Delhi, Kathua, and India’s Growing Indifference to Rape


Delhi, Kathua, and India’s Growing Indifference to Rape

Illustration: Juergen D

It’s a good time to be a rapist in India.

Once considered among society’s most undesirable elements, today they enjoy popular support from protesting crowds and politicians (if the politicians aren’t the ones committing the rapes, that is). If this were the beginning of a dystopian novel, I’d want a hit of whatever the author was smoking. Unfortunately, this is the reality of India today.

Despite India’s poor international reputation regarding the safety of women, there was still a time when the act of rape invited instant national condemnation. Pause for a moment to go back six years in time. The reaction to the Delhi gangrape in 2012, for instance, showed that as a nation, we still had the capacity for empathy and outrage. We still had the moral centre that was unequivocally shaken because of the atrocity. It impelled us to unanimously demand a stop to the brutalisation of female bodies.

Nirbhaya captured our conscience with the horrific details of her case; in 2012, our anger and bereavement was immediate and poured out into the streets. Her brutal gangrape was the high-water mark for a society that was tired of hearing about countless instances of women being assaulted, molested, and harassed.

The assault felt close to our own skin: On a bad day, anyone of us could have been her. Nirbhaya’s body was our body. And for this kind of gross violation, we wanted nothing less than death to the assaulters. It was a fairly black and white situation.

Six years later, though, how do we find ourselves in the grey over the exact same heinous situation?

Once again we are confronted with gruesome details of an assault that has collectively seized our imaginations. It was not a case of horrific evisceration like Nirbhaya, but the gruesome details here are provided by the site of the assault, a temple; the complicity of the law enforcement; and the idea of a tiny 8-year-old girl being broken by a gang of men over an extended period of time.

They are both graphic cases, capable of turning your stomach, but this time around we’re more measured in our response. Some of us have the same sick churning feeling from six years ago. But others? Others have indifference.

The Kathua girl will become another Nirbhaya, another token name to utter in hushed tones until the next vividly horrifying rape with gruesome details shocks us into action.

The reasons for this could rage from ideology to religion or even relatability. It’s difficult perhaps to see the Kathua minor in the same light we saw Nirbhaya. Nirbhaya was like us, a metro-dwelling girl who was on her way home from watching a film at a multiplex. The eight-year-old was just another girl from the militarised region of Jammu and Kashmir in which many brutal crimes take place. How many times can we feel the same outrage? In a report in BBC, Delhi-based social scientist Shiv Vishvanathan says, “I believe the media is almost tired of reporting violence in India. Rapes, lynchings, torture is being reported all the time.” Little wonder then that we feel inured to the horror.

But this numbness to atrocity is a dangerous place to be. It leads to a cycle of outrage and ignorance, where we flare up when our conscience is pricked, and after breathing fire and fury, go back to our blinkered existence. “Our reactions veer from silence to indifference to hysteria. Then we go back to sleep and wake up again to react to the latest incident of outrage,” writes Vishvanathan.

Even though the country is fuming, and “India’s moral compass has been completely obliterated, carpet-bombed out of existence” as Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in the Indian Express, the reality is that our outrage cannot last. As it did with Nirbhaya, it will eventually fade.

The Kathua case will probably drag on for months, maybe even years before the culprits are actually convicted in court. After the conviction, the sentencing will take even longer. Maybe the trial will find them guilty; maybe they will be handed the death penalty, for which they will languish for many years in jail.

By then, the case will have been milked dry of political mileage by every party. The wheels of the think-piece factory will stop turning. And individuals on both sides of the political spectrum will move on, their outrage and their anger sated.

And then, the differences between the two cases will not matter anymore. The Kathua girl will become another Nirbhaya, another token name to utter in hushed tones until the next vividly horrifying rape with gruesome details shocks us into action.

Because unfortunately, ordinary rape will no longer do.