By Yashwant Thorat
There are moments in the life of every nation when it either upholds the boundaries defined by humanity, or violates them. These moments define the future of the nation for better, or for worse.
In January this year, an eight-year-old Muslim girl from the nomadic Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Kathua in Jammu, who had gone to graze her family horses, was abducted from near her home, drugged, held captive in a local temple, starved and gang-raped for many days before being killed. As the trial in this heinous crime gets underway, we should remember that the list of those accused includes, among others, a 60-year-old retired government employee, two police officials who directly participated in the crime, two other policemen who helped cover it up and a young person invited specifically for the purpose. The leaders of the community to which the girl belonged allege that during the week that she was missing, the police did little to find her despite being repeatedly requested to investigate.
Today the nation is awake and the media is full of the case. All the symbols of public outrage are on display. Yet, at the time it occurred, at the time when the nation should have risen as one to pressure the government to act, arrest the rapists – and hand them the toughest sentence the law allows, as was demanded in case of the Delhi girl in the bus – there was silence
The only noise at that time came from a mob marching with the national flag in support of the rapists, demanding that the policemen arrested be released. Their voice was amplified by legislators elected to make laws for good governance and lawyers whose avowed profession was to fight for justice. These ‘august people’ agitated to prevent the special investigation team of the state government from filing the chargesheets against the alleged rapists in the courts. The state police, which had put together a coherent account of the act and was going to file a chargesheet, was not allowed to do so on the ground that CBI, the ‘central agency’, was better suited for the purpose.
The cleverness behind this demand cannot be missed, as the idea surely was to block – delay – the filing of chargesheets to give respite to those involved. The Central Bureau of Investigation, too, is likely to have played a role in slowing down matters, allowing the state government to piously explain that a higher agency was looking into the crime. For a while, they succeeded in agitating this demand. The breathing space was used to mobilise support for the perpetrators of the crime among the Hindus of Jammu.
What were the opposition parties doing at this time? What prevented them from launching a campaign to restore communal harmony and justice? Had they spoken up, their secular voice would have demonstrated national concern about an incident which was bigger and deeper than simple rape.
What were the NGOs of civil society doing? What prevented them from raising the war cry earlier?
What were the young men and women of India doing? Were they attending to their studies or had they just given up?
And, incidentally, what was the state administration doing? Was it bowing to sectarian pressure or was it acting decisively? Was it standing behind the principle of ‘impartiality’ underlying its existence or was it recommending bringing in officers from a ‘third’ religion to investigate the rape? Was there any realisation on its part that in doing so it was undermining its own credibility and that of its police force. Steel does not rust – but in this case it did.
What Does All This Add Up To? What Does It Signify?
Does it signify that we are setting ourselves on an inclined plane leading nowhere? Does it mean that we are patronising an emerging religious divide on the principle that ‘might is right’? Does it imply that the multi-coloured secular fabric which has held our plural society together for seven decades is finally giving way to a single colour? Does it show that slowly but surely, we are in the process of becoming like our neighbour?
In situations such as these, it is easy to take extreme standpoints, but we must not do so. Truth does not lie in extremities but somewhere in the middle. And so, before we dismiss as ‘nonsense’ the secular allegation that the case reflects a communal bias, we need to look carefully at the history of rape, murder and violence against the minorities of this country which appears to have been legitimised through incessant political propaganda.
The truth is that whichever way you toss the coin, you are forced to conclude that the eight-year-old child in Kathua was not raped, brutalised and killed merely because she was a child, but because a certain ‘anger’ had to be vented against a community. No doubt, the facts of rape and murder are important – but more important is the politics underlying the facts – the politics which shaped and drove them. The discussion in the media is focused on the manner and method employed to crush a fragile life. Such a debate is no doubt relevant but what is crucial is not ‘how’ she was raped or ‘how many times’, but why. What is crucial are the video footage of lawyers preventing the police from filing the chargesheet and the judge accepting the same only after the high court intervened, raising a doubt as to whether the accused were in fact innocent or were “being supported” because they belonged to a faith different from that of the girl?
The answer to these questions lies not in what is happening today but what transpired 400 years ago.
A Look Back At India of the 17th Century
It was summer.
