Hathras - The Kiss of Death
The last opportunity to think again
The voters of this country (or at least 37% of them) have given Mr. Modi and his party a long rope. They have kept the faith and have even tolerated the wholesale reneging on his lofty promises. He has not delivered on even one of them- the economy, federalism, relations with neighbours, raising India's international status, the safety of women, jobs. Instead, the damage caused these last six years has been immense: the country has never before been so divided socially, its institutions so dysfunctional, its judiciary so compromised, its politics so confrontational, its borders so threatened, its Parliament so irrelevant.
But things are about to get even worse and Hathras is showing us the direction in which we are headed. For it is not a stand alone incident: it follows the pattern of Kathua and Unnao.
It's not just the alleged rape and murder of a poor, helpless Dalit girl which should worry us, horrendous as that is. Sadly, we are now immune to them, what with 32000 rapes reported every year. What should alarm us is the response of the state government and the lack of any response from the PM himself to this human tragedy. For they confirm that this government lacks any compassion, and will not even allow society to express any empathy with a girl who was ravaged in life and stripped of her rights and dignity in death. It will use sovereign violence to suppress legitimate protest, lodge FIRs to stop questions being asked, target the victim instead of the perpetrator of the crime.
A country can live with incompetence but how does it survive as a civilised entity when its government has no heart or has a heart of darkness where the rays of compassion do not penetrate?
The manner in which the girl's dead body was treated is beyond heinous, it calls into question whether our bureaucrats are in fact barbarians. It takes a special kind of sadism to deny the grieving parents a last look at their murdered daughter, or a cremation according to her religious rites. The actions of the police even thereafter- locking up the girl's family, confiscating their phones, threatening them to change their statements, cordoning off the village, beating up anyone, including elected representatives and journalists, trying to visit the village- make us wonder whether we are dealing with a Gestapo or with the police of a democratic country. And it is now following the script initially written by the equally brutal Delhi police- instead of admitting and rectifying its sins, it muddies the waters by alleging an "international conspiracy" to spread caste divisions and "defame" the government.
At last count 21 FIRs had been lodged and cases registered against 600 persons. The witch hunt shall now commence. The UP police is only following the well trodden path first carved out at Bhima Koregaon, cemented in the anti-CAA protests and declared a national highway of fabrications in the Delhi riots- make the victims the accused, hide the crime behind a smokescreen of ridiculous conspiracy theories, bury the courts under 17000 page chargesheets.
The Supreme Court has to emerge from its apathy and use its vast powers. It must intervene immediately, not tentatively and reluctantly but decisively, and exercise its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution. There can be no question of a CBI enquiry any more, or of an SIT: the khaki uniform is no longer trusted by the people. Only a judicial commission headed by a sitting judge of a High Court ( with at least three years of service left so that he is not led astray by the blandishment of reemployment, a-la the Gogoi) can be trusted to unearth the sordid truth and the inhuman players in this tragedy.
But the Court needs to go beyond this minimum: the UP police can no longer be trusted with the statutory powers the law gives it, for it is using them to nullify the law of the land and the basic rights of the citizens. The Court should immediately prohibit the UP police from registering any case related to the Hathras incident and the protests that follow it, without the approval of the court or the judicial commission.
Criminal cases (including for destroying evidence by the midnight cremation of the victim's body and for atrocities against a Scheduled Caste person/s) should be registered against the District Magistrate, the SP and other officials. It should get to the heart of the matter immediately and not be led astray by the crocodile tears of a Solicitor General hand in glove with the government.
What is clear in this case is not just lapses but institutional failure if not complicity. Granting repeated opportunities to the UP government or seeking affidavits on "witness protection" programmes is simply playing into the hands of that same government: every additional day granted will mean more vindictive FIRs, more journalists and activists arrested, more pressure on the parents of the girl. There is little point asking the administration for a witness protection programme when it has already established its true credentials by allegedly threatening the victims' families, treating them practically as the accused, spinning a canard that no rape ever took place, attempting to discredit the family by insinuating they had contacts with the accused.
The court has to go beyond merely expressing shock, it has to reassure an apprehensive nation that it has what it takes to contain, and punish, an administration which has gone rogue.
Comparisons in such matters are distasteful, but sometimes they are necessary to show us how far we have fallen. Hathras cannot but evoke painful memories of the Nirbhaya case of 2012. But then the state and central governments behaved quite differently and with compassion. Throughout the protests then the victim was provided all possible medical care, and was even flown to Singapore for specialised attention; her family was treated with compassion, the media and the opposition had full access to them, no attempt was made to create an alternative narrative of conspiracy and what have you. The then Prime Minister and Congress President went to the airport to receive Nirbhaya's body. Need one contrast this with what is transpiring today?
The danger today is not to our economy or to GST collections or to the Current Account Deficit, as some commentators would like us to believe. These are transient and can be fixed by sound policies and professionals.
The real danger is to our very existence as a civilised nation, to our 72 year history as a functioning democracy, to the integrity of our institutions, our ability to continue as a diverse but coherent society, to our age-old values and traditions of humanism, fellow-feeling, compassion and charity. These are what define a great nation, not Ease of Doing Business or dubious international awards: once gone it will take many millennia to restore them. And these have been fast eroding these last few years under state patronage, under the cover of legal violence and persecution.
Our tryst with Mr. Modi"s New India has failed miserably and is fast becoming the kiss of death. The long rope has run out and only the noose remains. All of us need to introspect seriously whether we have been making the right choices, and whether the time to scoff at Rahul Gandhi, believe the BJP IT Cell handouts, give credence to the likes of Times Now and Republic TV, fondly hope that the acche din are just another election away, is now over. Whether a country of 1300 million people with a 2.50 trillion dollar economy can be run simply on a lust for power and majoritarianism. It was tried in Europe in the 1940s and ended in destroying a nation.
Hathras may just be the last opportunity to do some introspection.
Avay Shukla is retired from the Indian Administrative Service.