In the days after seven-year-old Pradyuman Thakur’s horrific murder on September 8, when the school bus arrived to pick my five-year-old daughter, the conductor edged away gingerly after opening the door. A teacher stepped forward to inform that the conductor will no longer help any child board or de-board the bus and that either she or the parent would do it. The conductor, usually sprightly, did not move and stared into nothing, perhaps used to this teacher-parent exchange at every bus stop. He is anyway the “other”, who should also be invisible, and to whom you can now no longer say: “Bhaiya window seat par baithana, motion sickness hai isko.” (Please let my daughter sit near the window, she has motion sickness.)
Paranoid and obsessive mothers in the school WhatsApp group were relieved that bus conductors and drivers will no longer come near their children. But they weren’t satisfied. They told each other to teach their children to be wary of security guards, peons, canteen boys, cleaners, practically all those people in schools and housing societies, who work on measly wages and who are beyond doubt “sexual predators”. Similar discussions took place among mothers at the park in the housing society where we live.
There was massive outrage on social media and online petitions began doing rounds. A bar association in Gurugram even went ahead and passed a resolution asking its members not to represent the accused. Then, after two months, came the news that jolted us out of our complacent — and privileged — narrative of a crime that we had no qualms in believing. As we weighed in on demonetisation on its first anniversary on November 8, it turned out that the “demon” was not the school bus conductor, Ashok Kumar, but possibly a senior student in Pradyuman’s school, Ryan International, Bhondsi, Gurugram, who “committed the murder so that examination and parent-teacher meeting could be postponed”.
If we believe the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), it seems 42-year-old Ashok — who has two sons, aged seven and nine — did not try to sexually abuse Pradyuman nor did he slit his throat with the knife recovered from the school toilet where the boy’s blood-splattered body was found.
While it remains to be seen who is convicted for the murder after the trial, it is baffling how easily we believed the police’s version of the sequence of events. It was roughly this: Pradyuman’s father dropped him to school; the boy soon after went to the toilet where Ashok was present; he tried to sodomise the boy who began to scream; Ashok slit his throat with a knife he had managed to sneak in inside the school premises and which was missing from the bus tool box.
As the incident triggered massive outrage, Ashok was arrested on the same day of the crime and the police herded him to a press conference in no time. The diminutive man said how he could not control his sexual urge and he killed the boy — the confession was aired on television channels. I did not hear that confession, but I did hear Ashok’s aged father, claiming in a feeble voice that his son was innocent. Ashok, his father said, had told him that he had only carried Pradyuman’s blood-splattered body to the school staff car that took him to hospital. He pleaded that people should let the law take its own course. But then we had gone over the plot of the crime over and again, made our own judgments, and declared Ashok guilty without a trial.
The latest revelation that Ashok is most likely to get the clean chit only exposes the prejudice that we, the middle-class, have for those lower than us in social strata, who very easily fit in our “usual suspect” narrative of urban crimes. It is the same prejudice that reared its head when we had found it most plausible to believe that domestic help Hemraj killed Aarushi Talwar, and how difficult it is for us, even now, to speak of both murders in the same breath. It is the urban, middle-class prejudice that comes into play every time something goes missing in our homes and fingers are at once pointed at the maids.
Now that it is known that the accused is a juvenile and is from “a well-respected” family, as newspapers have reported, just try and remember our shrill clamour for death for the juvenile convict in the December 16 gangrape case. Can you?