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The serialised novel plays right into the mindset that women have to be 'put in their place', no matter what means are used.
Image courtesy: Agent Rana/The Times of India

India’s ‘favourite English language publication’ the Times of India has regularly published problematic content and no matter how much people outrage against them, nothing seems to deter the newspaper.

It has been publishing a serialised graphic novel, called ‘Agent Rana’, since September last year. While Agent Rana’s makers may describe it as ‘action-packed’ and ‘exciting’, this graphic novel is misogynistic and lazily falls back on the stereotype of a hero – a well-dressed, macho man with a handlebar moustache. His description says he ‘loves women, fighting and his country in no particular order’.

When the graphic novel was introduced, it had two obviously not-so-well fleshed out female characters – ‘seductive starlet’ Husna, and investigative journalist and a former model, Alia. The graphic novel has been written and illustrated only from the male gaze, where both women have largely been reduced to sex objects.

Agent Rana has run into controversy earlier for its sexually explicit content since it is being published a newspaper that children easily have access to. A mother of two began a petition against the serialised novel asking the newspaper to stop publishing “sexual content inappropriate for children”.

It was established even then that the graphic novel was massively problematic for being misogynistic and Islamophobic. Now, however, it has gone from cringeworthy to absolutely sickening.

In Part 132 of Agent Rana, a new character is introduced – a ‘firebrand student leader’ named Sameera – and it establishes the setting, a national university in Delhi where tensions are brewing. It has largely been agreed upon that the university is JNU, and the student leader is based on Shehla Rashid, the former vice-president of the JNU Students’ Union.

The next few issues talk about the clashes in the university campus, and in which one such scuffle, a tear gas shell lands close to Sameera. While she is being treated, a man named Raj Prabhakar alias Timur, an ISI agent, claiming to be a former student of the university, comes to meet her and just happens to offer her Rs 50 lakh because her "cause is noble". No red flags here.

In part 137, Timur and Sameera are sitting in the student’s union room, when he asks her to show him one of the hostel rooms. Sameera agrees.

The novel then takes a horrifying turn, where it plays right into the mindset that women have to be 'put in their place'.

Timur takes off his disguise, "violates her modesty and knocks her out. He tears a bedsheet and hangs Sameera from the room ceiling fan with it.”

As Jahnavi Sen writes for The Wire, the main reason for the introduction of Sameera’s character only seems to be for her ‘modesty to be violated’.

“In four sentences, accompanied by illustrations of a woman covering her face in fear and then hanging from the ceiling without any clothes on, a (completely undeveloped) female character is reduced to a pawn for some sort of inter-country enmity,” she writes.

It’s important to note that the writer does not to call the crime ‘rape’ but instead chooses to go with “violates her modesty” – choosing to minimize the crime, but maximise the violent fantasy.

Aside from bad writing and an illustration of a woman scared because her ‘modesty is being violated’ – by covering her face, but ensuring her perfectly painted red nails are still seen – the novel normalises rape, or as the Ladies Finger puts it, it normalises the “violent rape fantasies in a comic read by millions of people”.

These strips were put out on Twitter by journalist Prasanto Roy, who says Times of India is playing out every “sanghi-bhakt’s wet dream”.

There was understandable anger on Twitter too, with many not being able to believe that a national newspaper would choose to publish such content.

That the newspaper has published this for over 135 days only begs the question of how the newspaper chose to trivialise violence against women just so that it can be used as a plot point, despite the current scenario where women are doing everything they can to stand up and speak out against harassers and abusers.

One can continue to hope and wait for a shift in attitudes and for discussions that don’t equate a woman’s worth with her ‘modesty’, but for now, it promises to be a long wait.