What Have We Become?

No more 'calmly sailing by'. It's time to rage.

October 01, 2018 Updated 19:26 IST
2018-04-30T00:00:00+05:30
Illustration by Priya Kuriyan

Who among us today, if we were born Hindu, does not have at least one relative or acquaintance who hates Muslims? Who among us does not have friends---those thought to be moral and humane---that have closed their eyes to the brutal amorality of the regime, seeing it instead as the political road to India's salvation? Will they be able to carry on unchanged now, after the people they voted in have sprung to the defence of the rapists and murderers of an eight-year-old? Will they fail even now to see that a girl of that age is but a child?

In the India where I grew up, the exploitative British regime was over, it was post-Nehru, a country peopled with liberal myths and socialist dreams. There were riots, the country did simmer, but in the end, it was agreed, the state and the judiciary would follow the Western institutions on which they were modelled. Until the early 1990s---when the ruling dispensation grew unbelievably corrupt and turned a blind eye to the Babri destruction---medieval brutality was, I thought, over: Political enemies would no longer be poisoned, women and children no longer savaged as a matter of course to signal the conquest of a victorious army.

After their giant electoral victories, the new, democratically elected Hindu Right has proven the opposite.

I was about to catch a flight when the details on the little girl were published, and as I tried functioning with the normalcy and efficiency airports demand, it became a steady drum beat inside me: When you were taking a train down from the hills, a voice inside me said, they shoved pills down her throat to drug her; while you were making yourself toast, they shoved themselves into her, grown men took turns forcing themselves on to a child; while you were walking into the airport, they bashed her head in with a stone; they raped her in a temple; they hid her under a bed; they strangled her with her own clothes.

After that, one of them joined the search for the missing girl. He was a policeman. Kashmir's lawmakers marched to save the policemen from being charged with rape and destruction of evidence. Women too marched to defend the rapists: because they are Hindu and the child who was gang-raped and killed was the daughter of a Muslim goatherd. It is impossible, when this level of mental sickness and brutality coalesce, to do anything more than fall into the silence of absolute despair. Until, that is, an overwhelming rage sweeps away the despair.

At the airport, I drank my lassi wondering why I had that strangely disjointed, disembodied feeling you have when someone close dies, as if there is a fuzzy glass between you and normal life. Nobody close to me had died. This was a child I had never known, a little girl who went out to bring back her family's animals and then was drugged, imprisoned, raped and tortured for a week before her head was battered with a stone.

I remember the preternatural hush that hung over Delhi after the Nirbhaya rape and I am old enough to remember the countrywide horror over the Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. There is no horror any longer. These things happen, they happen somewhere else, they happen to someone else. At the airport there was no inkling of a national crisis. If you are affluent enough to fly, if you are not a minority, you are forever in a bulletproof, air-conditioned cocoon. But what is it like not to have the cocoon?

I went to a school in Hyderabad where most of my childhood friends were Muslim. At that age, I had nearly no awareness of my minority Hinduness, nor had my playmates much inkling of their Muslimness. I have a sense of where these friends are now: They are silent somewhere. They are feeling cornered, besieged by the sense of hunting dogs coming after them. This is not the country we grew up in together, the necessity of secularism drummed into us. It was still a country in which parents were more likely to teach you about morality and manners, not sheer human survival.

What can you do as an ordinary citizen trying to survive in a country run by criminals? What can you do when you see your protectors turn into killers? And what can you possibly do as a solitary writer?

Everyone in wartime is not a soldier, nor can everyone in times such as these be a lawyer or an activist. Masons, plumbers, teachers, doctors are still needed; there are still houses to be built, children to be taught, leaking taps to be fixed. For a long time I told myself my usefulness lay in doing my own work. Is this true or is it merely a way of legitimizing my desire to somehow carry on living only as I know how to? I don't have the answer.

Other writers say much the same: The work of the writer is to write books that make people think, which alter their world even if for the few days they are reading that book. Writers are not investigative journalists, and for a writer of novels it is especially difficult to respond to events that are current, volatile. "It's dangerous for novelists to point a plot at a moving target," says Lionel Shriver. It is also true that novelists are usually valued more when they write novels that are overtly political. They have always to bear the burden of being literary activists---how else can a writer remain relevant? Is it possible to construct perfect paragraphs while your house is burning?

In my small hill town I teach spoken English to a girl of nine. She is a goatherd. She goes to a government school that teaches her little. She dreams of being an actor. After school, in the evening she sets off to bring back her family's grazing cattle, waving a switch, walking into the deep forest with nothing but two dogs for protection. I walk with her for a part of the way and we talk, she in halting English, I correcting her pronunciation and tenses. Then I turn back and she carries on alone. Our town is safe, we say. She has only wildlife to fear. 

 

Anuradha Roy is the author of Sleeping on Jupiter. Her new novel All the Lives We Never Lived will be out in June. Adapted from an article first published in The Wire

 

'A moment of existential crisis'

From an open letter written by 49 former civil servants to the Prime Minister:

In Kathua in Jammu, it is the culture of majoritarian belligerence and aggression promoted by the Sangh Parivar, which emboldened rabid communal elements to pursue their perverse agenda. They knew that their behaviour would be endorsed by the politically powerful and those who have made their careers by polarizing Hindus and Muslims across a sectarian divide.

