The larger question: What are our strategies for survival as a society- vilification or empathy, us or ‘them’, paranoia or rationality?

I read this morning with mixed feelings about the arrest of an illiterate teenager from Bihar who is the co-accused in the latest shocking—no, deeply saddening—rape of a five year old in East Delhi’s Gandhinagar area. Of course I am happy that the perpetrators are being brought to book. But just for a moment and because I have been intensely interacting with migrant workers in low-income communities, I thought this through from Pradeep’s point of view.

Getting into the perp’s mind, for a moment

Illiterate, with no opportunities in his village, Pradeep moves from city to city finding work on construction sites. He lives away from the social fabric he has grown up in. He has to make new friends wherever he goes. Violence, as Nilanjana Roy’s editorial in The Hindu yesterday points out so well, is an inevitable and integral part of his life. Several times has he had to fight for survival against cheats, sexual predators, thieves, rivals at work. His self-esteem is often eroded and no normal family life exists to restore the balance. And then, of course, there is his daily search for livelihood. A daily struggle for basic needs- water, toilets, food. Shelter, a rented room shared with any others, is just a place to sleep, offering no solace. Entertainment is film music, songs from back home traded through memory cards and heard on the phone, B grade flicks watched on the phone. Images of sex flood his mind. He has little or no sexual opportunities. He has little or no economic opportunities, no real skills, no value, no real self-worth. Soon his family back home will find him a wife. More responsibility, still very little income. He has no future. He just has to get on with life. And yet, he aspires to live well. In his imagination, like the heroes of the movies he watches, he finds wealth, love, sex, power and popularity. In reality, he is less than a Nobody. Starved even of dreaming with a semblance of hope, in a moment of depravity, he finds the most vulnerable target and an act of thoughtless unpardonable violence follows.

The gravest crime

I am not advocating for Pradeep. I am only saying that the problem is of a magnitude so large that we are unable to comprehend it. We are breeding millions of Pradeep’s in our country and as a nation, our crime against them of offering them promises that we cannot deliver is the gravest one yet.

Let me explain. In an evangelist mode, we have enacted the Right to Education. Our public, private and non-profit institutions have drilled the importance of education into our citizens. Yet, we are unable to provide the education we advocate is necessary for every child. In my fieldwork among migrant families in Gurgaon, I repeatedly see parents save and scrounge to send their children to schools that often are not even registered institutions! Further, we are unable to provide meaningful and dignified employment opportunities for those who emerge from or fall out of this less-then-efficient education system.

Many young people are resorting to migration as a means of economic survival, and this has been well established by leading economists like Kundu. The inability of agriculture to support rural families, the lack of non-agricultural employment in villages and the lure of economic growth that is concentrated in urban centers all contribute to the massive internal migration India is experience.

 Need to understand the migrant experience

A part of my mixed reaction to today’s news was that, until now, voices in the media were not vilifying the other, that favourite scapegoat, the migrant. Perhaps it is a small indication that the phenomenon of migration has become an accepted and inescapable reality. This is a migration necessary to sustain the economy, but it is also a migration that renders a large section of our population without rights and without identity. Migrants find little recognition in public policy except as the ‘other’.

The intense alienation and confusion that are characteristic of the migrant experience, especially among youth, is no small factor in understanding the crime statistics in our cities. The intangible is easy to ignore, but only in understanding these psychosocial phenomenon, in listening and analyzing the thousands of stories that migrants can tell, can we hope to ease their transition and lift them from the sheer hopelessness they feel and that triggers depraved and abnormal behavior in these young men (and women).

Taking a call: Barbarism vs humanity

What must be going through Pradeep’s mind as he awaits his transfer to Delhi and a confrontation with his partner-in-crime Manoj? Does he feel shame, revulsion, remorse? Does he see his entire life flash before his eyes? Does he imagine the grief of his mother? Does he understand how the nation is reacting to what he has done? Does he hear people baying for his blood?

