Have little girls in India always been raped, tortured and killed at the current rate? We cannot tell. Statistics are unreliable, given society’s traditional urge to suppress such news if not, indeed, to suppress the victims themselves.
But we may feel we are witnessing more such cases today than befits a civilized society. Even the shouting brigade who condemn others for condemning such crimes do so on the bizarre ground that there are other instances equally calling for attention.
So abject are the times that we cannot restrict our response to sympathy and moral indignation. Our society is too deeply poisoned for us to rest content in such easy humanity. A nation of 1.3 billion is bound to have its share of social vermin; but we are shaken to find them among the statutory upholders of civic order. It is a function of organized society to protect its members, especially its most vulnerable members, by containing and neutralizing such evil. The current national outrage is spurred by a sense that, far from performing this function, the most powerful section of society is ranged behind the evil-doers, using their crimes to advance its own hold over the citizens at large.
Rape is an exceptionally fit instrument for the purpose. It is an assertion of power: of a man over a woman, of men over women, of a community with greater destructive capacity over its adversary. It can carry more imaginative horror than even murder, as the current public mood and media coverage testify. Hence rape has been the symbolic, even while brutally physical, recourse of social and political hegemonies in all ages, the uncontestable seal on a charter of infamous power. There is no more potent way to convey a viscerally sinister message of domination.
This time round, the tactic has been applied to terrorize and subjugate the entire nation. Untroubled by feminist or psychological tenets like the above, the native genius of a frightening swathe of our empowered classes has driven home the message not to certain juveniles, nor solely to their families or communities, but to the citizenry at large.
Nor can we leave out of account the countless rapes of adult women, child rapes by offenders not specially empowered or protected, or – a concomitant evil – rapes not only of but by juvenile males, sometimes not yet in their teens. A milieu where such things happen continually destabilizes our view of society, subverts any expectations we might have of it. They contribute to the same malevolent outcome.
The ruler-miscreants will not know of Aristotle either, but his insight is crucially relevant: tragic events arouse pity caused by undeserved suffering (as it might be, to children), but equally fear, caused by suffering that might happen to ourselves. Unnao and Kathua, we feel, stretch their borders across India: any or all of us might be destroyed at any time, maybe not by this specific means but some equally grotesque exercise of power. The obscene chorus of victim-shaming, hate-mongering, defence of the accused and obstruction of judicial process – not to mention the sheer blunt force of illogic and political rhetoric, from public rallies to bickerings on TV – displays the range of forces that, with or without a thin mask of piety, can cast their weight behind the offenders and, by extension, behind all offenders. No wonder we are afraid. There is no shame in admitting that our outrage is ultimately driven by fear.
To be sure, there is a solid mass of support for the victims, and protests across and beyond the nation. But this side in the controversy suffers from two disadvantages: first, the very fact of a controversy on such matters. The sheer shock value of defending rape and murder carries a perverse mass appeal: fomenting deep-seated hates and resentments, it takes on the glamour of heroic truth-telling, while to condemn such evil appears merely conventional.
Secondly and crucially, the defenders of evil are redolent of power and success: they claim overlordship of the future. Protest becomes the resort of the powerless.
If we protest nonetheless, it is from agony at the violation of our social being. We feel that if this curse is not exorcised, our lives will forever be in jeopardy; and no less unbearably, that we will compromise our basic dignity as citizens and human beings. Even the victims’ disempowered communities have felt that way – and lost out in consequence through further damage: a dead father, a tribe ousted from the grazing-grounds of its livelihood.
The machinery of this destruction bears thinking about. It is, essentially, the forces comprising and supporting the State: politician, lawyer and administrator conniving in one another’s efforts. Where such people did not travel with the tide, they too have been abused or threatened. It is worth recalling that the Unnao incident occurred 10 months, the one in Kathua nearly three months, before coming to public light at all. The former, in particular, appears to illustrate every possible failing of a complicit officialdom.
This is how rape, or for that matter murder, truly become symbols of the total conduct of a corrupt polity. In one case, lawyers banded together to obstruct the judicial process, commandeering the national flag in their cause. In the other, the principal accused long escaped custody in defiance of the express provisions of the law, and was finally arrested, as one columnist put it, ‘as a favour to the nation’.
We have come to expect no more of our administrators, being pleasantly surprised by honourable exceptions. This may not be fair to all members of their body – for a start, those who have lost their lives battling the mafiosi in widely scattered locations across the land. But what concerns us is not the individual official but their collective image and impact. (Had that been different, those particular officials would be alive today.) Each state has its own stories to tell.
