Ruchika Girhotra did not die in vain. She has energised the moral imagination of a new and assertive India, disproving the lazy, unthinking belief that our middle class is purely self-absorbed, consumerist and callous. It says something about our changing society that an event that took place 19 years ago has become the source of outrage today and has provided the nation with intense emotional release and catharsis. Oddly enough, dharma may be rising rather than falling in our country.
It began on December 22 when I read about a police official sentenced to six months in jail for molesting a 14-year-old girl. That evening I remarked cynically to a friend that this was just one of those stories that would soon die. He shook his head sadly and asked, “What will it take to improve governance? A Kurukshetra-like war?”
But the story did not die. An ugly tale emerged on how the highest police official in Haryana, the Director-General of Police Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore, molested Ruchika Girhotra, arrested her brother falsely, had him tortured in jail, sent her courageous family into hiding, and forced her to commit suicide.
Just when we had begun to believe that India was a rising, vibrant democracy and a fast growing economic power, we were crudely reminded that at least in parts of the nation we may be closer to a tinpot dictatorship in Africa or Latin America. When my friend suggested if it would take a ‘Kurukshetra’ to fix the system, he was reminding us that the Mahabharata also had a problem with the self-destructive kshatriya institutions of its time. It had to wage a war to cleanse them.
When Draupadi was molested in the Sabhaparvan, she challenged the rulers in Hastinapur and called for accountability in public life. She asked about the dharma of the ruler. Draupadi and, in this case, Ruchika’s friend Aradhana Prakash, who has fought relentlessly for justice for 19 years, ought to be our inspiration.
New trials are going to take place and laws may be amended. Now the law must take its course. The media may be guilty of having gone overboard, but think of it as democracy’s way of waging a war at Kurukshetra.
Does this mean that we are making moral progress? The idea of dharma sounds quaint. Many people shy away from ‘morality’ because moral certitude reeks of intolerance and bigotry. The middle class still yearns for a sense of dharma and a life of dignity. People want civic life to be shaped not
by who is powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right.
People can distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Torture, bonded labour, brutality against women and Dalits were common-place once, but they are not acceptable anymore. To be a Dalit or even an OBC was to be condemned. Now a Dalit woman rules our largest state. Although the gap between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ will never close, Ruchika’s story shows that imperceptibly and imperfectly we may be moving towards a more attainable dharma.
Gurcharan Das is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma