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View: The Hathras horror calls out not only for justice for the victim but also for democratic vigour


When words fail, music speaks — so said Hans Christian Andersen. But, of course, he wrote fairy tales, not stories of torture, pain and pleasure derived from pain.

What music can articulate the horror that befell the 20-year old Dalit girl from Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, who was raped by several men, had her spine broken and her tongue slashed and was left to die, but lived on for more than a fortnight, only to lose the struggle in a Delhi hospital? Or the mindset of the Uttar Pradesh police and administration, who forcibly cremated the woman’s body in the dead of night? Or the attention of the media that left the body of the Bollywood drama, at which it had been pecking, to swoop down on the Hathras Outrage? No moaning wail of the theremin that greets the rising of the movie undead can do justice to the sucking out of humanity at Hathras.

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, / Were axioms to him, who’d never heard / Of any world where promises were kept, / Or one could weep because another wept. No, the poet was not writing about Uttar Pradesh or India. He was describing a world in which beauty and joy had been killed by the grim determination of some ideology to prove its might, besides its righteousness.

The hierarchy of traditional Hindu society, the caste system, bears within it the logic of oppression and negation of justice, which expresses itself in such acts of inhumanity every now and then. Democracy and economic development over seven decades should have unravelled this logic, but has not. The system of governance should have driven home the message of equality and non-discrimination stemming from the Constitution to all citizens and, in particular, to their leaders, the civil servants and the police.

Democracy has not quite worked as intended. The exigency of getting elected, a key component of democracy, has allowed patronage of castes and caste leaders to override the essential democratic goal of eradicating caste and realising the promise of liberty, equality and fraternity. No programme of radical land distribution has eroded the structures of rural power that scaffold caste. Traditional notions of male superiority and privilege combine with unequal distribution of social, economic and political power to retain the status of Dalit and Adivasi women as the most vulnerable people in this country, mere notches above the creatures that slink and scurry to escape the beasts of prey.

And what of the justice system, which holds, in theory, everyone equal before the law? When lynch mobs are greeted as deliverers of social justice, even when the victim is a policeman, as was the case in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, in December, 2018, when democratic protesters are painted as conspirators of violence in Bhima Koregaon in 2018 and in Delhi in 2020, it sends out the not-too-subtle message that the law, far from being impartial, will side with those with links to power and crush the powerless, not to speak of those who question power. Sectarian politics kills fair play and justice in the state’s actions.

Sectarian politics with state backing makes the poor and the disempowered ever more vulnerable, not just the direct targets of sectarian animus. Animals that smell out this vulnerability revel in their impunity and pounce, when they see an opportunity. The girl in Hathras is just one of the countless victims of multiple failures of democracy, for which all of us bear some responsibility, to a greater or lesser degree.

This realisation must produce not a sigh of resignation or helplessness. A cry of anguish and anger is the sound that should rise when words fail in the face of horror of the Hathras kind, a cry that should scorch the collective conscience and spur remedial action.

Views expressed are author’s own

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