Today, in this sombre moment of collective grief and revulsion across India, the child from a pastoral community in Kathua with two sets of parents has also become your daughter and mine. At this time of loss, the question we must confront is this: who is responsible for her ghastly rape and murder?
You may argue that the police chargesheet bravely and painstakingly prepared by the investigating officer already gives us all the answers. After all, the men who allegedly abducted, drugged, serially gang raped, strangled and bludgeoned the little girl to death have been named, and it is now for the court to name them guilty. What is left in assigning culpability?
A great deal. Because if we are to emerge from these times – some of the darkest India has seen after independence – it is imperative that we undertake an unflinching, even if painful, wider forensic investigation, which must cover India’s political society today.
We must begin with the acknowledgement that the child met the fate she did not merely because she was a girl, but because of her religious identity. What caused her rape and murder ultimately was visceral normalised hate against Muslims. It is this normalised hate that spurred former Kotak Bank employee Vishnu Nandakumar to write a Facebook post declaring that it was good the child in Kathua had been killed, otherwise she would have grown to become a terrorist and human bomb. Her gruesome rape and murder are part of a litany of hate crimes in recent years. In the journeys of the Karwan e Mohabbat across 10 states, we have found a pattern not just of killing, but of mutilating the bodies of victims, in Assam, Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and coastal Karnataka. I have just returned from Asansol, Bengal, where the nails of Imam Rashidi’s 16-year-old son were pulled out, his eye gouged, his body partly burned.
Therefore, to my mind, if we are to assign primary guilt for the barbarity the little girl of the mountains was forced to endure, my chargesheet must begin with those who have fostered such an unprecedented permissive climate for hate speech and action that especially targets Muslims and, in some regions, Christians. Here I point directly to the country’s highest political leadership, most of all to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In him, as in United States President Donald Trump, people have elected leaders who foster profound social divisions, and legitimise hatred and bigotry. This lies at the core of their politics: the nurturing of a sense of victimhood of the dominant majority, and the scapegoating and demonising of oppressed minorities. Modi himself resorts to direct hate speech only occasionally, usually strategically close to elections. But he never displays any spontaneous anguish, recrimination or outrage when Muslims are lynched or priests and nuns attacked; when his colleagues spout hate speech; when crimes are registered against victims of hate violence and withdrawn wholesale against the perpetrators; or when the national flag and celebrations of Lord Ram’s birthday are misused to canonise hate killers.
Facade of secularism
In my personal chargesheet for the many crimes mounted on the girl in Kathua, I would next call out the Sangh Parivar, perhaps the world’s largest social organisation which has for almost a hundred years tirelessly and systematically fostered hatred against India’s minorities and its liberals. It has warred against and eroded India’s pluralist civilizational traditions and its constitutional morality. Modi has not created the hatred that has entered the veins of India’s social life like a heady toxic drug, he has only legitimised it in what I describe as an era of “command hate”. The hatred already lay deep within our souls and it is now spouting out because we are led to believe this hate and bigotry is socially acceptable. For cultivating this hate within us, the dedicated contributions of the Sangh and its many affiliates must be acknowledged.
Next in my chargesheet come the so-called secular parties. I find for most political parties, secularism is not a political or ethical principle but only a weak-kneed strategy and a facade. It is a slogan to garner the votes of India’s religious minorities without antagonising what they see as ever-growing ranks of Hindutva supporters among the Hindus. This secularism sometimes translates into stipends for clerics or photo-ops with them, but for the most part it manifests as the so-called secular parties invisibilising the Muslim in public life, cynically confident that the beleaguered community has no choice except to vote for them to hold off the larger evil of the Bharatiya Janata Party. We never see them battling hate, standing with victims of hate speech and violence, and affirming the equal citizenship of India’s religious minorities.
My list of those ultimately culpable for the hate crime endured by our daughter in Kathua is even longer. It includes the country’s higher civil services, police and magistracy, which – with honourable exceptions such as the officer whose investigation revealed the details of the horrific crime – have largely been complicit in the unchecked rise of hate crime, the failures of justice and the criminalisation of the victim. Sections of progressive civil society are unwilling to raise concerns of hate crimes against minorities for fear of offending majoritarian sentiments among their constituents, donors and governments. Mainstream media, which could have been a bulwark for defending constitutional values, has mostly caved in, cravenly silent if not actively supportive of the ruling establishment’s anti-minority agenda. Teachers in schools and colleges could have mitigated the hate and prejudice that children often learn at their dining tables and on social media, but most lack the convictions, and possibly the skills, to do so.
But, above all, we need to hold ourselves – you and me – accountable. For all we have done and not done as we allow the idea of India to unravel in this way, allow India to transmute into a republic in which minorities are forced to live with fear and hate, punctuated by bouts of unspeakable violence of the kind that took away our daughter in Kathua. For our political and social choices, for our silences when we should have spoken out, for our apathy when we should have resisted.