By Shiv Visvanathan
Dec 31, 2013
From Partition to Muzaffarnagar, the history of riots has been a celebration of rape. Muzaffarnagar sounds like it’s a part of the UP badlands, while pundits hair-split words like responsibility and secularism.
If you were to ask most citizens what the most exciting event of the year was, most would talk excitedly about the rule of the Aam Aadmi Party. If you were to detain them a bit further and ask what event disturbed them the most, they would stumble, think, and mention gang rapes, corruption and then lapse into silence. A friend facilely replied Dhoom 3. Few today would talk of Muzaffarnagar — the well of silence surrounding it is not just the silence of Hindu majoritarianism gloating in anticipation of the rise of Narendra Modi. It is not merely the silencing of the media owned by corporate interests. Indifference is no one’s particular patent. Corporate dons, journalists, citizens, all claim a stake in it. The silence of Muzaffarnagar is the most disturbing event of the year.
Muzaffarnagar summons the memory of every riot since Partition. It echoes all of them and yet every riot is singular. Every riot as an act of violence adds to the grammar of evil. If Partition or the history of silence after Partition emphasised the enormity of rape, every riot after that added to the degradation of women. The degradation was at two levels; first in the nature of violence as rape and secondly in the nature of silence that followed it. The grammar of riots changed between 1984 and 2012. Grammar is important in decoding a riot. It creates an early warning system to the nature of evil in our society. The sad thing is that grammarians sound cold blooded next to the passion of the victim.
A few keywords stand out as tuning forks. The first is memory: both official and unofficial. Official memory, official histories of riot often create pre-emptive histories. They close camps long before the victims are rehabilitated. Worse, they deny further history, or even the legitimacy of pain.
Mr Modi refused to accept responsibility for the camps. Not to be outdone, Mulayam Singh Yadav claimed that those in the Muzaffarnagar camps were plants of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.
Mr Yadav’s idiocy was amply supplemented by the affable illiteracy of the secretary, Anil Gupta. Immaculately dressed, aptly bespectacled, the Indian Administrative Service officer explained that his surveys indicated that there were very few deaths in the camps. Like a United Nations health expert, he then expanded affably that “people do not die of cold, otherwise how can people live in Siberia”. This piece of Socratic wisdom has enshrined Mr Gupta in the annals of governance. Yet, it reveals something more fundamental — the transition that political scientist Chandrika Parmar mapped between silence and indifference.
Silence has many triggers. One can suffer from compassion fatigue where members of a community get tired of repeated reports of pain. There is an indifference that emerges from a distorted idea of justice, that the victim deserved it. Here riots and rape merge, in that the community is seen as a justified object of violence as revenge and the victim is seen as a seductress, a threat to the public good. Suddenly the logic of official policy and sociology erases the pain and voice of the victim. It is now a vagrant, a deviant, a piece of pathology. Indifference is more lethal than silence because it erases the life story of the victim. What was once geography of pain becomes an empty space devoid of history.
There is a third kind of silence which has many variants, each a particular dialect of power. There is the silence of the majority Jat Hindu which exterminates another in the guise of justice or honour killing. A small act of misunderstanding or a minor fracas gets amplified into what is literally a collective execution of men and a systematic rape of women. It is ruthless, systematic, implacable, repetitive and diabolical. One cannot understand how a society, especially a majoritarian group, can return to normalcy after that. It is weird that the Jats of Muzaffarnagar feel they have retained their honour. One wonders what honour means to a society in this context when its sense of decency, its integrity as a normative society lies in tatters.
To the silence of the majority, we add the silence of the media. Newspapers and magazines with the exception of Outlook which featured a freelancer’s outstanding report, were indifferent. It was as if beyond being an electoral issue Muzaffarnagar was not an “exciting” issue. NDTV with Srinivasan Jain tried to sustain memory. It was heroic but not quite successful. Party silence, media silence, majoritarian silence and the silence of human rights groups combined to create the greater silence of Muzaffarnagar, a grinding searing silence that makes Muslims wonder if India still remains a decent society.
There is a discrepancy to the very narratives of violence. One talks of murder yet these stories are coy about rape. From Partition to Muzaffarnagar, the history of riots has been a tacit celebration of rape. Muzaffarnagar sounds like it’s a part of the Uttar Pradesh badlands, while pundit’s hair-split words like responsibility and secularism. Electoral logic of the BJP, Samajwadi Party and the Congress can dispense with the ordinary Muslim. He is either electoral fodder as minoritarian vote or the fodder of violence to stoke communal fears.
India feels it has reached a positive turn of history. The AAP is in power in Delhi and the Modi juggernaut is moving relentlessly to crush the Congress. Both events seem to signal a middle class, majoritarian victory. In the tumult of that moment, they might ask, so what if a few Muslims died. That is the sadness of history. It is also the final obituary of any democracy.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad