Rape is a painful reality of our lives and times; so are soul-numbing, torturous gang-rapes leading to death. But the entire administration of a state descending on a hapless family, even forcing a narco test after having lost a 19-year-old daughter and sister is a new beginning in the conduct of criminal investigations in the new India of Yogi Adityanath. Someone, somewhere thought that the Hathras girl could become the Nirbhaya for Yogi, dragging the Uttar Pradesh government down the drain of political misfortunes; hence, the government decided to gag the family, shut the district and shun the media. The sliced tongue of the Hathras girl thus became a sort of metaphor for a people who are powerless to speak against atrocities on a helpless girl, a distressed community and a silenced nation.
Nirbhaya’s rape was an opportunistic crime committed by total strangers in a metropolitan milieu with all the concomitants of the urban jungle that is Delhi. But the Hathras girl was attacked in her own village because she was poor, or worse, because she was a Valmiki — the lowest of all the low castes on the great Indian caste ladder. The perpetrators knew who she was and so, obviously, knew that she could do nothing but suffer the ignominies of atrocities that are de rigueur in a regular rural Indian setting. Thus, the Hathras girl is a victim of the village where prejudices get fossilised for centuries. This is a familiar context, be it a UP gaon or a Punjab pind, where some dominant-caste boys believe that low-caste girls could be preyed upon, hunted and hounded out, snapping the umbilical cord with their place of birth. Afterwards, some live, some don’t.
But the story of the Hathras girl becomes different because of the way the UP government handled this familiar context. The incompetent, bumbling Indian state and its miniature versions in the districts and villages cannot obviously stop these atrocities, but they often show empathy to the victim and her family as a guilt-ridden afterthought. The state allowed the anger of the feminine half of urban India to overflow in December 2012 in the aftermath of Nirbhaya’s gang-rape and murder and then came out with a piece of tough legislation to atone for its sin of letting toxic masculinity prevail in the streets of Delhi. Not the line of action for Yogi or his party. Here we see the same ugly male entitlement with a saffron mark on its forehead abusing the victim’s family and challenging the entire system — nay, proclaiming they are the system! — because they belong to the caste of their chief minister, which is obviously the dominant one.
A group is termed dominant, even in a democracy, when it asserts more influence and power than are its due, and at the same time oppresses the weaker groups within a small geographical unit. What better proof of dominance than the friends and family of the accused holding a meeting of support after the state administration had slapped Section 144 in the district, banning all meetings! This brings to the fore the ideological underpinnings of the Yogi government that has made the thugs of this village continue to behave the way they do. Even on Thursday, they had the temerity to write a letter shaming the victim, which was promptly flashed in the media as if now the onus of trying to prove their innocence is on the dead victim and her family. The state administration’s conduct does not leave much to speculate on. So, it is important to examine the Hathras case politically to understand why Hindu nationalist politics, or Hindutva, is instinctively benign towards dominant groups.
For a post-colonial society, nationalism ought to remain an idealistic unifying force. Every time colonial and neo-colonial investments in divisive agendas using identity projects seem paying dividends in terms of separatist politics, quietly, unconsciously nationalism gets fore-grounded as an overriding, coalescing force. This is the expression of the desire of the people, who want a unified, strong and proud nation. It is this unconscious expression of a progressive programme that gets hijacked by Hindutva nationalism. Yet, in the Hindutva nationalist scheme, a Valmiki family does not get the same treatment as a Thakur one does, proving that the Hindutva nationalism has a top-down, condescending, if not oppressive, approach towards the Hindu society and not just the minorities. Hindutva nationalism, thus, is more a militant celebration of masculine violence of dominant groups, which use the saffron tilak and the Bharat mata ki jai slogan for legitimacy, than being a force that binds a nation or creates a nation. Shivaji is supposed to have created a new Hindu nation igniting the martial valour among mahars, mangs and all the oppressed castes, something that the subsequent Peshwa rule overturned. In fact, Hindutva nationalism cannot create a Hindu nation.
Contrast this with Gandhian nationalism, which attempted to create modern India. It had space for everyone, particularly those from the old manual scavenging castes to which the Hathras girl belonged. His nationalism was not merely aimed at the brutish colonial government; rather, it made every dominant group man feel guiltier about the accident of his birth than even a racist ruler. Ideologically, it was the responsibility of every Gandhian nationalist to lend his or her hand to those below on the caste ladder and cleanse oneself of racism by this contact. Gandhi’s solution for untouchability was to tell dominant group people that they are in communion with god or Hari when they touch a manual scavenger.
Unfortunately, India has regressed so badly that now the politics of caste arrogance is par for the course. Backward caste leaders practising identity politics are gambling away the gains of the Constitution without realising that they are pitted against a force that can beat them at their own game. The way forward is that of Gandhi.