What happens when a funeral procession is banned and grieving itself is perceived to be a threat? One is not allowed to touch the body of the dead person. One screams silently. One weeps – but not aloud. That is what the authorities decreed in Hathras. This has been happening for some time in Kashmir, where bodies of militants killed in encounters are not handed back to their families. Grieving is the core of what makes us human. It is the act that heals the deepest wounds of humanity.
In the Uttar Pradesh district of Hathras last week, an inconsolable mother just wanted to kiss the forehead of her daughter who died after days in hospital, battered after being gangraped by four upper-caste men. The authorities would not allow her to. They would not let the vehicle with the young woman’s body stop at the family home. Even as relatives threw themselves in front of the vehicle, it was driven to the cremation ground.
This decision not to allow the family to grieve at the woman’s last rites was not a lapse. It conveyed a profound meaning. It was a clear sign of the insecurity of the state. It was a sign that the young woman had achieved martyrdom. But it was an inconvenient martyrdom. It was not the kind of martyrdom that could be televised to rally the nation’s collective conscience. It was a death the authorities would rather have ignored. Since they weren’t able to, they chose to burn the woman’s body in the dead of night.
One obvious reason for the hasty cremation was the desire of the authorities to destroy evidence of their incompetence and malfeasance. They claimed that they woman had not been raped at all.
But it was also clear that they were afraid of the power of mourning. The woman’s death had already created an uproar in Delhi. The authorities feared that her funeral would turn into a political procession.
This is something the present dispensation has used to great benefit itself. It has frequently valourised death and deployed it to cynical effect. Especially in the case of soldiers’ deaths, mourning becomes a national ritual. But egalitarian mourning has been a cause for alarm. While the nation’s mourning is a spectacle, egalitarian mourning is a moment of emptiness. Amidst the silent tears is the opportunity for genuine dialogue with the dead – for profound reflection.
Such mourning is filled with the awareness of social wrongs It is about making the promise that they will not be allowed to happen again. Mourning and grieving are about deep human bonds. They are about touch, about consolidation, about crying together and lifting each other up. They are the embodiment of genuine solidarity. Nothing besides true love and true mourning have the capacity to produce the conditions for a transformative politics.
This is because, as American philosopher Judith Butler notes, mourning is a time when we see human relations differently – we identify with those around us not from a sense of pride but a sense of vulnerability. Our concerns may be different but there is a chance that mourning will generate a new sense of solidarity. It is moments of encounter and confrontation that hold open the opportunity for change to occur.
Mourning is a moment of ethical encounter, but as Butler says, there is no guarantee that this will happen. Still, we cannot give up hope. Even if only a few realise the potential of such moments, they will pave the way for social transformation.
But this comes with a serious warning. Mourning and vulnerability should not become permanent emotions. Mourning should not become a mode of identification as it is for rudaalis – professional mourners in Rajasthan who express grief at upper-caste funerals. Like boys do not cry, it is believed that members of the upper-caste men should not display their emotions. Grieving undermines their social status and their masculinity. That’s why they hire rudaali to mourn their dead.
Rudaalis rent out their exhibitions of grief the way contract killers are up for hire. This is a sign of how caste kills human emotions. It kills the meaning of life, birth and death. It kills the sense of grief and celebration. Contacts become contracts in which everything, from sin to mourning, can be bought and sold. But genuine grief cannot be outsourced. It can only be shared.
In the bonds of mourning, we speak less and share more. Butler says that egalitarian mourning can expand the very conception of what it means to be human. That is why mourning the death of the young woman from Hathras must force us to renew the battle against the pernicious hierarchies of caste oppression, to shatter the conception of the human based on the Purusha – the primordial figure of the Hindu social order.
Brahma Prakash is an Assistant Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.