I just finished reading another book of Alex Rutherford’s series on the Mughal emperors, who meted out the most barbaric punishments to traitors in order to deter any others who might contemplate treachery. Perhaps their times demanded such barbarism and violence. It pains me to hear those who denounce the Islamic invaders as barbaric and hold up the superiority of the Hindu civilization as examples of ‘Ram Rajya’ propose the exact same measures to punish rapists and sex offenders. Clearly, these leaders and organizations do not think we have evolved or need to evolve.

Many other ways to address the issue of punishment have been discussed infinitely in the press and blogosphere since December 2012 and there is sufficient evidence worldwide that disproves the theory that the death sentence, castration and other barbaric means to deal with convicts deter future offenders. However, just as there has been little finger pointing to the fact that the miscreants are migrants, there is also very insufficient debate on the preventive measures we need to take to prevent future crimes—how migrants are to be offered opportunities to assimilate with the society they choose to live in; how communities are to find mechanisms to educate their children about sexual predators and how they are to deal with those who exhibit predatory behavior, for instance. If we were to work to reduce the huge amounts of stress and insecurity in our society rather than do all we can to fuel these feelings, wouldn’t we all be better off?

The larger question: My survival or ours?

I saw my daughter Aadyaa off as she got on the school bus this morning. She is five. Innocent, with a huge zest for life and unlimited energy, she waved her goodbyes with a twinkle in her eyes. Inadvertently, I shuddered at the thought of something terrible happening to her that would destroy her innocence forever. Even something as small as a touch or glance could do that damage and that moment will come, sooner or later, I know. But let me not make it worse by feeding her with suspicion and paranoia. Let me believe that most people are good. I intend to take her and my son Udai on my interactions with migrants later this month, to see for themselves how other people live and work, deal with problems in their lives, how they are as normal as we are in what they wish for, in how they struggle to reconcile their dreams with their realities (except that the difference between the two is achievable for us and impossible for them). I hope that, as they grow, they will discover that there are beasts among us, aberrant personalities that have tipped over and fallen out of line. I hope they understand that they need our help and our empathy more than they need our hatred. How do they learn this even as they learn to protect themselves and fight for survival? That’s the larger question that we are dealing with, isn’t it?

About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on April 23, 2013, in Politics & Citizenship and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I read the post and had to close my eyes and pause for a thought (both for innocent girl and the accused). The society we are living has become such an entangled web of rich, poor and there is another class which live worse of than rats and even though we can all see perfectly, we are always blind to them. I shudder at the thought of any kid going through this trauma or as a matter of fact any girl going through the trauma which Jyoti went through December last year. The so called animals which the elite class is referring to have been created by us. We, both as a society and individuals have become spineless and apathetic towards the suffering of fellow human beings. I know how you feel because you have always been a kind-hearted and a strong person at the same time. But, I can’t help but feel the frustration and anger at the same time that I get on with my life as if nothing is wrong. At the end of it I think we don’t need to change the world but become a little more sensitive as individuals and treat others with respect which is easier said than done. The problem is I try it everyday and end up succumbing to my materialistic world and believe happens to most of us. Still, we need to start somewhere and commend your effort. Loved your post.

  2. very rightly said Mukta. I think all of us need to take this responsibility as citizens to find
    solutions to eradicate the underlying cause
    of these dreadful crimes. as individuals even
    being aware of the underlying cause can
    help a lot. however, I would say a strong
    punishment for these kid of unpardonable
    crimes is very important so that we do
    think 100 times before committing such
    a crime no matter what our emotional
    or mental state be…….

  3. very well written mukta.Totally agree.

  4. We need more human beings like one Mr. Sinha of Bihar . A 1968 batch police service officer working with the Musar caste of Bihar in Patna thru his”Shoshit Seva Sangh”. His admirable work needs to be replicated in every state..I know a very utopian thought this would be called but can anything better be visualised?

  5. Interesting read, Mukta. Migrants may be one of the segments in Indian society that is facing and perpetuating the cycle of violence, but I think VAW (and even crimes as heinous as the ones reported recently) is equally pervasive across all social and economic classes– my worry is that it shouldn’t be perceived as just a migrant issue, because two of the recent high profile cases involved them. But, what you identify and discuss is probably very real given your work with migrants in G’gaon, and probably especially pertinent to developing educational and sensitization programs going forward.