In my own province of Bengal, most recently, a pervasive reign of violence and terror was allowed to engulf the state in the run-up to the panchayat elections.
Separately considered, every feature of such scenarios can be found in the past. But there is a new self-destructive quality to today’s executive, a seemingly total deflection of purpose. We have habitually castigated the administrations we lived under as incompetent, or corrupt, or politically biased, or whatever. All these criticisms implied a norm from which they deviated, a reference-point from which, in the last analysis, they took their bearings – whether from caution, or conscience, or professional self-respect, or plain inertia. The new dispensation seems to have broken free altogether from this frame of reference. It is pointless to say they do not adhere to this or that norm when they appear to eschew all such norms in the first place. In contexts where those norms are urged – chiefly if not solely at court – the confrontation of the two orders seems unreal. They might inhabit different planets.
We were taught that our polity rests on three pillars: the legislature, executive and judiciary. That structure stands exposed, revealing the actual architecture of the State. The executive has lost its load-bearing strength, while legislating is no longer the pre-eminent concern of legislators. All too often, they show little regard for the law itself.
By winning elections, some of them occupy the ministries and departments which the professional executive has surrendered to their sole command. More basically, they spearhead an autonomous political class that is taking over more and more of our lives to empower itself. That is the power I talked of at the start. It does not derive from the popular vote but from a differently validated hold over the people, composed of favour and fear in varying proportions.
In such a dispensation, to effectively uphold child rape and child murder is as good a way as any to convey that power to the subjects. If the master-tribe can get away with that, they can get away with anything. Even now, the counter-force of our combined citizenry might stall the attempt; but who can blame the indulged and empowered for their all-out try?
War or peace?
By Dr Akmal Hussain
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi on Sunday, April 7, in a press briefing in Multan, announced that the government had “reliable” information that India was planning another attack on Pakistan. He revealed that during a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, the three service chiefs had indicated that they were ready with plans of multiple strikes against Pakistan across a wide front and were awaiting a “political nod”, which was duly given by PM Modi during the meeting.
After the political boomerang of the failed Balakot strike, simple statistical theory would suggest to the military mind that the larger the number of strikes next time the higher the probability of at least one succeeding. The chances of partial success would increase if the air attack is across a wide front: the defending air force would have to spread itself thin and so the number of intercepting aircraft that could be fielded against any one group of attackers would be reduced.
Such a military adventure by India would not simply be a repeat strike after Balakot. It would be a precipitous escalation, fraught with the risk of full-scale conventional war that could quickly lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. When India suffered a setback in the Balakot engagement, they reportedly readied themselves for a missile strike against three Pakistani cities on the night of February 27.
There is no technology in existence that can determine whether or not incoming missiles have a nuclear payload. So Pakistan’s declaration that they would launch triple the number of missiles in retaliation, as soon as Indian missiles left their launch pads, carried the grim possibility of a nuclear war in the Subcontinent. If we had come so close to Armageddon soon after even a single abortive strike, imagine how much greater would be the risk of escalation to the nuclear level during a full-scale conventional war.
At present, and in the foreseeable future, two aspects of the structure of the India-Pakistan relationship create a hair trigger that can quickly and repeatedly bring the two countries to flashpoint. First, a popular freedom movement in Kashmir that, despite their protracted coercion, Indian security forces have been unable to suppress. It has instead produced a pantheon of martyrs and a new generation of militant youths willing to sacrifice themselves for freedom. Under these circumstances the internal dynamics of the Kashmiri movement can generate acts of violent rebellion against Indian troops at any time.
Second, on the other side of the border for many years non-state groups of militant extremists who have off and on received patronage continue to exist. The toxic mix of these two elements creates an environment in which spectacular acts of violence by Kashmiri youth could be blamed on “Pakistan-based terrorists” by India. This could intensify tensions, precipitating another military conflict. The past cannot be taken as a guide to say how it will end, whether in peace or nuclear war.
Given the firepower of modern conventional weaponry, significant loss of territory can occur during the initial onslaught that could escalate to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used on enemy troops, all-out nuclear war would follow. The recent history of India-Pakistan military conflict however has shown that even before a full-scale conventional war, a limited, localised battle can bring the two sides to the nuclear precipice.
For example, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 when the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to ask the then US president Clinton to help end the conflict, he was shown satellite pictures of nuclear weapons being loaded onto F16s as evidence for a shocked PM of how close the two countries were to a nuclear war. Then again during the first two days of the February 2019 conflict involving limited Air Force engagements, nuclear missiles were reportedly readied on the night of February 27 for use by both sides.
