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?