When an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl was raped and brutally murdered in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, no one outsideKashmir batted an eyelid. Three months later, after international media carried stories on the gruesome crime, the “conscientious Indian” woke up to the threat of India’s claim to being the world’s largest democracy being busted globally. It was little besides a face-saving attempt by those who have found a perfect scapegoat in Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar to blame for everything wrong in India. To them, the only thing wrong about India today is the ascent of right-wing forces to positions of power. Any crime in India since 2014 can become a rallying cry to pit national conscientiousness against the right wing, though the long tradition of violence against the downtrodden castes and exploited classes doesn’t seem to prick that conscience. Numerous allegations of lawlessness related to counter-Maoist operations by police and paramilitary forces in several states of central and eastern India, including sexual assaults, extrajudicial executions, large-scale displacement of Adivasis and burning down of entire villages, have proved inadequate to trigger conscientious outrage on any sustained basis. The same has been the fate of the continued imposition of AFSPA in several northeastern states.
The anti-right-wing, conscientious Indian’s political logic, then, seems to be aimed at befooling those who have been the harshest critics of the basic structure and foundation of the Indian State. No wonder, rapes of Dalits, which happen every now and then, fail to trigger the kind of sustained outrage that the 2012 Nirbhaya rape had. To salvage the nation’s pride at that time, there had been massive protests at that time demanding the harshest punishment for rapists.
In fact, every time an “internal matter” threatens to call India’s bluff internationally, the conscientious Indian is quick to take to the streets, often with a ‘Not in My Name’ placard in hand. This also serves to distract attention from the fact that an authoritarian streak has marred the Indian polity for much longer than the rise of the BJP—as some would argue, right from 1947, the year of Partition and the end of the British Raj. It took decades for the core Hindutva element to consolidate itself institutionally. Now, it has become more visible and operates directly through the “democratic” institutions of the Republic. This development has been so exponential that the earlier generation of top right-wing politicians such as L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee of the Ram Janmabhoomi Rath Yatra legacy have been marginalised by PM Narendra Modi, who, as the then Gujarat CM, had allegedly turned a blind eye to the post-Godhra pogrom of 2002.
Conscientious Indians generally agrees that Modi rates higher than Vajpayee or Advani on Hindutva’s evolutionary scale, but often refuse to measure the Congress too by the same standard. If they did, it would appear as if the history of India since 1947 is the history of the unravelling of democracy, with Modi representing the pinnacle, so far, of the institutionalisation of Hindutva in the body politic.
Now, let’s turn to that elephant in the room—Kashmir. What does the delayed outrage over the Kathua rape and murder case tell us about the conscientious Indian? Firstly, the victim of the gruesome crime is a subject of the “disputed territory” of J&K, so the conscientious Indian is anyway expected to rally for her in order to further their broader project of integrating J&K with the Indian Union. By imposing epithets like “Daughter of India” on the victim from J&K, the conscientious Indian tries to disguise this project as something progressive. “Integration” has been as vehemently pursued on the psychological front as on the military front. Trying to paint the Gujjar-Bakarwals as a “pro-India” community, citing examples of some of its members helping the Indian Army, is one way of doing that. It also hides the “anti-India” politics within the community, which goes back further than 1947.
Secondly, when conscientious Indians look at the crime against the girl, they fail to see it in continuity with the “use of rape as a weapon of war” in Kashmir, as Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations have called sexual violence as part of counter-insurgency operations. It helps them justify exonerating “the nation” (and thereby themselves, as see themselves as the conscientious elements who make up this nation) vis-à-vis crimes such as the alleged mass rapes at gunpoint and torture in Kunan-Poshpora or the alleged rape and murder of Asiya and Neelofar in Shopian. It also helps them hold the lid tight on the alleged massacres and displacement of Muslims from Jammu in 1947. Chaudhary Lal Singh attending the Hindu Ekta Manch rally is a problem to the conscientious Indian, and yet the same minister reminding Jammu’s Muslims of the 1947 massacres finds no mention in their dissident discourse.
Thirdly, what the conscientious Indian’s outrage says loudest is something like this: “The BJP (or the Congress or some other) government is responsible for the crimes. These are not the nation’s crimes, and hence we are not to blame.” So, for the conscientious Indian, the genesis of the Kathua crime is either the Indian State not extending the Forest Rights Act to J&K, or the J&K government not bringing in a similar legislation, while that’s actually just a part of the problem. The idea is to once again peddle the narrative of “failures of governance” as the underlying cause. This, in turn, helps them to avoid acknowledging their own complicity in the institutionalisation of the structures of violence as part of attempts to “complete the integration” of J&K in the Indian Union.
Fourthly, the outrage in the Kathua case found its critical momentum due to the Hindu Ekta Manch rally organised for defending the accused. That the right-wing forces in Jammu and the rest of India have been trying hard to shield the accused is obviously shameful, but what it also hides is that the same people had allegedly orchestrated the crime in the first place. From the money put in by prime accused Sanji Ram to the use of the temple under the aegis of the same person, and alleged destruction of evidence by Jammu’s local policemen, the crime cuts across different individuals and institutions that synergised their efforts to evict the Bakarwals.
