The savage subcontinent

The savage subcontinent

By M.J. Akbar | 31 May, 2014
Relatives of the Badaun victims mourn their loss | Photo: Sanjay Vishwakarma
You cannot kill a woman with a single stone; her brothers and father must have hit her repeatedly. People must have watched. Why did no one intervene?

To be left speechless with horror is not a democratic response to barbarism. Democracy is nothing without a voice. There come moments when nothing less than a scream will serve.

The rape and hanging of two Dalit girls in Badaun, was a crime with dimensions far beyond individual perversion. There was casteism. The rapists and murderers were confident that the local police would provide protection; there is evidence about an attempt to cloak this horror by elements within police and administration.

We do not know how many rapes in Uttar Pradesh have been buried into silence by the shame of the victim, and the caste-cum-administrative power of assailants. Perhaps those of us who wander through our lives in the warmth of comfort-zone cocoons do not really want to know the ugly truth that simmers at so many levels of a nation where oppression has merely acquired a few more alibis in its search for contemporary disguise. But the valves of democracy will not permit this ugliness to sink under a shroud every time. There will be citizens who will protest loud enough for media to pick up and turn into a national, and perhaps international, wake-up call.

But will those in power ever wake up? The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav is, by the standards of office-bearers in our country, a young man. We indulge the notion that the young still have some space in their senses for a conscience. And yet, when this CM was asked by a woman journalist in Kanpur about this rape-murder, his response was as cynical as anything you might have heard in politics. He told the journalist that she was safe enough, wasn't she?

Enjoy your luck, young lady, and do not ask too many questions, for who knows what is coming next.

This is the UP CM's message to the people.

His father Mulayam Singh Yadav made a remark, which became famous during the just-concluded general election campaign. Four young men, living in Mumbai, had been sentenced to death by a trial court for rape. The elderly Yadav had the gall to suggest, merely because the guilty belonged to a particular creed and Yadav wanted the votes of their community, that such "childish" crimes did not deserve such punishment. It is not as if Mulayam Singh Yadav has ever demanded an end to the death penalty on principle. For him, votes were more important than rape. He was pandering to the worst characteristics of male brutality and gender bias. What signal did the swaggering louts, base criminals, and indeed an indolent police pick up from the man who was in charge of UP? That rape was a minor offence in the regime of Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav. It is hugely encouraging to note that voters rejected such malevolent politics, and nearly wiped the Yadavs off the UP electoral map.

Around a thousand miles from Badaun, as the crow flies west, is the city of Lahore, just across the Pakistan border. On Tuesday 27 May, a pregnant, 25-year-old woman was stoned to death — you read that correctly: stoned to death — outside a courthouse by her brothers and a posse of 20 male relatives, led by her father. This was daylight murder, not a night crime. Her bestial father had no regrets; this was due punishment, he said, for a daughter who had dared to marry a man she loved without his permission.

One has to slip back many centuries to fathom the mindset behind this monstrous murder. But what I cannot come to grips with is a simple question: why did no one do anything about this horrific assault while it was happening? It occurred in Pakistan's second largest city, in front of a court. It goes without saying that there are people milling around any such court. There are policemen on duty. You cannot kill a young woman with a single stone; her savage brothers and father must have hit her repeatedly. They ran to fetch bricks from a nearby construction site. People must have watched. Police must have seen.

Why did no one intervene?

Lahore is a city that was once synonymous with civilisation and the finer graces of life. What have some Lahoris become?

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that in 2013, 869 women were killed by relatives in the name of "honour", a word that has been twisted by vicious minds to mean the opposite of what it signifies. Men in such families treat women as their slaves, to be maintained for domestic labour and then sold at some appropriate moment of their post-puberty lives. I am sure the figure of 869 is a vast underestimate, just as police records of the number of rapes in India whittle truth into a fraction.

How much savagery is embedded in the DNA of this subcontinent? The answer, if there is one, defeats me.

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