The tiny homestead of mud and dung stood at the edge of a small agricultural landholding. It was high noon; the relentless Deccan heat had shrivelled the crop. A man walked towards his homestead with purposeful strides and entered without knocking. The family, comprising a man aged beyond his years, a child and a lady, were huddled in a corner. Pushing aside the trembling husband, he reached the woman and – as time stood still – raped her in full view of the family. Repeatedly.
He was a man of influence, well aware that he was above the law. She was just a woman. He looked at her, spat on the ground and walked out. It just so happened that they were both Hindus.
The man was finally caught, charged and found guilty. As the young prince, Shivaji, in whose presence the man was tried, ordered that his hands and feet be separated from his torso, a tremor went through the assembly. The message was clear: The Goddess Bhavani in the temple was no different from the woman at home – one could not be worshipped, and the other defiled. It was also a signal that justice not only had to be swift and exemplary but also blind to the status, position or wealth of the offender.
Some years later, in the court of the same prince, who was now a young king, a Muslim bride of exceptional beauty stood. She had been captured as part of a raid and “presented” to him. He was a man, she was a woman. He was at war with the imperial Mughal emperor and she was part of the ‘spoils’ of battle. According to the prevailing custom, women so captured were often assimilated in royal households. Who knows what passed through his mind as she stood trembling before him. History has little to say but legend has woven many stories around what happened next. One version is that he asked her to lift her veil. She did. He gazed at her for a while and then with a voice which trembled on the edge of emotion, he remarked that her countenance reminded him of his mother. There are other accounts of the incident, some similar, some a little different. But all agree that she was not only unharmed but honoured with clothes and ornaments due to a bride of noble birth and escorted safely back to her family.
It is said that before taking leave, the woman bowed to the king and said:
Badi Mushkil Se Ham Samjhe, Hamain Wo Kya Samajhte Hain
Jo Achhe Hain, Wo Har Insaan Ko Acha Hi Samajhte Hain.
(It was difficult for me to realise what he thought of me. Those who are kind, think of all humans as kind.)
I have no means of knowing whether this is true, but it expresses so well the timeless wisdom of all faiths, of simple human decency. All that is the finest in Hindu tradition – and indeed of mankind – derives from this.
I sit on my balcony, leafing through the pages of a magazine. I return again and again to her photograph. She stares at me with large, liquid eyes full of stars and dreams. I shut mine, but hers continue to look at me. I cannot sleep. I am told that she was raped by many. They are wrong. It is I who raped her. And even if it was someone else, what of it? For, I am not an island. I am a part of the mainland. I do not die alone. I die as a part of humanity. The death of every person diminishes me. I am involved in all mankind.
Why do I feel the way I do? Why can I not sleep? Why do I seek redemption? She is dead and gone and seeks nothing. It is I who seek forgiveness. But redemption is expensive; it demands that we be true to facts. It cautions me against sanitising her death with beautiful half-truths. It forces me to recognise that the source of crime is the hate within me. And if I have to find peace, I must wage a war against those who believe that retribution and justice can be communalised or politicised.
Mine was not a crime of opportunity. I targeted her neither for pleasure or sport. The violence I inflicted on her was not an end in itself – but a signal to her family and her community that if they want to live in this land they must do so as outsiders, knowing that they are alone.
From the balcony, I can see young persons returning home after college. I cannot hear them but I see their faces in excited conversation, secure in the belief that tomorrow belongs to them. And then, just as I am on the verge of merging in their enthusiasm, I ask “What kind of tomorrow?” I am as old as this nation and desperately want to believe that the tricolour will always remain a tricolour. I put aside the magazine and take up the book containing stories of the young prince from my land. As I read, it becomes clear to me that had he been alive today, he would have told us in no uncertain terms that whatever else that Kathua connotes, it is not only wrong but evil, and that it is not and can never be “dharma”.
Nations and men alike pass through dark times. So, instead of dwelling on the darkness, I listen to a favourite of mine: Janakee Jaane, a song in praise of Sri Rama, written in Sanskrit by Yusufali Kecheri, a Muslim; set to music by Naushad Ali, another Muslim, and sung by Yesudas a Christian. Hear it. Tell me whether it speaks to you.
Y.S.P. Thorat retired as chairman, NABARD, in November 2007, and was, till recently, executive chairman of the Dryland Farming Commission and chairman of the Agriculture Universities Recruitment Board, Government of Maharashtra.