It has been more than a year since the rape and murder of the physiotherapy student in Delhi. That incident generated enough outrage that we managed to change a few laws, and put the issue of human rights front and centre in media. Nevertheless the achievements from those days seem to have been limited to the sensational cases against Tarun Tejpal and Justice AK Ganguly, both of whom are alleged to have abused their positions of authority and made unwelcome sexual advances towards their subordinates. While these cases have rightly generated widespread outrage, they pale into comparison with the reports of the assault, rape and public humiliation of those displaced in the Muzaffarnagar riots. And yet we seem no closer to dealing with the latter sort of crime than we were a year ago.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we seem to turn to creating new rules, and new institutions to implement these rules, as the only way to deal with such problems. Unfortunately, the people manning (or woman-ing) these institutions come from the same pool of people who were involved in the abuses in the first place. I remember meeting the head of the Punjab Human Rights Commission many years ago. A retired judge, he seemed to care far more about the pista barfi boxes piled in front of his office rather than the still unresolved cases of hundreds of people who simply ‘disappeared’ during the Punjab insurgency. More recently, in Gujarat, we had Maya Kodnani who, until she was convicted in her role in the burning alive of dozens of people, served as the minister for women and child development. It is hard to imagine what qualities a mass murderer would bring to such a position.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was going through a difficult divorce, made more difficult due to the insistence of his former wife’s family to ‘punish’ him and his family. They slapped charges of domestic abuse against him and his family but the case fell apart. My friend was working in the United States at that point and asked me to accompany his parents to a ‘reconciliation’ session at the National Commission for Women. The woman overseeing this case, whose only qualification was that she was the wife of a politician, went into a frenzy of self-righteousness that I, a former journalist, was present there. She screamed at me to leave the building. I find it hard to imagine how this process helped the girl in any way.
Such institutions, which were set up in the name of helping weaker sections of society, become a place where politicians and government functionaries are able to reward their favoured people with jobs and perks. They do not expand the zone of liberty for the common person; in fact they tie the marginalised into yet another process where the already well-connected sit upon judgement on them. The stories we hear from Muzaffarnagar are the stories of people who exploited their power to visit great harm upon those who had little or no power. Is it believable that State institutions, which overwhelmingly favour the well-connected over the marginalised, will manage to set right this imbalance? Those with connections will be able to harness the power of new laws to take to task their tormentors, but the vast majority of the Indian populace does not have access to such connections. They will continue to suffer and their suffering will no longer be news, because we think we have dealt with the problem by creating new laws and new institutions that leave justice further and further out of reach from the common people in whose name they are made.
Omair Ahmad is the author of Jimmy the Terrorist and The Kingdom at the Centre of the World
The views expressed by the author are personal