Kathua rape and murder: Why was our outrage delayed?

If geographical, social and political distances dictate our responses to crimes, the society has much to be ashamed of.

 |  5-minute read |   13-04-2018
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On the night of April 12, Congress leaders, led by party president Rahul Gandhi, gathered at India Gate in New Delhi, to protest against the Kathua and Unnao rape incidents. The party decided to club together two gruesome crimes that have shocked and shamed the nation, exposing the ruling BJP’s skewed take on crime and criminals like little else so far has.    

Bollywood too seemed to wake up to Kathua on Thursday, with several stars posting tweets demanding justice for the brutalised child.  

This is almost three months after the body of the eight-year-old girl was found. More than two months after a group called the Hindu Ekta Manch, headed by the Jammu BJP secretary and with Congress leaders as members, led a rally carrying the Tricolour in support of the accused.

The Kathua crime is exceptionally brutal. The child was drugged, confined for days, raped repeatedly and then bludgeoned to death with a stone. In what is a disgrace to a civilised society, her ordeal and death was then given a communal colour, and politicians from both the Congress and the BJP, civilians, lawyers, actively protested in favour of the accused.

Enough has been said on how terrible it is to use a child as a pawn in a tussle between two communities. But what was the rest of India doing?

Why was the outrage so slow in building up? Where were the candles, the marches, the placards, that, even if don’t deliver solutions, at least signal that a society’s conscience is alive, and there are people to question injustice?

The answers to this are many, as varied in their causes as they are united in their shamefulness.

First, the crime took place in remote Jammu, and the victim was a tribal.

Every rape is an abomination, and comparing the degree of two crimes is not just meaningless, but also odious. Yet, the way a society responds to rapes continues to depend on the social, economic and political capital a victim carries.

Nirbhaya riled up the country not only because the crime was horrific, but because it struck very close to home for the middle and upper classes. Any of us and ours could have been Nirbhaya, hailing a vehicle after watching a movie with a male companion in a metro city. A tribal girl getting raped in a small town fails to trigger the PLU (People Like Us) syndrome, and we seem to react to such cases with more equanimity.  

This, of course, is moral poverty. Some things are absolutely, objectively wrong, and proximity – geographical, social, psychological – should not dictate our response to them. Political parties pick up issues that agitate their voters, and public indifference allows politicians to skirt some matters, although it is their duty to speak out against all that is wrong.

In this case, both political parties – the Congress and the BJP – had stakes in not antagonising the supporters of the accused. Public silence facilitated this political shamelessness.

The Hindu Ekta Manch, whihc marched with the Tricolour in support of the rape-accused, has both BJP and Congress leaders as members. Photo: TwitterThe Hindu Ekta Manch, which marched with the Tricolour in support of the rape-accused, has both BJP and Congress leaders as members. Photo: Twitter

The BJP, in its blind pursuit of a bizarre, saffron promised land, seems to have abandoned its Constitutional duties, sense of morality, and even basic humanity. While its state leaders are supporting the accused, not one tall leader has condemned the crime and assured justice.

The country’s defence minister, foreign minister, information and broadcasting minister are feisty, eloquent women. I&B minister Smriti Irani is the only one to have spoken on the rape so far, and in the same breath, she has said the incident should not be politicised, but Congress too had once backed a rape-accused. The prime minister, fond of sharing his mann ki baat, seems to have other things on his mind.

The Congress has done little better. As part of what seems to be its unique brand of “soft Hindutva”, the party kept silent on the rape for as long as it could, so as not to risk offending Jammu Hindus. The man leading the lawyers' protest, the president of the Jammu Bar Association, BS Slathia, is a Congress leader, who was once the polling agent of party MP Ghulam Nabi Azad.

It was only after it seized the Unnao rape in Uttar Pradesh to attack the BJP with that the party felt compelled to speak up on the Kathua rape.

When rapes have relevance only as tools to score political points, we have indeed reached a very low point as a society.

The demands of some radicalised elements are given massive legitimacy and acceptance when political parties start taking their cues from them. The Hindu Ekta Manch becomes the representative of all Hindus in Jammu only because the powers that be accept it as such. We have seen this brand of majority assertion before, most recently in Shambu Lal Regar’s case in Rajasthan. By letting every such individual incident pass, the political class is setting a very dangerous precedent, which can potentially rock India for ages to come.

However, there is some outrage now. Social media has been awash with hashtags demanding justice for the child. The political class waking up will to some degree force the Jammu administration to act. Is this slow awakening of conscience a signal that all is not yet lost?  

Worryingly, that is only part of the reality. The discourse on the Kathua rape till very recently had been about Hindu-Muslim, settler-tribe tussle, with the child herself becoming only incidental to the crime, and people had kept away from it. It is after the charge sheet revealed that she was confined in a temple, and the gruesome details of her torture and murder, that people woke up to the human, or rather inhuman, aspect of it, and an eight-year-old brutalised girl finally became the centre of the narrative.

If we need chilling, stomach-turning details of a crime to be able to respond to it, it paints a very scary picture of us as a society.

As one of the very few BJP leaders to speak on the issue, MoS External Affairs VK Singh, said, "We have failed the eight-year-old child as humans."

Now, the least we can do is keep up the pressure on the political class, so it remembers that religious and votebank considerations aside, a girl was tortured and murdered, and that girl deserves justice.  

(Editor's note: The Prime Minister has now spoken on the issue, saying  “Incidents being discussed since past two days cannot be part of a civilised society”, and that "no culprits will be spared".) 

Also read: Hindu nationalists protesting to release rape and murder accused of 8-year-old is a new low

Writer

Yashee Yashee @yasheesingh

The writer is a journalist.

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