Opinion

Kathua and the narrative of Good Hindus saving Good Muslims from Bad Muslims

Indians must squarely face up to the complicity of their political leaders and various organs of the state in the murder and rape of a child.

In a tweet on April 14, public commentator Madhu Kishwar suggested that the murder of the eight-year-old Kathua victim was “suspected to be handiwork of jehadi Rohingyas settled by PDP [People’s Democratic Party] in Jammu region”. Kishwar also said that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti used the crime as a “counterblast strategy” to get back to people in “Hindu areas” of Jammu who were unhappy over the state government’s decision to settle Rohingya refugees in their vicinity.

Soon after, or perhaps even before that, a video fronted by a so-called citizen reporter began to circulate. In it, its maker said that the Kathua victim had not been raped, but had been murdered by Rohingya settlers. He said that unlike the media, which he claimed was “bought”, he had gathered facts from the ground. Further embellishing the narrative that Kishwar had cited, he went on to say that the girl had not been murdered on the premises of a small temple she was said to be confined in, but that her body was thrown inside its compound the night before it was discovered, and that doctors were forced to write a fake post-mortem report indicating rape. This, said the video maker, had been done to malign a peaceful Hindu community whose only crime was to protest the presence of criminal and murderous Rohingyas in their areas.

According to the police chargesheet, the child was abducted, held captive in the temple, drugged, gangraped repeatedly and then strangled. Her body was found in the forest near Rasana on January 17, a week after she went missing.

A pernicious development

In the aftermath of the Kathua murder and the attempts to cover it up, Indians need to reflect carefully about the myth-making about the capacious diversity, reflexivity and tolerance that characterises our culture, which has become such an entrenched part of our public imagination. This only gets in the way of people thinking about what is truly rotten about it. And what is truly rotten, is our ability to invent new modalities of being bigoted and devise a bigotry plan that positions the most vulnerable among us as the actual receptacles of evil. A society without a moral compass cannibalises human empathy, gorging itself on the flesh and blood of the hapless.

It is apparently not enough that a child has been murdered and allegedly raped, and that this was condoned, and denied, by the police, lawyers and a variety of citizens with children of their own. It is not even enough that our political leaders calibrated their strategies of response according to perceived political damage. All this should have been enough to damn us Indians as a people with any claim to civilisational intent. However, we have, of late, developed an infinite capacity for normalising our aberrant selves. As we go about buying Korean TVs and developing a taste for Chilean wines and German cars, it has become easier to convince us that the most significant human relations concern those with objects. Pernicious politicians – having long abandoned any sense of the ethical capacity – thrive on this.

Perhaps the likes of Kishwar and the so-called citizen-reporter are working according to a script provided by some central authority in the ruling dispensation. But what of the larger collective consciousness that is so dulled in its senses of outrage and compassion that such tweets and videos actually generate hatred towards one of the most marginalised communities in the world, rather than disdain and revulsion towards our social media henchmen?

It is hardly new that social unity is often forged through creating a violent outside that threatens the peaceful inside. However, in the present time, there is something new with regard to the inside-outside narrative that lies at the heart of all forms of community-making, including national and religious communities. What is new is the rise of a threshold consciousness. This is a way of both viewing and presenting the world while standing at a point that is neither inside nor outside and allows the movement of thought in whichever direction the strategy of the moment requires. The inside-outside formula is both easier to track and expose to scrutiny, whereas the threshold moment unfolds in more pernicious ways.

The threshold moment

The threshold moment is pernicious in as much as it combines the inside and the outside into one whole in order to encourage the belief that despite various provocations, we absorb the world and are at one with it. But that this act of absorption must always watch out for those who seek to destroy that which is truly our home. Our worldliness must not be taken for weakness.

Consider the following examples from our current moment of misery. Neither Kishwar nor the video-man deny that something terrible has happened: a little girl has been killed. This, they both imply, is indeed, a terrible thing. Someone who is at least grudgingly one of us – because of her Muslim background – has been harmed they say, by complete outsiders, who are also Muslim.

This creates an interesting and confusing binary of the Good Muslims and the Bad Muslims. In the process, what we should be condemning without equivocation – the complicity of our political leaders and various organs of the state in the murder and alleged rape of a child – is diverted into the eddies of nationalist thought and threats to community. This strategy is that of thresholds in as much as the figure of the Muslim is both inside and outside. And, if there are Muslims who are both inside and outside the national community and its well-being, then how is one to take an unambiguous stand?

The narrative that seeks to create community out of positing clear outsiders is not so difficult to critique: after all, at various times, the supposed outsiders and insiders actually lead entangled lives. However, if the acceptable insider also has a duplicate that is, apparently, evil, then threshold thinking is easily able to sway public opinion. The Rohingyas have become the weapon with which they are to be slaughtered, as well as assist in the slaughter of others. The ruse of the Bad Muslim has, rather than lessening the quantity of hate directed towards the Good Muslims, only served to bolster the position of the Hindu good subject: the Good Muslim is now expected to be grateful for the sympathy of the Good Hindu, while continuing to bear the onslaught of the latter’s ire for their troubles. According to this narrative, the Kathua victim’s family should be grateful that we have recognised her fate as murder and are indefatigable in our efforts to apprehend the real culprits. These culprits – criminal, shiftless, murderous – hold up a mirror to the Good Muslim of their own possibilities. They should be grateful for the leeway they have been been allowed.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.