India has been awash with news of what are called “mob lynchings” over the last few years and another case has come to light of a Muslim man in Jharkhand who was tied up, beaten, and forced to chant Jai Shri Ram over a period of 12 hours. The man, Tabrez Ansari, died several days ago. Horrific as this atrocity is, it is also, we might say, part of an orchestrated chaos. One atrocity follows another; attention shifts from one ‘event’ to another, and we do not pause long enough to consider the moral implications of any one atrocity. It is in the light of this that it behooves us to return briefly to what transpired at Kathua, which has receded into the background just days after the court adjudicated on the matter, and consider whether India has not already entered into a phase of moral collapse from which it may never fully recover.
Early in January 2018, an eight-year old girl belonging to the Bakharwal community was abducted near Kathua, which lies a little short of 90 kilometres south of Jammu. The girl was sedated, taken to a Hindu family temple (devasthan), and repeatedly gang raped by several men for five days before being bludgeoned to death. Her assailants included the temple’s caretaker and pujari, Sanji Ram, who at 60 could have easily passed for the girl’s grandfather, even, considering the tender age at which girls are sometimes married off in India, her great-grandfather; his nephew, whose name cannot be taken as he is allegedly a juvenile; a young man, Parvesh, a friend of the juvenile whose help was enlisted in abducting and drugging the girl; and at least three policemen, including one sub-inspector, who like the others not only took turns raping the girl but extracted bribes from Sanji Ram to scuttle the probe. Morbid stories have been recounted of some of the assailants being summoned by text messages to have one last crack at the girl: the Crime Branch, Jammu, has on record over 10,000 pages of WhatsApp messages and Facebook Chats which point to the complicity of the assailants and Sanji Ram’s son, Vishal, who was later acquitted for lack of evidence.
The Bakharwals are nomads, overwhelmingly Muslim, who are goatherds and shepherds. It is said that Sanji Ram was seeking revenge for an apparent insult to his nephew, and that both and he and police officer Deepak Khajuria were keen on seeing the Bakharwals forced out of the area. The Gujjars (cattle herders) and Bakharwals are the third largest ethnic group in Jammu & Kashmir, after Kashmiris and Dogras, and they have been struggling to secure implementation of the Forest Act. Grave as is the question of their economic likelihood, which has always been precarious and has been rendered more difficult by the armed conflict in Kashmir which has placed many of the pastures out of bounds to the Bakharwals, the communal entanglements of the plot are still thicker.
For more than a week after the rape and murder of the minor girl, nothing transpired; when at last the police acted and took Sanji Ram and others into custody, India was witness to the most extraordinary, indeed diabolic, turn of events. Huge demonstrations were taken out in support of the alleged rapists and killers: I say “alleged” only because their guilt had not yet been established in a court of law, though a special court in Pathankot earlier this month pronounced a verdict against six of them, sentencing Sanji Ram and two others to a term of life imprisonment and three others to shorter prison terms. Those marching in support of the killers claimed that that they had been framed; among those present in the marches were two ministers from the ruling BJP. Even ‘perversity’ does not begin to describe the spectacle of lawyers, who one imagines have some fidelity to the ideas of justice and the rule of law, shouting “Jai Shri Ram”—recall the assailants of 24-year old Tabrez Ansari, who compelled their victim to chant “Jai Shri Ram”—and attempting to prevent the police from filing a charge sheet.Whatever the economic and communal dimensions of the underlying animosities, nothing can explain the sheer scale of the precipitous moral decline into which the country has fallen. Hinduism has long been distinct for reasons too numerous to enter into at the moment, but the pervasive element of the feminine, all the more salient when one juxtaposes it with the stern countenance of Protestant Christianity, Judaism, and the rigorous anti-idolatry of most of Islam, is one of Hinduism’s most pronounced features. Shakta traditions have a stronger presence in some parts of the country than others, such as Bengal, but the worship of the goddess can be found nearly everywhere in India. Where but in Hinduism among the world’s major faiths would one encounter the rites of Kanjak or Kanya Puja, which involve washing the feet of little girls towards the end of the Navratri Festival and recognizing them as emblems of the divine? Can it be that the 8-year old girl who was raped and killed received no such recognition merely because she was a Muslim and the Hindu men who brutalized her were only deploying her body as a vehicle in their war against Muslims?
Three decades ago, Amartya Sen wrote that more than 100 million women were “missing” in India. He was referring to the severe neglect of females, which begins with the female fetus and extends through infancy and adolescence to young womanhood. Women may be known as devis (goddesses) and the mythic lore about the ‘feminine eternal’ is prodigious, but in modern India the emotional, physical, and sexual violation of girls and women is rampant. It would be dishonest to pretend that the problem originated with the rapid ascendancy of Hindu nationalism. There is comparatively little discussion of ‘dowry deaths’ these days, but in the 1980s and 1990s over 5000 such deaths were recorded every year—and this does not account for bride-burnings that were never registered. Hindu nationalism is no part of this narrative: shockingly, but perhaps not so, an affluent South Delhi neighborhood such as Vasant Vihar, chock full of wealthy Hindu businessmen, was one of the epicentres of this gruesome burning of women. One cannot attribute such murders, for that is what they were, to illiterates, the unlettered and the unwashed, or country people.
What does it take to brutally gang-rape an 8-year old girl and then smash her brains with a stone? And how much more ‘fallen’ can be the state of those feverishly seeking to defend, with aplomb and in brazen view of the public, the perpetrators of a heinous crime and receiving the unstinting support of the local bar association? The country was “outraged” when a 23-year old woman, who came to be known as Nirbhaya, was sexually brutalized on a moving bus in Delhi by several men in ways that are all but incomprehensible within some commonly accepted moral framework. She succumbed to her injuries two weeks later. There were to be no more Nirbhayas, so the sentiment ran after 2012, but all that has happened is that now even little girls have no immunity from the depravity of grown-up men.
On the 19th century colonial narrative, India was prone to severely mistreat its girls and women, judging from such phenomena as female infanticide, sati, cruel prohibitions on widow remarriage, and the widespread marriage of girls long before they had achieved puberty. This narrative has its own intensely troubling politics, and we need not endorse all of it; but what is germane is this: it is doubtful that the levels of bestiality now commonly encountered in India were to be witnessed in the 19th century or before. The communal cast of what is transpiring in India presently is all too evident, and there can be no question that Hindu nationalism has greatly aggravated tendencies that have been brewing for some time. India is a country that has lost its moorings: the moral certainties of yesteryears have disappeared and a rapacious and unforgiving Social Darwinism has become enthroned as the new order of our times. The Kathua rape case is one of the many unmistakable signs in India of the moral collapse of a civilization. One can only hope that many citizens of India will work to avert this collapse and that there will be no need for an Indian Gibbon.