In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks why the pursuit of justice is universal in human societies, and concludes that this is primarily because human empathy, as well as the longing for freedom and reason, is essential to human nature. Empathy involves feeling the pain and humiliation of others as though it was one’s own.
Empathy was extensively on display in the closing weeks of 2012, when unaffiliated young people marched the streets of the national capital, in anguish and rage. It was an extraordinary moment in our public life, a sudden burst of light. Collectively, for a brief moment, we cared together. That instant, when we felt acutely the pain of another innocent, savaged human being, drove us to seek justice.
On the evening when news came in of the death of the student who had been brutally gang-raped, I, too, went to Jantar Mantar. In a corner were noisy groups with political affiliations, shouting frenzied slogans before TV cameras. But at the site, a far larger number of mostly young people sat pensively around lit candles, silently mourning the young woman who had just died.
With her ordinary aspirations, to study to be a medical professional, to watch a film with her friend, she could have been my daughter; she could have been your sister or friend. Her savage brutalisation and her meaningless loss became our tragedies. Many shared deeply the suffering of a woman whose name or face we did not know.
And yet, as the weeks pass, I am reminded also of the limits to our empathy.
In 1992, a low caste woman in Rajasthan — Bhanwari Devi — was gang-raped, punished because she prevented a child marriage. After the rape, as she fought a protracted and lonely battle for justice, she was repeatedly humiliated and shamed by the police, lawyers and judges. In her village, she and her husband were ostracised for years. Fourteen years later, women of a Dalit family in Khairlanji, a village in Maharashtra, were violently raped and killed, merely because upper caste people could not tolerate that the family was modestly prospering. The violence they suffered continued traditions of sexual abuse which rural Dalit women have survived for generations, indeed for centuries.
The year 2002 saw some of the most brutal mass sexual assaults on Muslim women in Gujarat. A women’s fact-finding team encountered in one camp a young boy who told them what rape means. “Rape is making a woman naked, and then setting her on fire,” he said. Rape has recurred in many episodes of mass communal violence, including more recently against Christian nuns and tribal women in Kandhamal, Orissa, in 2008.
In 2004, the gang rape, torture and murder of a young woman, Manorama, by security forces in Manipur caused such grief to women in the valley that in an unprecedented protest, many women stripped naked outside the army installation, demanding that they, too, be raped. In all sites of armed conflict, rape by men in uniform is not uncommon. In 2009, the Kashmir valley was also aflame after two young women were raped and killed, allegedly by security forces in Shopian.
In cities, the most unsafe are homeless women and girls. In the first women’s shelter that we established, I asked the women what had changed most in their lives after they entered the shelter. One woman replied, “For the first time after 17 years, when I close my eyes at night, I am assured that no one will molest me through the night.” For women on the streets, rape occurs every other night, month after month, year after year, and they are helpless to prevent it. And then there are young girls trafficked for domestic or sex work. Many tell us that they ran away from violence in their homes, sometimes incestuous rape by their fathers.
Yet, for none of these women and girls do we march the streets, or light candles. They represent the frontiers of our empathy.
But the tallest barriers to our capacities for empathy are not for victims, but the perpetrators of these crimes. Are they also worthy of our compassion, or at least a little understanding?
Take the 17-year-old boy, who is reported to have inflicted the cruellest violence on the gang-raped Delhi student. He was 13 when he ran away from home for reasons we do not know. But my colleagues and I take care of many such boys, and their stories are similar, mainly of childhoods of violence and abuse by drunken fathers. On the streets, they grow up abused, beaten and exploited by men in uniform and adult criminals. There is no caring and responsible adult who enters their lives, to protect them and believe in them, to show them the way, to teach them right from wrong.
Our work has shown us that if you reach out on time, with compassion and conviction, abused street adolescent boys can still be reclaimed. Ved Kumari, law scholar, asks: “What all has been responsible for turning him into this beast? Why did the juvenile justice system not reach out to him and prevent him from being what he has become today?”
Take the other men involved in the crime. We have recklessly created a glittering, hyper-consumerist, hyper-sexualised world around them — a world to which they are constantly exposed but from which they are resolutely barred.
We foster violence in our wealth, in our unapologetic consuming and in our indifference.
None of this for a moment condones in any way their brutal assault. But it requires us to accept at least some moral responsibility to ask if we — you and I — are also in many ways not complicit in the terrible act of violence which snatched that precious young life away?
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal