The bare facts of the Hathras incident, the facts attendant and consequent, beggar language. Mere rape, even gangrape, is hardly news in our India. There needs to be something special about the rape for it to even be noticed above the daily noise of atrocity. A child, maybe? The morning paper has a four-year old, kept in captivity, raped and, for good measure, starved. An old woman of 90?
But even in this challenging environment, is there something about the Hathras incident that compels attention?
It couldn’t be the familiar and characteristically Hindu hybrid of caste arrogance and toxic masculinity — although the local politicians did hold meetings in support of the suspected rapists and some of the village Thakurs stationed themselves outside the house of the grieving family, and broadcast insults and threats, on loudspeaker and viral videos, under the benign supervision of the police. Or could it be the extravagant cruelty of the original incident, the bruised tongue of the raped woman, the broken spine? Could it be the palpable complicity of the local administration in the ultimately botched attempt to cover up the crime — the lying policemen, the uncivil civil servants? Unfortunately, none of this is news.
Instances even more extreme can be multiplied — and perhaps will be, by adepts at the whatboutery game, in the bizarre belief that matching atrocities, from opposite sides of some ideological divide, cancel each other out, rather than adding up. But, to be fair, the rushed cremation was rather special. It isn’t everyday that the members of the grieving family — the mother prostrating herself before the ambulance, the father begging to see the face of his murdered daughter for one last time — locked in in fear, even as the body of their dead daughter, crucial evidence of atrocity, is burnt in the small hours of the night, under police guard. Atrocity upon atrocity.
How, then, may one approach the matter of Hathras, approach the makeshift pyre, hastily assembled on waste land, and now strewn with a few, sad flowers? Perhaps in a respectful, awed silence, baffled by the enormity of what one confronts — a pile of ash, now blowing in the wind. I am reminded of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s lines, admonishing the very Spring to enter Jallianwalla Bagh but respectfully: Aao priya rituraj, kintu dheere se aana/ Yeh hai shok-sthaan, yahaan mat shor machaana.
One could be legalistic about it — there is much sport for lawyers here. There is the fudging of the medico-legal evidence, the delayed samples submitted for forensic evaluation; the bureaucratic alacrity in obfuscating the narrative — “no rape”, trumpeted the policemen, this was “merely” murder; the DM bullying the family into silence, on record; and perhaps most egregiously, the rushed cremation — the callousness of course, but also the forensic complicity, the destruction of vital evidence.
Each of these merits full and separate treatment but, for now, I will follow the lead of the CM, UP, and take off on what might be called the Adityanath Tangent. After reluctantly handing over the investigation to a notionally independent agency, the CBI, the government of UP has launched multiple investigations — 21 FIRs and counting — in pursuance of the claim that while the original Hathras incident may or may not be common or garden rape — be mere murder — the outrage over Hathras is part of an international conspiracy, no less, to destabilise the provincial government.
The uniquely horrible nature of the events at Hathras has evoked widespread condemnation, nationally as well as internationally. But to interpret this widespread condemnation as evidence of conspiracy requires genius. Nefarious actors, we are led to believe, are seeking to “challenge” the legitimacy of the duly elected government by “defaming” it — but the government of UP is, evidently quite capable of defaming itself. Arguably, it does little else, lurching from one outrage to another. Now one may grant the “duly elected” part, albeit with some reservations, so it is true that it is properly legal. But “legitimate” is an altogether trickier matter than simple legality.
To put it bluntly, legitimacy cannot be challenged, legality can. Legitimacy, on the other hand, has to be earned — through good governance, through being perceived by the people they govern as acting in their interests, and not in the pursuit of sectarian and nefarious agendas. And while legitimacy cannot be challenged, since it rests to a significant extent on performance and perception, it can be eroded, it can drain away. Now, there might well be people who argue that the performance of the Adityanath government has been spectacularly good, etc — certainly it isn’t safe to suggest otherwise in UP itself, for fear of attracting the dreaded provisions of the NSA and the UAPA, reportedly at the whim of the Chief Minister — “NSA laga do!” The case of Dr Kafeel Khan, whose detention was eventually ruled to be illegal by the High Court is, well, exemplary.
Those who rule us are eager to make examples of sundry people, “to teach a lesson,” they say. But through long years of teaching, I have acquired the sobering knowledge that the lessons learnt are frequently different from the lessons that are sought to be taught. And the lesson that I derive from the paranoia that is evident, in state and Centre, in the perceived “challenges” to legitimacy, and the consequent resort to allegations of conspiracy and sedition by the exponents of such pedagogic “nationalism” — essentially, “teaching a lesson”, generally with sticks and stones, to people who are deemed to be “anti-national” — might well be different from the one intended.
“Conspiracy!” confers a kind of retrospective, derived legitimacy in situations where the real thing is perceived, with justification, to have drained away. After all, if there is a “conspiracy”, there must be something there to be conspired against — in other words, recalling Descartes, conspiracy ergo sum. “Conspiracy” is the oxygen that keeps bankrupt regimes alive. Minus that, what one confronts is a miscellany of horrors, lies and incompetence. Behind the bizarre “international conspiracy” generated by the Adityanath Tangent, that pile of ash, which was once a young woman, awaits our attention.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 13 under the title “The Hathras conspiracy”. The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines