The British set up a system that was founded on the colonial idea that the duty of administrators and law enforcement officials was to protect the government.
If you live in India you learn to accept a degree of casual cruelty as normal. You learn to accept that just below that fragile surface of modernity lies brutality that is medieval. But, every now and then something so awful happens that it shakes us to the core. What happened in that Hathras village has done just that. Savage rapes of little girls and young women are so much the norm, especially in rural India, that we learn to look the other way most times.
Last week, within hours of the 19-year-old woman’s death two other Dalit girls were killed in Uttar Pradesh. An 11-year-old was beaten to death in Bhadohi and a young woman was abducted and allegedly raped in Balrampur. But, it was the Hathras victim’s story that caught our attention perhaps because she managed to survive for 15 days despite her attackers having broken her spine and cutting her tongue. Before dying she identified the monsters who attacked her and said clearly that she had been raped.
There is a Supreme Court judgment that says that if a woman says she was raped then this testimony is enough. But, Yogi Adityanath seems to have his own interpretation of the law, so after the Hathras victim died his officials and his police force went to extraordinary lengths to prove that she was not raped.
Since she was cremated hurriedly, in the dead of night by the police, the only evidence is her dying declaration, but will it be enough to convict the four upper-caste men she named? Yogi’s law enforcement officers have been busy spreading misleading stories, including one in which she was beaten nearly to death by her brother who discovered that she was having an affair with one of her attackers. If stories like this were true and the police had nothing to hide there would have been no reason for them to prevent the media and all politicians from entering the village in which her family lives.
Speaking of the media and politicians, it needs to be said that neither covered themselves in glory. The ludicrous attempt by the Gandhi siblings to ‘march to Hathras’ trivialised a terrible tragedy, and the silence from senior BJP political leaders has been deafening. Smriti Irani who was so vocal after Nirbhaya’s death has said not one word on Hathras despite being the Minister in charge of Women and Child Development.
As for the media, it was only after she was dead that they discovered the victim. And, when they did, some of my esteemed brethren took to Twitter to say that the fuss over her death was only because her attackers were Hindus. In Balrampur, they tweeted, the attackers were Muslims so the incident was being ignored. Had this kind of rubbish come from politicians it would be bad enough, but for it to come from journalists is truly shameful.
The reason why the Hathras story has shaken us so deeply is because it has become a mirror in which we see the flaws of Indian democracy, and the sight is frightening. We see that the men in charge of enforcing the law have not discovered yet that their fundamental duty is to protect the people and not the government. They do not understand this because neither the training of the police nor that of the administrative service has changed since the British left.
The British set up a system that was founded on the colonial idea that the duty of administrators and law enforcement officials was to protect the government. This is exactly what our officials still do.
Before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, he made many speeches in which he talked of the need for India to change the rules of governance and to take a new road. Many ordinary Indians understood this to mean that they would no longer be ruled, but governed. Many whom I met on my travels in rural India said that they wanted officials, both elected and unelected, to realise that they should think of themselves as the servants of the people and not as masters. They said that they hoped that under Modi this change would happen because he was the son of a ‘chaiwallah’ and not someone who believed he was born to rule.
Had he brought about this change, his handpicked Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh would not have spent this past week trying to obliterate the horror of Hathras, he would have been standing by the side of the Dalit family whose daughter died such a terrible death. Had change happened, the police officers and officials who have been involved in the sickening attempt to pretend that the victim was not raped would have been sacked. If they have not been then we have to assume that orders to prevent the truth from being made public came from the top.
Horrible though this tragedy has been, if it reminds the Prime Minister of the need for bringing the changes that are so desperately needed in the training of the police and our officials, it will be a small flicker of hope. It is more than time that we stopped accepting that if you live in India you have to learn to accept casual cruelty and medieval brutality as normal. What happened in Hathras has come as a grotesque reminder of how important it is for this to change.