proceedings, the new anti-rape laws fail to identify marital rape as a crime (all our politicians unanimously voted for this because they felt this will “disturb the balance of the institution of marriage”). He could have named that fund anything he wanted, because that would not change any of these depressing realities.

It is often asked “What’s in a name?” to enforce the futility of what we call something or someone. Well, in this case, the name and what we are doing with it says it all about us.

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4 thoughts on ““Nirbhaya” – What’s in a name?

  1. taylorjacobson says:

    hear hear. well said Santa.

  2. Aditi says:

    Totally agree – Nirbhaya has no remote assiciation with the abominal rape incident. If anything, the girl went through the most fearful savagery in her last conscious hours of life. To ALL other girls and women in this country or anywhere in the world, this incident has sowed seeds of the deepest fear. And as for the Times of India taking credit for this nomenclature in consecutively two days, well it is a blatant potrayal of cheap publicity.

  3. […] What exactly about the entire incident was “fearless”? Are we assuming that she did not feel fear when six drunken beasts of men attacked her, sexually violated her and left her to die on the side of the road? Isn’t that a gross trivialization of what the girl must have gone through that night? What living being (man/woman/animal) would not feel fear at not only being violated but also living the next few days in hospitals with severely damaged intestines facing the prospect of losing their life? The name itself reeks of how we choose to oversimplify all problems, paint them in black and white, and pass them off as “all’s well in the end”. It’s almost like saying – “well what happened was bad, but she was quite fearless and that kind-of makes up for it” (See https://santanu.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/nirbhaya-whats-in-a-name/.) […]

  4. FOREWORD – NIRBHAYA’S INDIA
    (www.nirbhayasindia.com)

    4.45am Singapore time. She died.
    Yes she died. Really died. Finally.
    And it was 2.15am here, but India cried.
    The news, this one time was nightly.
    For twenty six nights, not days thirteen,
    She fought and still stayed composed
    Psychiatrically. Her face that reposed
    Faith in protestors remained unseen;
    The face unseen, the woman nameless,
    From some village, a bus traveller so less
    Privileged than the ruling or moneyed,
    Was enough to get India up and frenzied.
    So my two-bit mind for all its confusion, is clear about
    The fact that the rape was but a spark, to begin the rout.

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