The recent re-election of Narendra Modi and his party to the state legislature in Gujarat for the third time, preceded by the horrific gang-rape and near-murder of a young girl and her male companion in a Delhi bus, are both developments that ought to be read as alarms going off to indicate the high, almost catastrophic, degree to which the Indian polity is in a state of crisis.
That 40 per cent of Gujarat’s voters did not vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is deeply unhappy with Modi’s self-aggrandizing style of functioning, were small consolations in the face of Modi’s confident consolidation of his power in the state, and his not-so-subtle gestures of aspiration towards Delhi in 2014. Next thing we know, the spontaneous gathering of students on Raisina Hill to protest the rape and demand security and justice — not just for this particular victim but for women as a whole in India — was quickly hijacked by organized political parties and anti-government forces who could not care less about rape, women's rights, or a more effective law-and-order machinery, but turned up only to create havoc and embarrass the Delhi administration.
What emerges from both moments — apart from a mood of despondency — is the frightening knowledge of our nakedness, our exposure to a combination of physical, psychological and political threats from our environment. As citizens of a democratic nation, we go along thinking, in the abstract, that we are clothed with a vestment of rights, protected by our very citizenship that entitles us to freedom, equality, dignity, safety, justice and respect and transforms us from mere biological organisms into properly empowered political entities.
We imagine that were trouble to befall us — for example, if the majority of our compatriots were to come under the spell of an authoritarian leader, or if our neighbour were to experience extreme bodily harm at the hands of rogue elements — we would have our fundamental rights, a statute of laws, a police force, a justice system, a legislature populated by our elected representatives and a country full of sympathetic fellow-citizens to turn to for redress, support and solidarity. We feel that we are not alone, not engaged constantly in some sort of pre-political battle against the forces of nature and random violence that the universe may direct towards us.
It turns out, to our dismay, that we are in fact alarmingly vulnerable. Not only is the State likely to disappear in the face of danger, the State very often is the source of danger in the first place. (Citizens of the Northeast and of Kashmir know this much more clearly than the rest of us might — they see a State armed to the teeth and in a position of hostility, if not outright tyranny, in relation to the population). But even when the State is not arrayed against us in its most militaristic form, its flaws, failures and inefficiencies are so numerous that we are left to fend for ourselves.
The chaotic nature of Delhi’s recent protests is revealing. What makes us more afraid — that streetlights do not function and that public buses have tinted windows? That police stations will not lodge first information reports and that bus operators get away with driving drunk? That Delhi’s civic culture is so callous as to leave injured people bleeding on the roadside and just ignore their plight? That men in our patriarchal, misogynistic and downright violent society routinely harass, assault, violate and exterminate women in families, in neighbourhoods, in communities and in anonymous spaces?
The targets of our criticism swing wildly from the circumstantial details of this case to the structural problems of our society; from widely-dispersed attitudes for which we are all responsible to individual lapses of this or that police officer, minister, member of parliament or bystander. We are so confused that we cannot even focus on the men who literally perpetrated the crime. Instead we take their crime and run with it as proof of other issues festering just below the surface of public opinion. We feel the need to blame, indict and punish in an almost indiscriminate way.
And so it is that we cannot decide, really: are we more upset that the prime minister will not take a strong stand on this matter either, no more than he would on any other issue? That female parliamentarians speak the language of patriarchy even as they make pathetic attempts to stand up for the rights of women? That Rahul Gandhi, supposedly a potential leader of the youth, never came out and walked with the protestors? Or are we upset that the feminist movement in India fizzled out decades ago and nobody even noticed? That rape laws are antiquated and toothless? That if citizens want to gather in large numbers to register their distress peacefully, there is evidently no way left to do so? That some people think it is acceptable to posit hanging, castration and lynching as punishments for rape, as though unbridled bloodlust were the answer to rampant sexual crimes?
There are so many things wrong here, so many distinct reasons for our fear and frustration, so many disparate agencies to hold responsible, that even a slight step back leaves one wondering if there can ever be a viable analysis, leave aside an appropriate response, to this comprehensive breakdown of our social reality into undifferentiated anarchy and generalized animus. What happened on Raisina Hill was no ‘Occupy Delhi’ — at least it is not that, yet. It might have become that, given time, but between a publicity-hungry Baba Ramdev, right-wing arsonists, and the police charging at crowds with water cannons and batons, any such expression of popular sentiment was nipped in the bud. Meanwhile, what Left-secular voices, the few of those that remain, have to say about Modi hardly bespeaks a robust, self-conscious, and ideologically persuasive resistance movement growing in a tide to obviate the eventuality of his prime ministership 18 months from today, with everything such an outcome could portend for the Indian democracy.
Let us not forget that Gujarat 2002 happened on Modi’s watch, if not under his supervision. The use of genocidal rape in that time, which cost the life of so many Muslim women and ruined so many Muslim families, is something that the majority of the Gujarat electorate seems to have absorbed and moved on from. So dark and heinous a passage, mass murder accompanied by large-scale and brutal sexual violence overwhelmingly targeting a minority community, has not tarnished Modi’s gilded Gujarat for his voters and supporters , intent on “growth”, “development” and “governance” at whatever cost. Why do we countenance the possibility of having the author of such crimes become our prime minister? Why are we so swayed by what he says as to ignore what he does?
The fact of the matter is that whether it is the electoral process, or the availability of infrastructure, or the responsiveness of political parties and elected functionaries, or the letter of the law, or indeed the prevalent public discourse on any issue of collective concern, we, as citizens of an India in crisis, simply do not have anywhere to turn when confronted with the grave reality of our exposure. We could be Hindu or Muslim, Dalit or tribal, Gujarati or Kashmiri, women or men, urban or rural, young or old, middle-class or poor, at some point we are going to realize that we have been stripped of our rights and stand completely unprotected against the depredations of a sovereignty that is not our own, even if it prevails in our name.
The rape writ large in our villages, towns and cities is but the apotheosis of a political dispensation that is fundamentally rapacious — that does not seek our consent, does not respect our rights, does not grant the sanctity of our bodily or psychic being, does not hesitate to violate us if we get in the way of the powerful, and in the end, will not stop short of simply wiping us out, with impunity. The 23-year-old paramedic woman on ventilator and intravenous fluids, fighting for every breath, is our polity in the emergency room. Right now, its innards are mutilated by a ruling class that is utterly, irredeemably immoral and perverse, intoxicated with unchecked power. We have to do everything we can to get rid of it before it devours our spirit and extinguishes our will to survive as a democratic and civilized nation.