Vivek Deshpande

Our cold response to crimes against the oppressed and marginalised is a reflection of our socio-political prejudices.

THE Hathras incident where a young Dalit woman was brutally murdered, allegedly by some upper-caste men, and the subsequent high-handed handling of the situation by Uttar Pradesh police and government, pose some disturbing questions. When seen in conjunction with similar incidents in the past, where the victims have been Dalits and Muslims, these questions hold a mirror to the society. What we see should frighten us.

Violence against women is common in India because of the inherent male-dominated character of the society, but the reaction it invokes on each occasion is curiously different.

Let’s start with incidents beginning with the December 16, 2012 case, where a young woman was brutalised in a running bus in New Delhi and was left to die by four men. The incident led to massive public outrage across the country, with people holding candle-light marches and vociferously demanding capital punishment for the accused, who were subsequently hanged to death. The December 16 case was caste-neutral in the sense that the caste of neither the victim not the perpetrators ever came up in the public discourse. But it had happened during a different dispensation not characterised by “strong” leadership and an unmistakable communal agenda as its core pursuit. The Congress regime fluctuated between middle-of-the-road and Left-leaning policies and programmes and hence, evoked a corresponding socio-political response. So, there was no suppression of the protests or blockading of media. Protest was seen as a natural right of the citizenry. The government of the day reached out to the aggrieved family in all possible ways, unlike in Hathras, where the government is seen muffling the victims’ family’s cry for justice.

The turn of events during some prominent subsequent incidents present an interesting study in contrast. Take the Rohith Vemula case. Did it evoke a strong reaction among all sections of the society across the country? The answer, unfortunately, is no. The resentment and outrage at what the authorities did to Vemula were restricted to Dalits and their sympathisers among liberal intellectuals.

It would be pertinent to recall that mostly Dalits held protests after the ghastly murders of four members of the Bhotmange family at Khairlanji, Maharashtra in 2006. In Khairlanji too, the government wasn’t seen to be so brazenly complicit with the perpetrators as is seen in Hathras.

Consider the Kathua rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl inside a temple. It did not invoke the outrage that the Delhi rape and murder did among common masses. The same is true of the public reaction to the Unnao crime, in which BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar was convicted of brutalising a young girl and her entire family. Her father did not survive the custodial torture. Sengar was arrested only when the pressure became too much for the Adityanath government to handle. But did we witness large-scale public protests anywhere in the country?

The case of rape and murder of an upper-caste girl by some lower caste men in Kopardi village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district in 2016 presents a sharp contrast. It had led to a massive mobilisation of the Maratha community. The protests were mostly by one community, but it held huge political implications for the then BJP -Shiv Sena government in the state. The brazen manner in which the BJP government has handled the Hathras incident reflects the party’s belief that the mobilisation will not affect its political prospects and may, instead, help through a possible consolidation of upper castes. That their women leaders, including Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani, chose to remain silent only shows the BJP’s calculative response to the incident.

Also germane to the discussion is our response to the public lynching of several Muslim men. The murder videos were circulated on social media and even drew support from a section of Hindus. So, what explains the absence of massive public protests against Hathras, Kathua, Una, Rohith Vemula, Unnao and lynchings?

State-sponsored communalism was yet to be born and those, who were to usher it in later, were in opposition then. So, protests served them well in the Delhi rape and murder case. They whole-heartedly participated in the protests and may have even sponsored them. Clearly, our candle-light vigils lack the shine of candour and a sense of equality and justice.

Why is it so? A simple answer would be that our social sensibilities are largely shaped by the majoritarian ideology. When it comes to Muslims, people behave like majoritarian Hindus and when it’s about Dalits, many identify with caste supremacists with little or no compassion for Dalits. While these tendencies were always manifest in our socio-political make-up, it was largely balanced by the constitutional emphasis on secular and egalitarian ideals.

Successive governments and political classes have, like the British did, exploited the fault lines to achieve narrow political gains. The situation has worsened with the advent of the BJP — the majoritarianism appears potent enough to reduce the country to a banana republic. A long, dark road lies ahead for the nation.

Courtesy The Indian Express