If someone were to call me katua, a derogatory reference to Muslims because of the practice of circumcision among them, would I be allowed to slap him? Would it be justified for a person from the North East to physically retaliate against a person who displays the temerity to dub him or her as a Chinki or half-finish, as many often do? Is it legitimate to kick the shins of those who insist on calling Christians Dingos?

These are some of the questions I have been tackling ever since the video of the irrepressible and, in many ways, admirable sisters-in-arm from Rohtak, Pooja and Aarti, beating their tormentors went viral. Sidestepping the allegations against them being serial beaters, there can be little doubt that they were justified in defending themselves, considering that their tormentors not only made lewd remarks but also touched one of them inappropriately.

Different narratives about what exactly happened on the bus in which the sisters were travelling have since mushroomed, as they invariably do in such situations, as the accused hope to evade court cases and social opprobrium. The questions troubling me arise not from the behaviour of the sisters as such, but from the passionate arguments of those who have written commentaries in their defence. Their passion and anger are justified, not so their arguments.

Undifferentiated violence 

One of the articles on Scroll.in, for instance, notes, “Why are men allowed to harass women by leching, whistling, blowing kisses, groping and stalking, but when two young girls thrash their attackers twice and video record it, they are accused of raking up a controversy.” The point regarding the deliberate stoking of controversy is pertinent, a point others too have made. But what is perhaps misplaced is to treat all categories of sexual harassment in an undifferentiated manner, to treat all violations of dignity and rights to the same degree – and, therefore, justify the recourse to violence in every circumstance.

But the invocation of violence, the celebration of it, becomes explicit further in the Scroll.in article: “In fact, women in white collar jobs should also put their chappals to use in the absence of any action against the male colleagues who lech at them day in and day out, despite complaints to the HR department. And yes, please record videos of this.” Yes, male-dominated human resource departments can be grossly insensitive, rendering extremely difficult the task of redressing gender grievances and the creation of working conditions conducive to women workers.

Yet, we can say this of our society as well. We live among individuals who tease and torment those who are weak. Should then every Muslim or a person from the North East or Christian retaliate violently every time he or she is insulted?

Proportionate response

The commentaries on the Rohtak sisters ignore the complicated issues arising from overlapping categories of tormenter/assailant and victim. For instance, a white-collar woman official may encounter sexual harassment, but could also display discriminatory attitudes against lower-caste colleagues. Would caste humiliation permit the victim to resort to violence? How would we categorise the violence if the transgressing officer happens to be a woman? Then again, would the rivals of the Union minister who called them bastards justified in visiting violence on her?

These questions raise the issue of proportionality. What tactics must we adopt to counter verbal abuse? Is it justified for the victim of verbal slur to resort to violence against the tormentor who enjoys immensely greater power? A long time ago, a group in my college used to engage a boy in verbal jousts and banter. A member of the group of tormentors felt emboldened enough to pull the leg of the victim who, losing patience, hit him. When reprimanded, the victim replied, “He is smarter than me, but I am physically stronger than him. Why shouldn’t I deploy a tactic advantageous to me?”

Definitions of weak

This notion of violence as a tactic can prove perilous. It can shame the tormentor into reforming himself. However, the morality of such acts apart, violence can trigger an eruption too overwhelming for an individual to counter. A Leftist friend of mine says she would counter sexual harassment of any kind, but she has serious doubts about countering lewd remarks through violence, not only because of the issue of morality, but because she could trigger consequences far beyond her control. Obviously, she cannot but oppose physical violation – and such opposition does not preclude retaliatory violence.

But lewd remarks? she wonders.

French writer Jean Genet wrote, “The arrogance of the strong is always met by the violence of the weak.” Perhaps violence is inevitable in an unequal and unjust society, but to extol it as virtue, to celebrate it, that is quite another matter.

Who is weak can perhaps be empirically judged through a measure of the power he or she possesses. But weak is also a definition we impose on ourselves. The terrorists are weak, so are the Maoists. Even the adherents of Hindutva think they are weak. Muslims and Christians and those from the North East living outside the region surely are. Any of these social groups and categories could cite the trampling upon their dignity and rights to justify their violent retaliation.

Why have laws? Might as well define acts beyond the pale and allow the society to mete out justice. But that sounds a bit Taliban-ish, a bit khap-like. Dear readers, what should I do the next time anyone calls me or any of my family members katua?

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His book The Hour Before Dawn will be published by HarperCollins in December-end.