In an India Rife With Sexual Assault, Too Many “Good Men” Look the Other Way

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 29 2013 11:26 AM

India’s Man Problem

In a country rife with sexual assault, too many “good men” look the other way.

Delhi, India
Good men?

Photo by Tanushree Punwani/Reuters

Earlier this month, responding to the wave of news about Indian men fatally gang-raping a 23-year-old student, of Indian children being lured with chocolate and then sexually assaulted, and of Western women in study-abroad programs suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after repeatedly being groped and harassed by Indian men, Lavanya Sankaran published an essay in the New York Times  titled “The Good Men of India.”

She writes:

Let me introduce the Common Indian Male, a category that deserves taxonomic recognition: committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger. Frequently spotted in domestic circles, traveling in a family herd. He has been sighted in sari shops and handbag stores, engaged in debating his spouse’s selection with the sons and daughters who trail behind. There is, apparently, no domestic decision that is not worthy of his involvement.
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Thank you for the introduction, but was there ever a question that men in India are capable of good acts? Is Sankaran explaining to her audience, as an adult would to small children, that there are different kinds of people in the world and that yes, Virginia, Indians are people too?

Sankaran’s need to point out the sunny obvious is only slightly less offensive than her undercutting of the seriousness of India’s problems. At best, she writes of the Good Man’s doting domesticity, “the results, in women’s lives, speak for themselves.” But “[a]t its excessive worst, this sensibility can produce annoyances: a sentimentalized addiction to Mummy; concern that becomes judgmental and stifling; and a proud or oversensitive emotional landscape.”

If that’s the excessive worst, then Sankaran’s daddy kept her more sheltered than the rest of us. Because we know that the Common Indian Male is more flawed than this. True, he can be all the wonderful things Sankaran lists. But he also can be timid, and sometimes even craven.

To understand what I’m talking about, observe the Common Indian Male’s interaction with the Common Indian Child. It’s India’s dirty little not-so-secret: Fifty-three percent of children—boys and girls equally—are victims of sexual abuse, ranging from child grooming and forcible kissing to petting and penetration. That’s according to a 2007 study by the Indian Government of nearly 12,500 children from across India. Half the abused children in the study were preyed upon by “persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility.”

Contrary to Sankaran’s classist argument, this is not an issue of lower classes skewing results. In a 2006 study conducted by the nongovernmental organizations Save the Children and Tulir on 2,211 schoolchildren from Chennai, “the prevalence of sexual abuse in upper and middle class was found to be proportionately higher than in lower and lower-middle class.”

Just how bad is it in the upper echelons of society? A 1998 study by RAHI (Recovery And Healing from Incest), a Delhi-based NGO, surveyed 600 English-speaking women from upper and middle classes and found that 76 percent of respondents had been sexually abused when they were children. Forty percent of those abuses were committed by a family member, typically an uncle, a cousin, or an older brother.

Indian men masquerading as trusted friends or relatives prey upon Common Indian Children. These men are not what Sankaran describes as “feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure … denied access to regular female companionship.”  These men are deep within a family’s framework.

I know this because I was once a Common Indian Child.

I was 12, on my first trip to India without my parents. A group of cousins and I were dutifully visiting some elders—summers in India are scorching, so I broke away from the group and went to the kitchen for a bottle of water. I crossed the living room, and there he was, lying on a bench swing, gently swaying, reading a newspaper. He saw me, pushed his reading glasses up on his head and his face lit up. He said my name, held out his hand. Thinking he wanted a handshake, I put my hand in his.

He said something then, something like how it was good to see me after so long, and how were my parents? He tugged my hand across his body until I was splayed on his chest. I remember thinking, is he trying to hug me? I started to answer. His hand cupped my breast through my thin kameez, his finger stroked over my nipple.

I froze. I’d been drilled to obey my elders, but this was wrong wrong wrong, and I knew it. I should have screamed bloody murder. I should have roused the whole family. I should have made a scene. Instead I made small talk for a while until the conversation faded and I could escape.

A few days later, my cousins told me that their parents were going back to his house for a visit, and asked if I wanted to come with them. I said no, and then blurted out that he had touched me.

Their reactions were flip: “Yeah, what is it with him? It’s like his hands are boob magnets,” said one. “We told our mom but she said he did it to her too, when she was younger,” said the other.

This man has daughters, several granddaughters, scores of nieces and grandnieces. Ours is a big family—prepubescent and adolescent girls had been in and out of his house for decades. How many of them had been groped? And why had no one stopped him?

When I came back to the States, I told my father what had happened. My father is a good man, a classic example of the Common Indian Male that Sankaran wants to highlight. But my father at best buried or at worst forgot what I had told him.

I know this because on trips to India my father would actually ask me if I wanted to go visit the man who groped me, and seemed puzzled when I declined. Or when the man and his wife were visiting the United States, my father didn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t invite them to stay in our house—she didn’t want him in the guest bedroom, which was next to mine. Or much later, when the man was in the States and his daughter threw a party where he’d be an honored guest—I was just a city away but didn’t go, and my father scolded me for it.

At that point I was old enough, Western enough, to scold him right back, asking, “Why would I go celebrate him? How can I be respectful to this man who has for decades groped young girls, and maybe done worse?”

Nevertheless, my father went to the party a few weeks later, and in the years to come he kept visiting him. After all, my father has been trained to be deferential to elderly relatives. I can only assume that he didn’t know how to handle my words and didn’t know what he could do to change anything. He is a Common Indian Male.

India Protest
Police try to turn back thousands of people marching on the presidential palace in intensifying protests against the gang rape of a woman, on Dec. 22, 2012, in New Delhi.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters

There are so many of these stories where victims told their parents that they were abused or harassed, and were met with silence, even censure, from Common Indian Males and their wives. I have relatives who were assaulted as children, and their parents told them not to make a fuss. “He was tipsy,” they’d say. “It’s just groping.” The few brave parents across India who do speak out when their children are abused are met with more silence and censure from police, medical staff, and other authorities—more Common Indian Males.

Sankaran writes:

For his part, the Indian male, when nested in family and community, is part of a domestic tapestry that is intricately woven and vital, it seems, to his own sense of well-being. Take that away from him, hurl him away — and a possible result is a man unmoored, lost, adrift and, potentially, a danger to himself and to his world. Disconnection causes social disengagement and despair — and the behavior that is the product of alienation and despair.

What she fails to see is that many predators aren’t disconnected, but rather are part of these intricately woven domestic tapestries—in fact, they shroud themselves in these tapestries, using the fabric as camouflage to keep exploiting and abusing children.

Meanwhile, they’re dining with, drinking with, shaking hands with the Common Indian Males who, on some level, know what’s going on. After all, these Common Indian Males were once Common Indian Children too.

Now that they’ve grown up and found their place in India’s patriarchy, they’re failing in their duties as heads of their households, failing in the very essence of Main hoon na—a Hindi phrase meaning “I’m here for you” that Sankaran cites as a motto for the Common Indian Male. Our fathers and husbands must reverse these failures before they can truly be classified as “Good Men.”

Mohi Kumar is a freelance journalist living in Houston. You can follow her on Twitter @scimohi.