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In private republics

Middle-class India is quick to rage after every new outrage. But this is done mostly within the comfort of the mob, Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jan 17, 2013 22:36 IST
Samar Halarnkar

As I write this, I learn — in the space of three hours — that a seven-year-old was raped by her uncle in a north Karnataka village; that a 16-year-old gang-raped in a south Orissa town is in critical condition; that a Class 8 student was raped at knifepoint by her neighbour in east Delhi; that a 14-year-old was raped by her uncle in Kochi, Kerala; that a 16-year-old girl in a Madhya Pradesh village is pregnant after being raped by her brother; that a 13-year-old in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, was raped — six times — by her father’s friend; that a married woman was gang-raped on a Punjab bus.

What’s that? Don’t I have any ‘positive news’? Ah, yes, that frothy brand of feel-good storytelling so beloved of media managers and aspirational India.

Well, the only thing that makes me feel somewhat good right now is this: A Chhattisgarh college student, raped in school, has decided to fight instead of forget. The female hostel superintendent, who allowed male friends to attack the girl, is under arrest.

If most of these atrocities — possibly all of them — sound unfamiliar, that’s because middle-class outrage has moved on. Only a week ago, television news bulletins, newspapers and social media were fulminating against India’s frightful, regressive attitude to women.

So revealing of India’s great, silent sickness of misogyny was that episode, it might still have some effects that transcend the news cycle. India’s latest rage — over the beheading of a soldier by Pakistanis — will not. The army chief may consider “retaliation”, but he knows better than to listen to bellicose television news anchors and give in to middle-class India’s thirst for revenge. Both countries know a possible nuclear Armageddon precludes anything other than brinkmanship.

Although the anger against Pakistan and its belligerent, untrustworthy army will simmer, the rage has already started to settle. We will go back to our lives, as we did after the rage against black money, the killing of paramilitary troopers by Maoists, corruption and rape.

Middle-class India now leads this life of knee-jerk rage because we hide, ignore or would rather not discuss our real infirmities, our true maladies. We get emotional about our soldiers, but we do not want our sons and daughters to join the army, which is now short of nearly 13,000 officers. We vent our fury against the Maoists and human-rights activists only when an ambush is deadly enough to make it to television news. It doesn’t bother us that 398 troopers have committed suicide since 2009; about 50 more than were killed in firefights over the same period. We are still distressed and angry about the Delhi gang rape, but we do not like to acknowledge that our fathers, uncles, brothers and friends commit almost all the 67 rapes reported in India every day.

We like to rage, and we do it from the comfort of the mob.

Some of India’s biggest problems — our tottering economy, fading agriculture, dying farmers, exploited workers, bonded labour and other modern-day slaveries, malnourished children, water scarcities and environmental ruin — do not excite the mob. In these excitable days, it is not easy to remember what is important. The media, I confess, do not help. A recent content analysis of 287 Hindi and English newspapers, done by Vipul Mudgal of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, revealed that only 2.08% of all stories dealt with issues that concern the 840 million Indians in rural areas.

Indians are an emotional people. I do not claim to be an exception. I, too, felt enraged when I heard how Lance Naik Hemraj Singh was killed. Emotion is no bad thing. It is an outlet for rage. Ideally, neither emotions nor mobs should dictate national agendas. The danger is when politicians, unable to respond to middle-class India’s anger, start to cave in to the mob. Hang every rapist, kill the Pakistanis, the mob screams, and those in power respond. “If we don’t get Hemraj’s head, we’ll get 10 of theirs,” BJP leader Sushma Swaraj blusters, after meeting the slain soldier’s family. Retaliation must be an option, but senseless sloganeering, and debasing your own values isn’t.

What should you and I in the middle class do to escape the call of the mob? Be better informed, be involved wherever and whenever possible, listen to those who speak wisely and without rage. Do your bit to help those you can — and don’t move on from the things that distress you.

Of course, you can retreat from India’s realities and escape to your own country. You can stop following ‘depressing news’. You can pump up the volume on your car stereo, inch forward when the old woman scratches at your window, spend your days between carpeted office and air-conditioned home, isolated in your private republic — emerging only to rage, rant and join the mob. This is not to say the mob has no impact. When two college students in the town of Palghar, south of Mumbai, were arrested over a Facebook comment, national rage sprung them from a hard place. These are exceptions.

Newspaper websites offer clues to the issues that usually excite the vast majority of the middle class. The daily ‘most-widely read’ story list invariably comprises fluff from Bollywood, television soap operas and the cricket world. The mob changes its interests only when national frenzy is evident. As I write this, the most-widely read stories on the websites of India’s two most popular English newspapers are: ‘Sachin Tendulkar wanted Ranji semis shifted to Mumbai,’ and ‘Bigg Boss 6 grand finale: Urvashi Dholakia is the winner.’ Until galvanised by the next outrage, the middle-class mob will live in this mind-numbing stasis, in its private republic.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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