Sometimes the conscientious Indian is a humanitarian who is naturally outraged, for example, by the brutalisation of a minor girl. But modern politics is heavily driven by identity and this crime, in particular, was politically motivated right from day one as part of a larger project to drive out Muslims from Jammu. In 2016, Yaqub Gujjar was killed by a group of Hindu policemen and men allegedly linked to the Sangh Parivar. Recently, Liyaqat Ali was stabbed to death allegedly by three Hindu men. Identity-based and communally motivated politics, therefore, are at the heart of these crimes.
Moreover, for the umpteenth time, the outrage of the conscientious Indian has followed outrage expressed in the national media. Clearly, it is the national media that largely manufactures public opinion in the country. And this media is widely criticised in Kashmir and outside India for misrepresenting the ground realities in the “disputed territory”.
Statements by public figures in India condemning the Kathua rape and murder, however, unanimously agree on some sort of “moral slide” in the Indian imagination. To understand the essence of this moral slide narrative demands only a cursory glance at the contemporary history of India. One needs to study the cases of violence outside Kashmir, particularly against minorities, and then judge the nature of the subsequent outrage, if any.
How many conscientious Indians have taken to streets over the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Gujarat pogrom or the daily violence on Dalits, adivasis and the working class? How many protest the brutal counter-insurgency operations unleashed on Maoists and the adivasis of central India among who they do their political work? So leave aside the violence on Kashmiris, few conscientious Indians mobilise themselves against state violence on people elsewhere.
An example should suffice to sum up the hypocrisy behind this “moral slide”: narrative: Former bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah was seen on television championing the cause of the Kathua girl. Earlier, when he was district commissioner of Kupwara, Wajahat had labelled the rape of at least 40 women, allegedly by the army, in Kunan-Poshpora as “allegations made under pressure from militants, with the sole aim of discrediting the army”.
With such a collective morality, the idea of a “moral slide” makes no sense. Indeed, it is celebrated film-star Amitabh Bachchan refusing to comment on the Kathua rape and murder that represents Indian society best—its stalwarts give two hoots about people who are targets of state violence anywhere in the country. Instead, they feel ashamed to acknowledge the state’s crimes even as they continue to be brand ambassadors of “Mera Bharat Mahaan”.
Celebrities from the Hindi film industry who posted pictures of themselves demanding justice for the Bakarwal girl did so to keep their fan base intact in an atmosphere supercharged by chest-thumping nationalism. The whole film fraternity has miserably failed to take a stand against the government, particularly on Kashmir. Their cinematic imagination has always portrayed Kashmir as feminine and sensual, and therefore, to their masculinist eyes, justifiably worth subjugation. Can they ever speak truth to power on Kashmir? Do they have it in them?
Besides Bollywood, Indian nationalism also thrives on another cultural symbol—cricket. Indian cricketers a class part, aloof from politics, but leaving no stone unturned whenever called upon to prove their nationalism vis-à-vis Kashmir. It can almost be argued that they seem to “own” Kashmir even more than Indian State. Dhoni steps into Kashmir in an army uniform. Sehwag becomes a political scientist post-retirement. Gambhir tweets and Dhawan joins in. Raina does not lag behind.
On the other hand, faced with a spate of hate crimes that are attributed to Hindutva, the conscientious Indian chooses to toe the safer line by comparing the BJP with “lesser evil” Congress and upholding faith in the Indian judiciary, even though it has been criticised for handing out death sentences based on circumstantial evidence to satisfy the “collective conscience”, in the words of the Afzal Guru death penalty verdict. Former Gujarat minister Maya Kodnani, however, was acquitted in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre case.
And you just have to follow Madhu Kishwar’s tweets to gauge how smooth is the marriage of jingoism and the collective morality of Indian society. India’s cultural cavalry has been helping the state immensely in its attempts to culturally immerse J&K. That is why, time and again, popular cultural icons keep on offering their unsolicited expertise on Kashmir. These cultural symbols strengthen Indian nationalism by swaying the middle classes—their fan base—in directions best suiting the interests of the Indian State. They complement the military might that Kashmiris have been facing for decades now.
For Kashmiris, this shameless politics is not surprising at all and has been called out every time, vindicating the axiomatic truth about our relationship with “the nation” as one of being colonised and subjugated. Kashmiris will not give up calling them out—be it about Kunan-Poshpora, Shopian or Kathua. This consistency is the backbone of our resistance. Conscientious Indians, however, have so far refused to read the writing on the wall, learn the lessons of history and give up playing their dirty nationalist dirty politics over Kashmir.
(The writers are political science graduates of Kashmir University and tweet at @roufdar_ and @karimnannwore respectively. The views expressed in this article are their personal views. Outlook does not assume any responsibility for the same)