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We are all to blame

Not one institution of the democracy we are so boastful about, actually worked as it is meant to, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2007 23:31 IST
Barkha Dutt | Third Eye
Barkha Dutt | Third Eye

You will probably see this and turn the page.

By now you have heard more stories than you can stand about cadavers and cannibalism; about little children raped and murdered by malevolent old men. Saturday mornings call for something more cheerful than serial killers. So, (as you steal a quick, protective look at your own kids scurrying out to play), you will move on to news of the soaring sensex, check out the property prices, scan the new films in town and curl up with the contentment of a life well lived.

Those of us who live in the parts of India illuminated by the glitter of the growth rate sometimes forget that we live only on the circumference; on the boundaries of a great heart of darkness.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to accept that the story of mass murders of young girls in a suburb of the national capital isn’t just about crime; it’s a story about class. And in different ways, each one of us is to blame.

For once, we in the media — at least the urban, English-language media — must stand at the front of the line and plead guilty.

Two months ago, when the three-year- old son of the Adobe CEO was kidnapped from Noida, the media, spurred on by the success of their own activism, went for the kill on this story as well. For the next few days there was relentless reporting — on the role of the police, the lawlessness of Uttar Pradesh, the blot on India as a corporate destination and finally, the happy reunion of son with father.

So far, so good. There was nothing wrong with what we reported. It was what we did not report that defined our negligence in this case.

We had all vaguely read the agency reports about the 40 other children missing from Noida. Some of them had been untraceable for more than a year, and yet, not one of them caught our attention in the way Anant Gupta’s 24-hour absence had. Was it because an issue often needs a single face to catapult it into the public imagination? Or was it because when we read that the missing children were from the “village of Nithari”, we somehow imagined a wasteland deep in the interiors of UP’s badlands where such disappearances are a part of daily life?

Whatever it was, we were lazy, passive and guilty of a shameful silence.

The first thing that hit me while reporting on the aftermath of the serial killings, was what a misnomer the word ‘village’ can be. Nithari is the underbelly of one of India’s largest industrial townships. It’s your average urban slum — the sort that services the mansions and bungalows of Noida with maids, plumbers, electricians and drivers. It’s not rural or desolate or inaccessible — it’s just one turn right from the swanky Noida toll bridge. The rich are separated from the poor by a narrow mud track and a 30-second walk. But standing in the cramped tenement where families of six live out of a room the size of a cupboard, I realised that they may as well be a world apart.

I watch a mother hunched over in tears, her head bowed in bewildered submission before an idol of Shiva, trying to make sense of why her 13-year-old daughter was raped, strangled and then cut into little pieces. Like everyone else here, she has been failed by India.

From the police to the politicians, to people like you and me, who are able to live insulated lives locked away in our ivory towers, we all failed. And we betrayed not only the families of Nithari, but also, the very idea of India.

Think about it: not one institution of the democracy we are so boastful about, actually worked as it is meant to.

Even the right to vote — which we claim is the ultimate symbol of egalitarian India and empowers the poor to act against the powerful — did not make any difference. Most of these families migrated to Noida from Bihar and West Bengal. And though Nithari has been their home for more than a decade, not one of them is a registered voter. Now, think of how the political class would have reacted had 40 children gone missing from Delhi’s upmarket Friends Colony or Mumbai’s Malabar Hill. Would it matter then that India’s upper middle-class rarely bothers to vote?

Every day on, a  piece goes missing in the Noida jigsaw puzzle. Why did the police refuse to register the complaints of desperate families as FIRs? Why did it need the intervention of a local court for the police to begin questioning the two men accused of the killings? Even after that, why were these men given six months by the police to petition a higher court? Who have the police been covering up for?

But while the focus of scrutiny is now on the police force, why should India’s politicians get away so lightly? The BJP led many of the protests against the killings and made shrill demands for a CBI probe. But how does the party explain the inaction of its own MLA and MP, both of whom represent Nithari? Neither had ever met the affected families till the scandal erupted. Does the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh have any decent explanation for why he has still not bothered to make a visit to the neighbourhood that has found an ignominious place on the national conscience? And as the Congress congratulates itself for being the first to order a central inquiry, can the party explain why the Home Ministry could not have intervened earlier or why the National Commission for Women chose to do nothing about the desperate pleas for help?

We may not like to admit it, but here’s the cold, brutal fact: Moninder Singh Pandher and Surendra Koli were just the facilitators. In the end, it was a conspiracy of silence, and our collective callousness that killed the children of Nithari.

And not one of us can escape the blame.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

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