Our conduct as a society in the rape and murder case of an eight-year-old in Kathua has been so despicable that it can be said, without exaggeration, that India’s moral compass has been completely obliterated, carpet-bombed out of existence by the very custodians of law, morality and virtue who give daily sermons on national pride. This is by no means the first time a child in India has been subjected to the kind of heinous crime that makes you wonder about the dark sickness in our society that we so easily cloak. That the process is moving on, FIRs filed and so forth, will once again give us the sense of normality and closure that has in the past allowed us to move past every such crime. The sense of revulsion that is so overpowering at this moment will quickly dissipate till the next atrocity.
Kathua will become another occasion for organising a momentary outrage. But even the currency of outrage is so broken. Like so much expression of outrage in India, it will be more about satiating our conscience than about staring the enormity of evil in the face. It is an evil that, whether we like it or not, we have authorised and let pass.
How does one even begin to get a grip on this story? The crime itself is unimaginably horrific: The brutalisation and death of a child. But the purposeful nihilism in the crime is equally chilling. By all current reports, it seems premeditated. If current reports are correct, the crime seems purposeful in that the brutalisation was also meant to frighten whole communities, in this case it seems the Bakharwals. Whatever the exact facts of the case may turn out to be, the context of the crime, and the reactions of some Hindu groups suggest everyone understands the message this crime was meant to send. The sheer physical torture unleashed on the eight-year-old has also been paralleled by the extraordinary effort to deny her humanity.
Think of what the reactions to this crime say about us. Groups protesting the J&K police investigating the crime have assorted names like Hindu Ekta Manch and Bharat Bachao Rathyatra. It is as if the last vestiges of any respectability associated with the use of terms like “Hindu” or “Bharat” have been torn off. This is what these ideas have been reduced to: The instrumental use of brutal violence against children to terrorise communities, and to turn perpetrators into victims.
What does it say about us when the Bar Association of Kathua decides to obstruct the presentation of the challan by the Crime Branch? This is a mob of lawyers, allegedly speaking in the name of Lord Ram, obstructing justice. Rather than acting as officers of the court, they have done everything in their power to shift the attention from the crime and its enormity to low politics. They prematurely impugned the credibility of the local investigating agencies. If the context were not so heinous, there would be a profound irony in the stand of the Bar Association. For, they were saying quite categorically that the local state cannot be trusted. But does that not lend credence to all those Kashmiris who have been saying that the state cannot be trusted?
Think of the deep divisions that now characterise India. The state, law, civil society, now understand only a sectarian language. Someone has to psychoanalyse how political differences or cultural differences between communities have reached such a pass that the death of a child is, with glee, used as a pretext for exacerbating divisions. It is as if that communal identification has dismantled any trace of conscience. What is the culture of communal impunity that can allow this to happen so easily?
There is also, of course, deep political complicity. Political leaders are not always responsible for the crimes committed. But what they are responsible for is setting a moral tone, reassuring society that those at the highest levels of power understand the distinction between right and wrong, and will do nothing to empower those who want to unleash a new barbarism upon us. In this case, the context is not just that a crime was committed. It is the fact that political groups, claiming to be close to the BJP, seem to be the ones obstructing justice and communalising the local justice system. It is the fact that this crime was so enormous that even in the normal course of things you would expect political leaders to be the conduit through which we express our sorrow, regret, and outrage, however inadequate that might be. There will be doubtless a formulaic statement at some point by the relevant leaders, but the fact that a moral voice is their last choice rather than first instinct already reveals the hole we are in.
What the vacuum reflected in the political class suggests is a combination of impunity, shamelessness and any lack of moral instinct. We are ready to empower our supporters to the point where even ordinary human instincts and sympathies will get lost. We are seeing a parallel process play out in Unnao in UP (not for the first time), where the victim is victimised even more, the alleged perpetrators seek protection by impugning the credibility of the process, the law-makers turn law-breakers and the governments abdicate their constitutional responsibility. But both in Kathua and in Unnao, the widespread complicity of dominant social groups in this process makes you wonder whether just blaming politicians will be simply another way of exonerating ourselves. It is we who are authorising this culture of impunity.
What do we say for a country that converts the gang-rape and death of a child into a political weapon? What locus standi does anyone have left to even extend genuine sympathy to her family? What language are we left with, that has not been denuded of meaning? I wish we could say with confidence that the Kathua case will morally haunt us for a long time to come; our conduct as a society has shown how easily we can brush it off. But we can say this: Our conduct in this case is already an indication of the moral black hole we have now entered.