The Hathras gangrape has reminded us yet again of the cruelty that lies latent within us. It tells us how a woman’s body is used as a battlefield, used to punish her, her family and her community, or used for revenge.

Cruelty, like grief, can never be quantified, but each case of rape, indeed of any violence towards a woman, seems to bring out cruelty in a different form. As if the perpetrators are inventively seeking new methods of brutality. The nineteen-year-old girl, in this case, was almost strangulated by her own dupatta, and her spine broken so that she was paralysed. Her suffering ended with her death, but the torment of her family continued, reaching an apogee when the police, refusing to hand over her body to the family, cremated her themselves in the middle of the night. Rather, they burnt her body as if it was a pile of trash, something to be got rid of.

A picture of the burning pyre, surrounded by a cordon of outward-looking blank-faced policemen juxtaposed against the anguished cries and faces of the family watching from a distance was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

Police personnel block roads following the alleged gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old woman in Bool Garhi of Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh. Photo credit: Pawan Sharma/AFP

As if this was not enough, little capsules of information were doled out, saying that there was no rape, that her own family had killed the girl because of her friendship with one of the four accused and so on. The girl’s dying declaration in which she named her assailants and spoke of rape, was, against all tenets of the law, disregarded.

Unanswered questions

Right now the investigation is going on and hopefully, the court will disentangle falsehoods from the tangled skein of statements. There are, however, certain questions which, though not part of the investigation of the crime, nevertheless beg for answers.

Firstly, how did a political party that had shown great skill in propaganda and image building (the image of a wise and humane leader, for example) in two successive elections blunder so badly in the publicity game? How did they ignore a fact which all political parties are always acutely aware of – that the girl’s family was a Dalit family? Political parties know the importance of being, at least in public, on the side of these unfortunate people. And yet, the government in UP treated the victim’s family as if they were the criminals, it used government machinery to terrorize them.

How did they so easily disregard the fact that the girl was triply disadvantaged – on account of her caste, her gender and her poverty? How did they forget about political correctness, (or, let us call it by its right name, hypocrisy) which is all-important in politics? And worse, every rule of decency and humanity was flouted when the girl was cremated against her family’s wishes.

All humans have not only a duty, but they also have a right to perform the last rites of their dead. The High Court of Allahabad, in fact, called what was done in Hathras a denial of a human right of the family.

What was it that made the government so insensitive and callous, even uncaring of their own image? Was it complacence? A complacence which came after two successive massive victories in the elections? Was it arrogance at having humiliated the opposition, especially their natural enemies, the Congress, and getting the kind of power which no single party had had in years?

Cruelty of another kind

Perhaps there is a need to think of what a historian, William Dalrymple, says about Aurangzeb in his book, The Anarchy: “His alienation of the empire’s Hindu population and especially the Rajput allies, by his religious bigotry accelerated the collapse of the Empire after his death.”

Of course, politicians do not care about history. Or about myths. Hubris and Nemesis are just words to them. Nor do they care about the past, except when it serves their purpose, and they remain indifferent to the future. It is the now that matters, it is the coming election that is important. But no political party can afford to alienate a community. Yet in this case, it seems that both the major political parties did not care even about losing votes.

Remember the Congress Party’s desire to meet the victim’s family and the doggedness with which they fought for it? They gave the impression that they had woken out of their somnolence. But just a few days later, we have Kamal Nath, a senior Congress leader and an ex-chief minister, making a lewd comment against a senior woman BJP member, who was also a Dalit.

Senior Congress leader Kamal Nath. Photo credit: AFP

Laughing at his own “humour” when he said the word, the men around him sniggering as well. It was an incredible scene, cheap and vulgar, like something out of a B-grade Hindi movie. Of course, Kamal Nath later denied having made the comment, he refused to apologise. Finally, he did apologise, but one now knows what he thinks of women.

To speak derogatorily about women, so casually and in public, to laugh as if it is a big joke, is cruelty of another kind. It is also an act of violence, meant to degrade and to humiliate a woman. Have we become so debased that politicians think they can say such things, do such things and get away with it? Among those who stood around their “leader” and laughed with him at a woman’s expense, was there not one man who had some qualms about what they were doing? The same question applies with even greater force to the men and women in the Hathras case who obeyed their masters’ orders and harassed a poor family who had just lost a daughter. Was there not one person among the police and the officials with a conscience, not a single man with compassion?

Politics of hate

Conscience? Compassion? The cynic in me laughs, calls me naive and stupid. What do these words mean in the hate-filled political world of today? The angry faces and the raving and ranting on TV, the charges and counter charges, the ugly comments on social media, make it clear that the politics of hate has gone too far for us to retrace our steps. In fact, the better a hater you are, the better your chances of rising in the party, the more outrageous the statement, the quicker the rise.

But is it not exactly for this reason that we should bring words like conscience and compassion back into circulation? These words are important for humankind, it is because of them that we are human and have survived so many catastrophes.

The land of Rama

Let us also not forget that the state in which a girl was so callously raped and killed is the state in which a Ram Mandir is being built. The building of this temple was a promise made by the BJP to its voters and it is being kept. It is very clear that nothing will be spared in making it a magnificent monument, which will be a tribute, not only to Sri Rama but to the political party which kept its promise.

The bank of Sarayu river ahead of the foundation-laying ceremony of Ram temple in Ayodhya. Photo credit: Reuters

Statistics were rolled out at the time of the foundation stone laying. It was going to be the largest, the highest, the most ornate, the most splendid temple. But beyond the statistics and the temple is the Ramayana itself, an epic poem which was born out of compassion. It was when Valmiki saw the grief of a bird, whose mate was shot by a hunter, that the Ramayana came into being. It was karuna, compassion, that stirred Valmiki. Do we ever think of this?

However magnificent the temple, the story of the Ramayana is greater. It is a story that has lived for centuries. Many versions in different languages sprang up all over the country. In fact, it is said that there were so many translations of the Ramayana, that Kumaravyasa, the Kannada poet, took pity on the earth, groaning under the weight of all these Ramayanas and translated the Mahabharata instead.

This story is narrated by AK Ramanujan in his essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas. How many Ramayanas? he asks. Three hundred? Three thousand? It was not just India, the story spread through South Asia as well, became a part of people’s lives. I remember the time I visited the Thunchan Memorial Centre in Tirur, Kerala for the Thunchan Festival held in honour of the 16th century Malayalam poet, Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan who translated both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana into Malayalam. Early morning, passing a darkened room with only a dim lamp shining, we heard someone chanting. We were told that this was a tradition, that the man was chanting the Ramayana. And chanting it from memory.

No, it is not the size of a temple or the amount of money spent on it which makes the temple sacred. I think of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, an unimpressive building in the midst of narrow slippery lanes. And yet, from early times devout Hindus longed to visit Kashi at least once in their life, there were Hindus who wanted to die in Kashi.

I think of another temple, this one in Udupi, Karnataka. This 13th-century temple, dedicated to Shri Krishna, is a very modest building, but whose sanctity is great. A sanctity that comes from the story of the poet composer Kanakadas, a great devotee of Krishna, who came to the temple for a darshan of Shri Krishna.

He, however, was not allowed inside because he belonged to a low caste. He then went to the back of the temple and sang and prayed to his God. And a miracle happened. The idol turned round, faced this great devotee and gave him darshan. Only a myth of course, but the idol still faces the back of the temple, it faces west, whereas all Hindu idols face the east. And there is the window through which Kanakadas saw his god. So ...? What is the story telling us?

Stories are more powerful, they are more potent than any building, however strong it is. For a monument can be destroyed, it can become a ruin, while stories go on forever. But stories, too, cannot be accepted unquestioningly. Dumb obedience, unthinking acceptance, has never led to greater knowledge.

The real value of the Ramayana comes from the fact that it is the story, not of a god, but of a man who lived according to a moral code, who lived by his conscience. He fails at times, most memorably he fails Sita. But he is a man and failure is part of being human. One of the most poignant moments in the Ramayana is when Sita jumps into the fire after the war is over to prove her chastity. Brahma himself plucks Sita out of the fire and takes her to Rama, saying, accept her, she is your Lakshmi. And then asks him, do you not know who you are? And Rama says, I only know that I am Rama, son of King Dashrath. To look at Rama in this way, as a man who tried to live a life of goodness, rather than as a god, makes it possible for us to ask questions. To possibly change the narrative, as the TV anchors say. For, sadly, the Ramayana tells us that women can never get justice. No, not even a woman like Sita, not even from an exemplar like Sri Rama.

No party really cares

But who will bring about the change? Not politicians or political parties, certainly, who have only one agenda: win elections, get into power. Of the two major parties, the ruling party has proved its chauvinist credentials.

Congress leaders Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi on their way to meet the family of the Hathras gangrape victim. Photo Credit: PTI

As for Congress, it seems a spent force. It is time that the Congress Party realises that gimmicks, the kind they did in Hathras, do not win elections. These little eruptions are soon forgotten and by the time the next elections come, the issue will have been overlaid by many more. They have to understand that to win elections you need a strong, well-organised party. Whereas Congress is a party in disarray.

It is amazing how unaware, how uncaring they are of what has happened to them. They seem to be living in a bubble, a glorious past when they were a power in the country. A letter from some party members, asking for an election to choose a leader, was treated as if it was lese-majesty. Congress seems blissfully unaware that what the country needs is not a family, but a strong party which can form a government, or become a strong opposition when not in power.

The party seems to believe in the family’s divine right to rule, a theory which cost two monarchs their heads. We need Congress to keep its head, to become a party to be reckoned with. Only then can we be assured that our democracy is safe.

An unpleasant truth we are finally forced to confront is that no party really cares about women, or about the Dalits. Or about anything but winning elections. Women’s lives do not matter (specially poor or Dalit women), they are accorded no dignity, either in life or in death. What does this say about us, about our “great” culture? I quote Karl Marx: “The direct, natural and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. From this relationship one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development ... It reveals the extent to which man’s natural behaviour has become human.”

If this is the litmus test of being human, it seems we are very far from achieving humanity.

Shashi Deshpande is an award-winning writer. Her most recent book is titled Listen to Me.