So far these confrontations have induced timely intercession by the international community and peoples of the Subcontinent have survived by the skin of their teeth. But what a future confrontation will bring, whether we live or die in a nuclear war is inherently uncertain. Its probability cannot be estimated.
Some take comfort in the fact that seven confrontations in the past did not result in full-scale war as international pressure to defuse tensions worked. However, this 100 percent success in preventing war in the past cannot be used as a basis for saying it will not occur the next time around. This is because in society as much as in the relationship between states the averages of the past do not necessarily hold into the future. This is unlike natural phenomena where averages of the past as expressed in natural laws do hold into the future.
For example, take the law of gravity: if you had dropped an object and it fell to the ground yesterday, there is a high probability that it would fall again if you dropped it tomorrow. But in society, probability estimates which are essentially based on projecting the past into the future are not possible in principle. The pattern of social phenomena and human behaviour observed in the past can in the future be shattered by unique events or a combination of unique events.
As the preceding discussion argues, even a limited conventional conflict following a terrorist incident can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold. It is vital, therefore, for the two countries supported by the world community to address the explosive structure of a situation that leads to repeated military confrontation.
Millions of citizens in both countries are mired in poverty, illiteracy and disease. Thousands of children are dying at birth every day; of those who survive birth, thousands die before they are five years old. Of the children who live beyond five years, millions are suffering from malnutrition, their bodies stunted, their brains dulled. Millions of children roam the streets and alleys, deprived of quality education, abandoned by society and state and living without hope. Instead of halting this massacre of innocents together, the two states are marching in lockstep to a nuclear catastrophe.
It is time for the leaderships of both India and Pakistan to reflect on the irrationality and inhumanity of using proxy wars or ‘surgical strikes’ as a means of achieving national security. The power of a nation lies not in following the course of mutual annihilation but pursuing the path of peace for the welfare of its citizens. The leaderships of the two countries should dip their cupped hands into their shared civilisational well-springs. Imbibe the sense of compassion and human solidarity to care for our children rather than killing them.
Rubbing salt on the wounds:
By Aleem Faizee
Another assault on the people of Malegaon – this is how a shopkeeper in Malegaon reacted to the news of the BJP fielding Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur from Bhopal against Congress’ Digvijaya Singh in this Lok Sabha election.
It’s like rubbing salt on our wounds, another Malegaon resident said.
For the people in Malegaon, the announcement of Pragya Thakur’s candidature has brought back the ghastly memories of 29 September 2008, when the city was rocked by a bomb blast. Thakur is facing trial in the case.
On the night of the blast, it was about 9.40 pm and people were about to finish Salaat-ut-Taraweeh – special night prayers offered during the month of Ramadan – when they heard a loud sound of explosion. At first, they thought it could be a cylinder blast accident. But it soon emerged that it was a bomb blast.
The blast spot was just metres away from the Ladies Fashion Market at Anjuman Chowk where a huge crowd of women and children were busy shopping for Eid al Fitr. There was chaos near Bhikku Chowk – the site of the blast. People carried the bleeding victims, more than a hundred, to hospitals using whatever means they could find.
The blast claimed six lives. One of them was 5-year-old Farheen Shaikh who was out to buy some snacks and was on her way back home to have Ramadan dinner with her grandmother.
Among the injured was Abdullah Jamaluddin Ansari of Shakeel Transport. The 75-year-old man, during initial investigation, had said he had noticed the LML Freedom motorcycle, which was later traced to Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and led to her arrest, parked in front of his office since afternoon that day. He had also informed the police chowki, a stone’s throw away from the blast site, but claimed that no action was taken.
Javed Ansari, owner of a photocopier shop, was also injured in the Malegaon blast. It took him over three years to recover and resume work.
But for these blast victims, life has never been the same since that September night.
While Javed Ansari and the family of Farheen Shaikh left the locality after the blast, Shakeel Transport’s Abdullah Ansari died last year. Following the blast, Ansari often looked at the wall clock in his shop, which had stopped working at 9.37 pm – the time of the blast – and waited for justice.
One doesn’t know how he would have reacted to the news of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and contesting the Lok Sabha election.
By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants people to believe that she and other accused arrested in various blast cases were ‘framed in fabricated cases’ and that ‘saffron terror’ is a myth.
But while doing so the, BJP has undermined the fact that Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur still remains a key accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast case. As per court papers, the first evidence that led to her arrest was the LML Freedom motorcycle that was registered in her name and was used to plant the bomb. There are also some audio tapes and visuals too. Based on these evidences, the Bombay trial court judge had observed that there was enough ground to establish Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s role in the blast.
