Last week, during the wee hours of 5 and 6 December, the Hyderabad police shot dead four men accused of raping and killing a young veterinarian in the city. In response to the alleged encounter, a large section of people expressed their jubilation and applauded the police. Such people view themselves as taking a moral stance against the heinous crime of rape. Their celebratory reactions to the killing reflects a cathartic relief, the kind of relief that is not different from how a typical viewer of Indian cinema feels when, in the climax, the good guy bashes up the baddies.
To rewind, on 6 December 2019, India should have been somberly reflecting on another equally chilling incident of rape. For, on that day, the 23-year-old victim of rape in Unnao town of Uttar Pradesh was battling for life. She died soon after, another young Indian woman in the long list of those killed by rapists. On the day she died, the Hyderabad police announced the death of the four accused who were in its custody.
It is true that the city of Hyderabad was outraged when the half-burnt body of the veterinarian was discovered. Angry people had marched out, demanding summary punishment for the perpetrators. When news of the death of the alleged rapists and murderers left them feeling overjoyed. Locals showered the city police with petals as a mark of their respect, while across the country ‘justice delivered’ became the common refrain among ordinary people, sporting and cinema celebrities, as well as parliamentarians.
It does not require much intelligence to see that there were gaping holes in the police version of how this “encounter” unfolded. Even the city police commissioner’s claims before a packed news conference rang untrue. But the country was eager to suspend disbelief. Concern for the truth or facts mattered little in the face of a mass desire for retribution. These kinds of popular priorities reflected in the newspaper headlines on 7 December, the day after the encounter was announced: while the death in Unnao was relegated to a small single-column news item, the death of the rape accused in Hyderabad captured prime space.
The complex and porous moral frame
At one level, this sequence of events highlight the complexities of the world of social morality, where conflicting and competing motivations battle one another to rise above the surface. True, it is unrealistic to expect every moral agent to be consistent in each choice they make, but moral stances get positively valued precisely because they are expected to be consistent.
That is why most parents feel embarrassed when they are caught telling a lie by their children, for they always instruct children to speak the truth.
One way to live with the inevitable contradictions of social morality is to craft a conception of the ‘Other’. The Other is people who are placed outside one’s own moral world. Actions which are considered immoral when committed against ‘insiders’ carry no such burden if the target is an Other. Once the four men arrested by the police in Hyderabad had been pushed into the netherworld of Otherness, false claims about their being killed in an “encounter” ruffled no moral feathers even though the claim came from the police, which people otherwise consider one of the most corrupt public institutions.
The above argument is a proximate explanation for the popular reaction to the killings in Hyderabad. For, the increasingly aggressive popular outrage against rape is in manifest contradiction with the increasing trend of sexual and physical violence against girl children and women in India. If so many Indians are so vehemently against rape, then why are these crimes so widely prevalent? Two considerations help unpack this contradiction.
Rape is an extreme symptom of the thriving world of patriarchy in Indian families, communities and public life.
Most rapists in India are not isolated sociopaths, but socially-integrated sons, husbands, boyfriends, partners, fathers and uncles. For the typical Indian male’s psyche, rape is but a step in the continuum of everyday objectification of female body and dehumanisation of a women’s person-hood.
During their transition from infancy to boyhood, through to teenage and even after becoming men, Indian males do not even learn that verbal abuses built around expressions of sexual assault on women, or the display of male genitalia in public, can be an affront to others. This is one reason why Indian men are often found abusing and peeing in public.
Further, predatory behaviour towards women is an accepted norm. The same city of Hyderabad, which is now so enraged by a rape, saw the misogynistic movie Arjun Reddy to mega-success. And then, its Hindi remake, Kabir Singh, also became a grand success.
A rape becomes an issue for Indian patriarchy when it transgresses the familial izzat of a beti and bahu. Indian law does not entertain any notion of marital rape.
Hence, interestingly, while a husband by definition cannot rape his wife, the Indian criminal justice system eagerly accepts allegations of rape for consensual sex under the so called “promise of marriage”. Protection of women’s integrity is secondary to sanctification of marriage.
Since the societal discourse on rape rarely uncovers patriarchy, and limits itself to seeing rape only as a crime, threat of a severe punishment remains the only demand that emerges from members of society. The ideology of punishment as a deterrence fails to recognise that very few crimes are committed after a careful cost-benefit analysis. Whereas the police and the judiciary enter the frame only after a crime has been committed, it is the reactions expected from ordinary people which deter a potential criminal.
It should not surprise that rape is an ever-present threat in a society whose people look the other way when a woman is teased or abused in the public sphere.
This brings up the second supporting process which sustains the contradiction between so many Indians who vehemently claim to be against rape—including most people in positions of power—and the threat of rape being so pervasive for Indian women.
The social life of Indians is suffering from a severe moral disarray.
Traditional codes cannot provide a coherent framework for dealing with aspirations and conflicts of changed modes of life. A rational reorganisation of public life along principles of modernity has been aborted by an entrenched elite sitting in positions of economic, political, legal and cultural power.
The emerging aspirational strata among Hindus has tied their moral compass to an irrational Hindutva, whose logic of authoritarian power has no place for values such as respect for facts, mutual trust and self-reflection, which could have served as corrective measures. The state-based criminal justice system is in a shambles. Policing is little more than peddling of money and influence for the privileged and an exercise in brutal power so far as the poor and the underprivileged can see.
It is in this environment of structural moral decay of public life that most ordinary Indians suffer, commit, witness and condone multiple acts of immorality in their everyday lives. Many have come to believe that self-interest should be the only valid logic dictating their actions. Hence, if on the one hand they are scared to challenge existing structures of social power, on the other they do not hesitate to rely on falsehoods and threaten those who are weaker than them.
Periodic aggressive outrage over official corruption or violent crimes like rape is perhaps the only way people can still maintain a semblance of morality in social life.
An exploration of the state of public morality in contemporary India will be incomplete without uncovering some longstanding deeper processes. The caste system is the most evolved example of social Othering. It fragments society into vertical and horizontal silos. Caste hierarchy, competition and alienation does not allow a society-wide ethic to emerge. This is the main message of Ambedkar’s text Annihilation of Caste, with his emphatic assertion that Hindus cannot have a morally sound public life unless caste is destroyed.
The opiate of religious beliefs is the other factor influencing society’s moral order. All religions mix notions of an inviolate sacred with an imagined world of right and wrong, and hence deeply influence believers’ morality. Contemporary India is witnessing an explosion of mass religiosity. Hindutva-mobilised pilgrimages and functions and ashrams and baba-based sects are the two main vehicles of this explosion. These mobilisations have reached a stage where killing innocent humans in the name of the cow is presented as a religious duty.
Many prominent babas are facing prison sentences for illegal actions, including sexual offenses.
Yet, sects are flourishing because of superstitions and moral fatalism of the followers. Both of the prominent forms of religious activities are blocking the development of a critical public moral order which can question the intimate practices of patriarchy.
It is clear that the rape and murder of a young person deeply troubles most Indians. However, till the tap of patriarchy from which potential rapists flow out is turned off, and we Indians become vigilant against transgressions and lapses of our everyday morality and initiate a public debate on moral consequences of caste system and dominant religious beliefs, our outrage over rape and murder will remain a loud bluster.
Cheering a cold-blooded encounter deadens our moral sensibilities. It is no substitute for building a morally robust public sphere, which is the only way half of humanity can lead a secure life.
The author teaches physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. The views are personal.