Populist Barbarism:  Killings in an Authoritarian State

Lawlessness does not begin to describe what is transpiring in India, the land of the Buddha, Mahavira, Jnaneshvar, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Badshah Khan, and Gandhi.  “Ahimsa paramo dharma” [Nonviolence is the highest duty], says the Mahabharata, but few in this ancient land appear to be in any mood for nonviolence.  A spectre is haunting India—the spectre of unfathomable rage, wanton cruelty, and a ravenous appetite for retribution and on-the-spot justice.

A few days ago a 26-year young woman in the greater Hyderabad metropolitan area, a veterinarian by profession, met a gruesome end.  Her scooter had stalled at a toll plaza in the evening as she was preparing to return home and a man nearby insisted on helping her.  But the vet felt uneasy and placed a call to her younger sister at 9:30 PM, urging her to keep in touch with her every few minutes.  The younger sister was unable to reach her again, and by 10:30 PM found that her sister’s phone had been switched off.  The family then drove to the toll plaza but could not locate her; in the early hours of the morning, after the police had wasted several hours questioning the family, a complaint was registered at the police station.

At 7 AM, on Thursday, November 28, a charred body was found 30 kilometres from the toll plaza.  The vet was identified by her clothing.  She had evidently been abducted by four men, later identified as Mohammed Areef, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen, and Chintakunta Chnnekesavulu.  The men stripped her, then took turns in raping her; when she regained consciousness, they asphyxiated her, wrapped her body in a blanket, and then doused the corpse in gasoline before setting it on fire.  Rather unusually, considering the justly deserved reputation that most Indian police forces have as inept in the extreme, the alleged assailants were identified within 24 hours of the heinous crime.

Had the matter stopped there, or with the outrage that was expressed in the form of country-wide protests demanding the expeditious imposition of the death penalty against the alleged criminals, the country would have been witness to another heart-wrenching story of the rampant sexual violence against women that has earned India much notoriety and the total disregard for the lives of women in a country where the “feminine principle” has informed a good deal of the religious practices at least of the Hindus.  The country has lived through all of this repeatedly in the last several years:  there was the infamous case of the brutalization of 23-year old “Nirbhaya” in December 2012, and not so long ago a girl from the Bakherwal community who was not even in her teens was brutally assaulted, gang-raped, and then blunted to death within the very precincts of a temple.   Then, and now, the cries for lynching the accused were exceedingly loud.  At the police station where the accused were being held, a large crowd that had gathered demanded that the men be turned over to them.  According to newspaper reports, the police had difficulty in dispersing the crowd—in part because women and children comprised a substantial portion of the crowd.

But the case of the alleged assailants of the victim has already taken a different turn.  Less than 24 hours ago, they were taken to an underpass on the Bangalore Hyderabad national highway by the police, ostensibly with the objective of having them reconstruct the horrific events of the night that they brutalized and murdered the veterinary doctor.  According to the police, the suspects, who were not handcuffed, somehow connived at snatching the firearms being wielded by some of the policemen, and started firing.  In the exchange of fire that ensued, the four men were shot dead.

One of Indian English’s many contributions to the language is the word “Encounter”. Everyone in India would have understood this as an encounter killing:  when the police desire to kill terrorists or armed political rebels, usually with the justification that self-defence necessitates such a drastic step, they stage an encounter.  The supposition is that terrorists and criminals, or, to put it more accurately, those represented as such have no rights and need not even be viewed as fully human.  Such “encounter killings” have sometimes been used as a front to eliminate supposed enemies of the state or meddlesome human rights activists.  What cannot be emphasized enough is that the four men in this case were suspects, and no more than that.  Indians have become impatient with democracy, a subject which calls for pronounced reflection, but here it suffices to say that their disaffection both with policing and the judicial system runs deep.  In the wake of the grisly gang-rape of Nirbhaya, who succumbed to her injuries some days later, the government sought to introduce “fast-track” courts for crimes of sexual violence but such courts have evidently done little to stop rapists in their tracks.   The police were doubtless under extreme pressure to bring the suspects to justice, and calls for “public lynching” from politicians placed in high positions and some public figures of eminence may have emboldened them to bump off the suspects in the expectation that they would receive accolades rather than brickbats from the public.