In Unnao in UP, it is the reliance on the worst kinds of patriarchal, feudal mafia dons to capture votes and political power that gives such persons the freedom to rape and murder and extort as a way of asserting their own personal power. But even more reprehensible than such abuse of power, it is the response of the state government in hounding the victim of rape and her family instead of the alleged perpetrator that shows how perverted governance practices have become. That the government of UP finally acted only when it was compelled to do so by the high court shows the hypocrisy and half-heartedness of its intent.

Prime Minister, these two incidents are not just ordinary crimes where, with the passage of time, the wounds inflicted on our social fabric, on our body politic and the moral fibre of our society will heal and it will soon be business as usual. This is a moment of existential crisis, a turning point---the way the government responds now will determine whether we as a nation and as a republic have the capacity to overcome the crisis of constitutional values, of governance and the ethical order within which we function.

 

'Humanity should be the supreme religion'

Lines from a poem recited at the Not in My Name protest, by Jyoti and Chanda, Class X students of a government school in Tughlakabad, Delhi:

"They measure me by the length of my dupatta, the width of my kurta, to determine my honour."

Paakhi Jain (15), a student of Delhi's Mater Dei School:

"During the Navaratras, you worship us, girls. At other times, you rape us. We don't want such worship."

Improvising on civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr's speech, she added, "I have a dream that no girl, no woman will be tortured or molested or raped in the future … I have a dream that humanity will be the supreme religion of this nation one day."

 

Some of the quotes have been translated from the Hindi.

Source: The Indian Express, 16 April 2018

 

'Fighter jets don't protect our daughters'

From a speech by Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights and women's rights activist, at the Not in My Name protest in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi:

The thinking of the people in this country has moved far ahead of our Parliament and government. Laws are passed, but the task of ensuring that the government upholds them, keeps an eye on the legal system and the police force---that is not being done.

If someone [an accused] holds an important position in society or has political clout, then investigation against him is not being carried out properly. The system will not fix on its own; to fix it we [citizens] need to stay vigilant, and keep an eye on those in positions of power. On those we have handed over the reins of running this country to. Don't expect much from them.

The rape cases today can't just be called sexual crimes. These are hate crimes---disgusting, despicable crimes of pure hatred. And this hatred that has been planted in us, which is used to incite us every day---it is done by the ones we handed over the reins of the country to, the ones responsible for the smooth running of the State. These politicians in power want us to hate each other, turn us against each other.

It is the same hatred that took Junaid from us, it is the same barbarism that swallowed the little girl in Kathua. Those who lynched Junaid with the kind of barbarism [our civil society hasn't witnessed in a while] ... we have to tackle it head on; we have to completely uproot it. We have to do it because the politicians in power won't---because votes are won in this country on the basis of this hatred. You can keep winning elections on the back of [this fear of 'the other']. The people are asking you questions, the women are asking you questions.

Look at India's defence budget. The women and children face no danger from the border; they are in danger from within the country. We demand you revisit the Budget: We don't care how many fighter jets you buy, our daughters' safety does not depend on it.

Kathua and Unnao are not the first. If we keep silent when a few powerful men rape us [mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, friends, individuals], then these men will keep raping more of us. They should know, we can get angry too. We can take to the streets too. We must change this [rape culture].

 

The quoted text has been translated from the Hindi.

 

'The accused is a custodian of our society'

From a speech by Deepika Singh Rajawat, lawyer for the eight-year-old girl from Kathua, at the Not in My Name protest in Jantar Mantar, New Delhi:

An eight-year-old child, made victim, gang-raped and brutally murdered. Shouldn't we all be ashamed? Do we belong to a civil society? Our upbringing is so poor that we will not even spare an eight-year-old girl of our rapaciousness. Aren't we ashamed? After the Nirbhaya case, we thought better sense will prevail. But no, women and girls continue to be torn to pieces.

I am the mother of a five-year-old girl. Today when my daughter gets into her school van, I have my heart in my mouth because I want to see my daughter return home to me afterwards. This is the state of affairs in our country, and the man responsible [who should be held accountable] is a custodian of our society.

I want to convey a message to Mr Prime Minister. Your MLAs provoke the masses, and say 'destroy compassion, destroy peace'. [These politicians tell the accused] 'we are with you, the ones arrested will be freed, and we will ensure that no one else is arrested'. Wow, what leadership! What a country! Save the girl child, don't let her step outside the home, keep her veiled. The monsters roam the streets outside. These monsters don't just stop at children, they will tear to pieces an old woman too. Today, our civil society [faces a grave threat from within]. We say we are proud citizens of our country, we chant 'Jai Hindustan, jai humanity', Mr Prime Minister says he will save our daughters. It is your people who are responsible for Kathua and Unnao.

Why is our society silent? Why is there only a Deepika who is ready to get her head cut off?

 

The quoted text has been translated from the Hindi. Source: The Telegraph, 16 April 2018

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