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Anatomy of Air India PeeGate

Sanjay Kumar |
Patriarchy creates public norms that allow privileged men to thrive as socially irresponsible creatures.
Anatomy of Air India PeeGate

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The horrendous incident of a 34-year-old man exposing himself in the business class of an international flight of Air India and urinating on a senior woman on 26 November last year has rightly received much media attention. Officialdom, too, has swung into action. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has asked the airline for an explanation. Delhi Police have arrested the man.

While the legal process will take its course, determine the degree of culpability, and punish the offender if found guilty, society cannot just rely on the example of an individual punishment to prevent the recurrence of similar crimes. Other than the particular incidence of a crime, its social context also tends to determine the likelihood of occurrence and degree of prevalence. India has had stringent laws against caste oppression and gender violence, including domestic violence, for some time. Exemplary punishments have been accorded. Yet, crimes against oppressed castes and women continue.

The man’s actions in the present case and the response of airline staff are manifestations of a deep-rooted and widespread malaise in Indian society. Patriarchy creates public norms that allow men from privileged social backgrounds to thrive as socially irresponsible creatures. This tendency is also encouraged by a public culture which pushes the victims of harassment to ‘settle’ the case by a one-on-one ‘agreement’ with the offender and discourages legal punishment based on a rationally-derived and publicly-accepted set of rules.

From the written complaint of a co-passenger, it seems the man was badly drunk. We can reasonably surmise that the incident occurred not after the offender singled out the victim and made her the target of his crime. Instead, it was a behaviour which turned criminal after it crossed the limits of what is considered normal in society. Indian male passengers getting drunk on freely available alcohol in aeroplanes and men urinating in public places disregarding other people around is, after all, not so rare. We also need to make sense of the airline’s response which, according to available evidence, tried to hush up the incident and sat on it for over a month.

Dirty Habits of Patriarchy

Patriarchy enters public discourse in India when women are openly discriminated against or suffer violent crimes. This emphasis on the victims of patriarchy misses the socio-psychological mechanisms through which it operates and determines social norms. Like all power structures in society that generate inequality, patriarchy acts most effectively when its beneficiaries and victims internalise it. The differentiated subjectivities of men and women are its most effective tools. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote, ‘One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman’, is equally true for men in patriarchal societies. Men develop subjectivities which treat their special entitlements as normal.

The content of patriarchy is always relational, that is, of men and women in relation to each other. However, its form does not have to be so. When a man pees in public, one way to look at it is that he is just attending to nature’s call. In fact, that is how men who do it see their act. Even other people who otherwise disapprove of the act are likely to see it as a lack of civic habits.

In a society like India, peeing in public is a manifestation of patriarchy because we rarely see women do it. After all, human bodily demands and the presence or lack of civic habits are the same for both men and women. The rigours of self-training that a woman undergoes concerning her urinary habits right from her early childhood, through admonitions, shame or fear of sexual assault, are rarely experienced by men in India. The immediate context of Indian family life, where boys and girls are treated very differently, obviously plays a big role here. Public tolerance of men urinating in the open also removes any social pressure. Hence, males in India become men with little bladder training. A similar situation holds for drinking in public.

The offender in this case, Shankar Mishra, may tick all the boxes of a respectable Indian male—highly educated, holds a senior corporate position and has a steady family life—which puts him in a special category. However, his other characteristics, which prepared the ground for his crime, namely his lack of self-restraint when drinking in public and terrible urinary habits, are typical of Indian men.

Helping the Victim or Piling on Harassment?

According to media reports, the harassed passenger’s statement mentions that she told the airline staff she “did not want to interact (with the offender) or see his face”, yet they brought him in front of her. She was apparently distraught and felt even more “disoriented” and “stunned” when the man started crying and “begging her not to lodge a complaint”. He was a “family man” and did not want his wife and child affected by the incident. The complainant reportedly says, “I found it difficult to insist on his arrest or to press charges against him”.

This scenario, too, is not uncommon wherein a public authority responsible for maintaining order encourages the harassed party to come to a ‘settlement’. It is widespread in cases of sexual harassment but is also seen in domestic violence, road accidents, or neighbourhood disputes. Instead of determining objective facts of the case, ascertaining the degree of culpability and enforcing a legal remedy or punishment, all of which is the authority’s responsibility, the latter tries to avoid them in favour of a ‘give-and-take’ between the aggrieved and offender. Is it just dereliction of duty? Or a pragmatic course of action because of India’s arduous and uncertain legal processes? After all, if order and peace are the purposes, what is wrong with achieving them by mutual agreement between the aggrieved and the offender?

This line of argument misses the main point of the victim’s statement. While offenders use tactics like subtle threats, false promises and emotional blackmail—‘I have committed a blunder and am prepared to accept any punishment, but PLEASE do think of my child and wife!’—to settle the issue, the pressure to come to an agreement adds to the harassment of the aggrieved. In the end, the aggrieved individual may or may not get relief. However, the normalisation of such methods is a vicious circle. It perpetuates the same hierarchies and social conduct which led to harassment and crime in the first place.

There is no reason to believe that social structures like patriarchy cease functioning when the victim and offender sit down to ‘settle’ a case. After all, these form their subjectivities. If the weaker party is sure of some success in the public domain, they would prefer the matter to be made public. They can hope to strengthen their case by appealing to public morals and legal provisions, where the stronger party does not enjoy a priori advantage. Conversely, the latter prefers that the matter is ‘settled’ there and then.

India’s criminal justice system is essentially a continuation of the colonial system established to impose State authority over people. Its procedures are de facto designed to protect those who wield this power and allow the existing inequalities to continue. It is no surprise that most ordinary Indians show little faith in this system. Rather than approaching it seeking justice, they silently suffer humiliation and harassment or try to somehow sort them out among themselves. Harassment and humiliation are more of the norm than the exception. Unless the criminal justice system is radically transformed, Indian society will remain unfair, even cruel, to the weak.

After the initial shock, the media has already moved to treating Air India PeeGate as a scandal. It has been more intent to milk the scurrilous allegations than explore why it happened. If we limit ourselves to seeing pee-gate only as person A harming person B, we miss its basis in patriarchy. But if we ask under what kind of social arrangement such incidents would be an anomaly, then we would see that a transparent and accountable criminal justice system is an essential requirement. Indian society suffers not only from the negative burden of patriarchy from its past but also lacks a credible justice system that can help bring it to a desirable future. We need to fight on both fronts.

The author teaches physics at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. The views are personal.

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