Shakurpur Basti, in north-west Delhi, is a destination you relate instantly to numerous announcements for a local train on New Delhi railway station. Last Sunday, as a clueless two-year-old girl slept while her eight-month-old sister was being raped allegedly by her 28-year-old cousin at her home, the locality became a new address for repulsive stories of depravity that keep appearing in the media with banal regularity.
The accused was arrested and confessed to his crime at Subhash Place police station in the capital. For once, you wished international media was right about the kind of outrage that they reported from India, but it didn’t exactly evoke the collective disgust that it should have.
Are we slipping into a phase of everyday acceptance of brutality in which, to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “banality of evil” is the fate of our private and public lives?
Some of the international media houses which reported the crime with headlines suggesting outrage were The New York Times, BBC, BBC, The Independent and USA Today, while various other foreign media outlets took notice of the crime – they ranged from Australian networks such as ABC, Gulf-based Al-Jazeera, Time magazine to news portals of neighbouring countries such as The Dawn and The Nation in Pakistan and Kathmandu Post in Nepal.
Ironically, though the news was widely reported in the Indian media too, the outrage was neither talked about nor were there obvious signs of outcry beyond the anguish expressed by a few public figures and organisations.
A few media outlets such as NDTV, which is running a campaign called ‘Justice for Baby Nirbhaya’, stepped in to fill the apathy in public space. Within public institutions, one visibly strong reaction came from Swati Maliwal, chairperson of Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), who vowed a 30-day satyagraha to prod the government to ensure that the perpetrators of such heinous crimes (child rape) are executed within six months.
8 month old baby’s rape is also rape of DCW. Despite our repeated demands, system hasn’t moved. From today I have launched protest-Satyagrah. Won’t go back home for next 30 days. Will work day and night to move system. Appeal to @narendramodi ji to ensure r demands in next 30 day
In her earlier tweets, Maliwal had targeted policing and an assortment of punching bags that are likely to be at the receiving end of our rage while reacting to such horrific incidents. As the head of Delhi’s women rights’ official watchdog and empowerment body, that reaction is quite expected and understood.
But system failure seems to be our reflex accusatory action in moments of being shown how small we are as moral creatures. In many ways, failure of deterrence and punitive measures are small parts in looking at the larger crisis of anomie and citizens as prime agents of crimes against other citizens. The failings of the state and government, protectors in a social contract, can’t always be used as red-herrings to explain the crisis emerging from the decaying capital of stakeholders – citizens.
Beyond the lazy reasoning of law and order fragilities, there has to be something more fundamental that can explain the sickening data regarding sexual crimes against children in India. Sample this: according to the latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2016 saw 19,765 cases of child rape registered in India – that’s an insidious rise of 82 per cent from 2015, a year in which 10,854 such cases were registered (no less alarming a figure).
This can also be numerically seen with what the UN Committee on Rights of the Child observed in 2014: one in every three rape victims in India is a child.
Almost a decade ago, a government study, conducted by the ministry of women and child welfare, found that 53.22 per cent of children participating in its survey reported some form of sexual abuse. It was also observed that 50 per cent of abusers were known to the victims or were “persons in trust and care-givers”.
To put in perspective these grim statistics, it’s important to take into account what The New York Times observed in its report: “Methods of reporting sex crimes – and the willingness of victims to speak out – vary sharply from country to country. Statistically, India, with a population of 1.3 billion, does not report a higher number of rapes per capita than many other countries, such as the United States.”
So one may also infer that these numbers could be higher in India if socio-cultural mores were overcome to speak more against sexual abuse and it’s also possible that the recent surge in registered cases is a sign of victims or their families showing more willingness to report such cases. A longer time-frame is needed to analyse any correlation between increase in registered cases and enactment of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012.
At the onset of this century, journalist and writer Pinki Virani’s work Bitter Chocolate (Penguin, 2000) painstakingly documented and narrated various cases of child sexual abuse across India, as horrific as the brutality seen in the Shakurpur case. The issue hasn’t engaged popular culture in any noteworthy way though one may recall it surfacing in a few Bollywood movies such as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014). There is, in any meaningful way, little to show that the scourge has engaged our national conversation.
There is a form of escapism that we exercise in turning our rage against policing and turning it into a law and order discourse. One wonders how preventive policing is going to be effective beyond a point when repetitively the pattern shows involvement of trusted people in such crimes, and even statistics show that side of ourselves that we don’t want to reveal beyond the closed doors of our houses. Punitive measures, though necessary as deterrents, also have limited utility in reining that ugly predator hiding somewhere within our surroundings, or even homes.
A society, which has a pervert raping an eight-month-old baby, must direct its rage against the banal horror of citizens against citizen crimes, and not lose all its moral energy in fuming over state and governments. There is a basic breach of social trust that manifests itself in blurring of lines in a human contract of living – sometimes it leads to shooting someone for a scratch on your car and sometimes it abandons any pretension of being human to violate the body of an infant.
Whether it’s Nithari or Shakurpur, there is no escaping who we really are in our ugly moments of savagery. We might still be deluding ourselves with the exceptionalism that its extremes make us believe in. For all the disgust that the mere thought of an infant being raped evokes, the reality of it is closer than what we feared.
It, in many ways, is the sum of all our fears with our unknown selves. Millions of Indians might not be living too far from such houses, probably living in them with a side of themselves they aren’t so sure about. They don’t know, nor did the 28-year-old cousin. The eight-month-old child suffered inhumanity before having the words to express the trauma of being denied one’s humanity.