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Protests by ABVP activists in Hyderabad on 2 December 2019 calling for the death of the suspected rapists.  Source:  https://www.thequint.com/news/hot-news/no-let-up-in-protests-over-hyderabad-gang-rape-murder

As the public reaction to the extrajudicial killing of the four suspects amply shows, the policemen judged the situation accurately.  There are widespread reports of the jubilant celebrations that have followed these killings.  When India went nuclear over two decades ago, people felicitated each other, distributed sweets, and boasted about the prowess of their country.  We may say that many in the country have similarly gone ballistic at the present turn of events:  some people hoisted policemen on their shoulders, others showered them with rose petals and exploded firecrackers.  Nirbhaya’s father is among those who is reported to have issued a statement to the effect that the police had been within their right to shoot the suspects, who would surely have fled the scene and might not have been caught again.  Ironically, his statement suggests that he does not repose much faith in the police, given that he appears to have thought that if they fled from the scene the police would not have had the competence to apprehend them again.  No one, neither Nirbhaya’s father nor anyone else, has thought it fit to ask why, if indeed the scene occurred precisely as described by the police, the suspects were not shot in the legs to disable them. Nirbhaya’s mother has made a public appeal that the policemen responsible for shooting the four suspects should not be subjected to punishment.  One can understand the extraordinary distress that Nirbhaya’s parents have experienced over the years, even if, as is the case with the present writer, one cannot condone the wanton killing of suspects—and one should reiterate, to the end, that they were only suspects.  But the enthusiasm that Jaya Bachchan has displayed for such reckless killings suggests that the actress and Member of Parliament has watched the many films of her husband, who perfected the role of the hero who set out to create a world of vigilante justice, far too often.

The brutalities to which the 26-year old veterinarian was subjected can never be fully comprehended.  The extent to which some men—and they are mostly the male of the species—will degrade themselves must always remain unfathomable to some degree.  Studies have repeatedly shown that the most ordinary people can be turned into killers at short notice.  India is scarcely the only country where women are violated at will by men, nor is it the only country where the question of how to police the police has become a pressing issue.  Those who object to the killings of the suspects on the grounds that the law must be allowed to take its own course are doubtless right.  The public cannot act as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, and the majesty of the idea of the “rule of law” must not be diluted—even as one understands how the law is often exploited, manipulated, and prostituted to serve the interests of those who are monied or wield power.  It is shocking in the extreme—and perhaps not, given what we know about the character of many of those who are entrenched as part of the country’s political elite—that the calls for the “public lynching” of the four suspects also came forth from the very halls of Parliament, whose members are sworn to uphold the Constitution of India and its promise of due process for all.  One cannot think of a greater disregard for the “rule of law”.

India has, however, now passed the point of being merely lawless.  The horrific killing of the young veterinarian was a form of barbarism.  Not less barbaric are the killings of the four suspects alleged to have murdered her and then, as all of this was not sufficiently putrid, public rejoicing at this act of wanton killing.  The victim’s name was, contrary to all norms of civility, widely circulated–and, in yet another ominous sign of our times, was trending as the most searched name on porn sites.  Barbarism upon barbarism:  the unthinkable.  At this rate, the Indian state will no longer require the services of the police in the years ahead:  it has, with great adroitness, outsourced retributive justice to the public.  The state can not only absolve itself of its responsibilities in this respect, but even claim that this is democracy truly at work:  the will of the public is being honored.  The country will require all of its intellectual, spiritual, and cultural resources to take it through the dark days ahead.

The Kathua Rape Case: The Moral Collapse of a Civilization

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Tabrez Ansari:  the 24-year old man was beaten over hours and compelled to chant “Jai Shri Ram”:  he died two days later.

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.

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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.

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A demonstration IN SUPPORT of the racists and killers of the 8-year old minor, led by the Hindu Ekta Manch [Organization for Hindu Unity]. Source of photo: Indian Express.

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.

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Four of the six men involved in the “Nirbhaya Gangrape Case”.

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.