Ironically, while nominating Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as the party candidate, the BJP did not think about the kind of message this would send to all the world leaders with whom Narendra Modi has often taken up the issue of terrorism.
The people of Malegaon, who had been hearing about the pressure on some officers and public prosecutor Rohini Salian ‘to go soft’ in the case, have almost lost all hope of getting justice. Wife of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare – the officer who initially investigated the case – had turned down then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s monetary compensation after 26/11 attacks.
Therefore, the BJP’s decision to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in this election is neither shocking nor surprising for most people in Malegaon. But it is painful, especially for the blast victims and their families.
Majboot Sarkars Overrated?
Prior to the 1990s, coalition governments in Indian politics were considered to be an aberration and not particularly desirable. The lack of coalitions in India was clearly tied to the one-party preponderance of the Congress. So, when the party sensed defeat in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, it tried to remind voters of how shambolic the 1977 Janata government had been.
The VP Singh-led National Front government formed in 1989 was perhaps the strangest political entity that people had witnessed in Indian politics. Propped up by the Left parties on one side, and the right-wing BJP that provided support with its 86 seats on the other – the government proved to be short lived.
The grand old party then supported the Chandrashekhar Singh government for four months, after which it decided to withdraw support and elections in 1991 brought back a Congress-led coalition government in the country. With that, the era of coalition politics was well and truly upon us.
Coalition governments were the new normal in Indian politics and would continue to be so until 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government became the first in three decades since 1984, to win a clear majority.
In 1996, there was a short-lived Vajpayee-led BJP government for 13 days, followed by the rather soporific one led by HD Deve Gowda that lasted until 1997. After that, IK Gujral led the United Front coalition government that lasted from April 1997 to March 1998.
By then, the political scenario of the country was beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs. However, things stabilised with Atal Bihari Vajpayee returning in 1998, hanging on for a year and then getting re-elected in 1999 to finally last a whole term.
After that, with a full decade of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance leading the way, Indian politics developed a version of the two party system, rather, a two coalition system. Numerous political parties have coalesced around BJP and the Congress in the form of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively.
Congress governments in coalition have brought about some of the most momentous and far-reaching changes. It was the Narasimha Rao-led government that introduced the economic reforms, which for better or worse, changed the country tremendously.
One simple indicator of the worth of coalitions is the fact that many thought that the UPA-I government was too hobbled by the presence of the Left, as it was a hindrance to the economic reforms associated with Congress governments since 1991.
The withdrawal of Left support, followed by the more emphatic victory that led to UPA-II in 2009, was supposed to bring in a more decisive and unfettered government. Yet, it is the UPA-I government that is remembered for the succession of rights-based legislation it introduced, while UPA II has come to be associated with crony capitalism.
Similarly, the NDA-I government of Vajpayee, with all of its coalition pulls and pressures ensured two things. First, the core and often contentious BJP issues, which are Article 370, Babri Masjid and Uniform Civil Code, were relegated to the back-burner.
Second, the Vajpayee-led BJP government could well and truly be said to have a fringe and a centre, with the fringe remaining where any fringe should belong.
However, the ruling BJP government of the day has once again brought the core contentious issues to the forefront. It has also ensured that the fringe encompasses the party uniformly, leaving no hint of nuance or differentiation.
What this suggests is that weaker coalitions may actually perform better. More importantly, coalitions are able to more naturally weave in the vital regional parties that act as breakwaters in the path of potentially elective despotism.
Are majority governments over-rated?
What have supposedly strong and stable majority governments been able to do? Have they taken decisive measures or brought about ‘big-ticket economic reforms’, untroubled by the petty pulls of coalition partners?
Take the 1984 Rajiv Gandhi government with its mammoth majority of above 400 hundred seats. In less than two years, it started playing communally divisive politics around the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano issues.
The Congress thought it was being cleverly even handed by dealing out both majority and minority communal cards. The drift in the Rajiv Gandhi government could be sensed right in the middle of its term when it lost badly in the Haryana assembly elections of 1987. It lost the hugely symbolic Allahabad by-election in 1988 to V.P. Singh, and the rest we are prone to saying, is history.
The question then is this: Could the supposed strength and stability provided by majority governments be overrated? What has the Modi government achieved on the back of its huge mandate? Has it squandered that majority much like the Rajiv Gandhi led government of 1984-89? Can Modi return to power? This has been a bit of a see-saw question.
When Modi’s government came to power with a huge landslide, or ‘tsunami’ if you will, conventional wisdom was that he was here to stay for at least two terms. The UP assembly elections in 2017 seemed to confirm this. After that, it has been more of a will he/won’t he guessing game. The jury is well and truly out on this one.