The Horror of Kathua, Unnao, and now Surat Fill us With Fury and Fear
'Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end.'
What is left to say? In an age when everyone writes and posts on social networks, all day, non-stop, what words are left unspoken? Is there anyone who could possibly say, “I think it’s okay”? And how can anyone imagine that to condemn one incident is to condone a hundred others?
What can I say about these two rapes that have the whole country talking and marching in outrage, that I have not said before and that I will not say about the many new incidents that come to light everyday even as we write about this? Will we now make more progress through silence, I wonder? Except that we must speak today.
Like social reformers and activists before us for two centuries and thousands around us, my organisation works year-round to raise consciousness about inequality, violence and patriarchy and therefore, sexual and gender-based violence. Whatever it takes, whatever we can do, we do. If this is possible, two centuries of this work have been pointless. A dreadful feeling. The horror of what happened to the girls in Kathua and Unnao, and now Surat, fills us with fury and fear.
A glimmer of hope rises that this could be the tipping point. That this moment needs everything we have to give, and that if we can take this shared shame and put our shoulder to it, together, we can push back these forces of hatred and casual cruelty that seem to have overtaken us. But maybe we will fail to push hard enough. Maybe nothing will change. Maybe there is worse to come. We oscillate between hope and despair, and the latter pulls harder.
At the Chennai protest to demand justice in these two cases, a young mother said to me, “I cannot believe people can be this bad.” My response was, “I am afraid to say that in case I find out it could be worse.”
Perhaps it is the horrible possibility that things could get worse and that in fact, there is no limit to human depravity, and the corollary that all our efforts will never make a dent in this truth, that make me wonder: What could I possibly write about this that goes beyond my one compulsion to write, which is not to be silent at this time?
How do you respond to this? Reading, trying to wrap my mind around what is going on and keep up with unfolding events, waiting for the bile and spleen to settle, I have not reacted immediately. My job is not to state the obvious: That these are vicious, awful, depraved, inhumane, ghastly, cruel acts that deserve many more negative adjectives. My job is to understand where we have failed, at two levels.
As humans, as a human society, how have we managed to raise people who thought it was acceptable to plot and plan such vicious violence against helpless girls and who then walked around with a sense of normalcy and impunity? What is wrong with us? I can barely fathom the question.
So at the second level, I look at two centuries of social reform and activism and wonder why we have failed to make a dent in patriarchy. Why is it possible for people to organise a gang-rape as if it is a family function and to initiate friends and family as if it is a rite of passage? Why do Indian men still regard misogynistic and violent behaviour as an entitlement on par with an extra gulab jamun? Why are Indian women not pushing this back every single day and if we are, why is this still not amounting to change?
I have said little, left it till late; because I don’t even understand what the right questions are any more. Including how those who claim to be religious can desecrate with violence a place held holy.
Having opposed capital punishment all my life, I must admit that the sight of the smug MLA in Unnao giving television interviews tempts me to change my position. And as I read the Kathua charge-sheet, this temptation grows. I listen to people ask for summary execution and death for child rape, I and I relate to the anger.
But capital punishment sits on the books now, and it still does not deter rapists or other perpetrators of violence because they do not believe anyone will punish them so severely for rape. They seem to think we will dismiss it as “what men get up to.”
Moreover, is that who we want to be: a society of men and others doing what they want and the rest of us endorsing summary justice by death and vigilante citizenship? After all, in a sense, in their choice of victims, this is exactly what the rapists were doing.
And what is the nature of the state to which we will entrust this power? Can we trust those who exercise the power of the state to be fair and even-handed? Are they trustees of our values or agents of specific interests and custodians of particular sections of society?
As a citizen, I do not trust anyone with that kind of power. I like the idea of ‘due process’ that takes a little longer to unfold than our emotions to cool, so that we do not become those we revile. But yes, of course, I agree that justice delayed—especially deliberately delayed—is justice denied, not just to the victim but all of us.
However, setting that system right also begins with us and capital punishment sounds like a good remedy but is merely a strong reaction. It fixes nothing that is fundamentally wrong with us, including us. Not only must we comply with laws and regulations but we must stop seeking those loopholes and adjustments, those special favours and privileged interventions that grant us impunity. Like violence, impunity also escalates. ‘Chalta hai’ for a rigged power line becomes ‘chalta hai’ for gang-rape.
There are calls for protest that are framed in familial terms—mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, arise! I am saddened by their premise that we can only relate to another person’s suffering if we are related to them or someone like them.
I am equally disturbed by the call to keep protests apolitical. Violence is made possible by inequality and inequality is profoundly political. In Kathua and Unnao, the perpetrators targeted girls from disadvantaged homes and from marginal communities. Those who hurt them were men who were powerful socially, economically and politically and who knew they could count on the backing of other powerful men. The inaction of the police and the silence of the government only underscore the politics of these rapes. To examine each layer of privilege that protected the perpetrators would be to map the interface between every kind of oppression in our society and the ways in which state power now comes to enable this interface.
A politics of exclusion creates new categories of privilege. For every category you seek to exclude, you create one that is special, and especially immune to prosecution. Democracy is not compatible with expanding exclusion and deepening impunity. That’s a simple fact.
Pretending that violence, especially when it targets the already vulnerable, is apolitical, is to close our eyes to the political transformation underway that will leave most of us marginalised or alienated—for being, for eating, for doing, for seeing, for speaking, for not disappearing conveniently.
“Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end.” Christina Rossetti’s words, learnt in school, remind me that this is not easy but one must continue the journey. The Gita reminds me that the journey is about doing my work as best I can, without worrying about impact or consequences. And that work is to write and speak even when it seems there is nothing new to be said.