    • I didn’t mean to imply that migrants are the only ones with a criminal tendency. It’s the general gap between aspiration and reality that bothers me. Just some correlations I drew between my research and current events. In fact I am glad the migrant tag has not been played up. Thanks for reading through! Did you get my mail with my research details etc?

  6. I am not understanding what this author is trying to say. “Starved even of dreaming with a semblance of hope, in a moment of depravity, he finds the most vulnerable target and an act of thoughtless unpardonable violence follows. ” What does this even mean? Firstly, it takes abnormal levels of perversion to commit the crime which this man has committed.And she’s trying to convince the world that this person is actually a saint in real life and committed this act in a moment of depravity? He starved the child for two days!!!
    ” I intend to take her and my son Udai on my interactions with migrants later this month, to see for themselves how other people live and work, deal with problems in their lives, how they are as normal as we are in what they wish for, in how they struggle to reconcile their dreams with their realities (except that the difference between the two is achievable for us and impossible for them). ” Is she implying that the society should satisfy their abnormal demands of perversion, if their wishes are of an animal nature? Is it normal to wish for sex and torture of a five year old?
    And it’s not like everyone achieves every dream – We all know our place and dream of some impossible things…I know there are always going to be people who are way more financially or otherwise well-settled than me. So does it mean everyone can go about performing such brutal crimes and then pleading on the grounds that they’ve impossible dreams to achieve?
    I just don’t get this article…Torture and rape of a five year old has got nothing to do with a person’s basic survival. It’s not food or water or life that this man is struggling for…it’s about his perverse, sadistic desires!!
    Criminals of a certain nature should not be allowed any other angle/point of view. I also think the country needs to be educated about human rights…and why one man cannot violate another human being due to any reason whatsoever. Also, people should understand it is not the society’s responsibility to provide them with sex and they cannot go about raping others just because sex is an impossible dream for them to achieve.

  7. “I hope they understand that they need our help and our empathy more than they need our hatred.” – I think one basic point is being missed out here. What the society needs to be educated about is human rights and resistance against crime. Crime happens because we tolerate it – As less tolerance is shown and more outrage is expressed towards any crime, more people will become aware about the nature of the crime – atleast it would insert some amount of fear or taboo in people’s heads when they contemplate about executing such crimes. When criminals who commit such serious crimes are dealt with strictly, it will also give out a message to the other people that law does take its course and they need to be cognizant of certain rules which need to be followed when living in a society – that they need to respect other peoples’ lives and rights. On the other hand, crime-justifying statements and criminal supporting statements like the one posted here which advocate people to empathize with the criminals embolden the criminals and create confusion amongst peoples’ minds about the nature of the crime committed. Please re-think about the exact nature of your article and what it is trying to convey.
    The educational background, lifestyle of the criminal and all other criteria are completely irrelevant given the nature of the crime here – It is not a crime which involves any struggle for basic survival from the criminal’s end – It is not a crime where the criminal was assaulted/instigated and he committed a crime in defense. It is not a crime where the criminal has committed a crime such as theft or burglary because he is struggling to find food so that he can live. It has been a wanted, conscious act of brutality which could not have been committed without extreme levels of inhumanity and perversion. Are you telling me that it is OK for a man to seek pleasure by torturing, raping and almost killing a five year old – provided his profile fits a certain section of the society you’ve mentioned?
    The Hindu editorial which you’ve linked explains the same point which I’ve mentioned – In essence, it states that as a society, we’re accustomed to witnessing more violence which gives some people the idea that violence is acceptable and can be tolerated. The article suggests that we need to bring down the violence levels at home and schools etc. – we need to teach people that violence is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. If you want to convey this message loud and clear, you need to condemn violence when you’re aware of it happenin. Those who indulge in it cannot be excused and need to be punished. Otherwise, it would again give people the notion that violence is acceptable. If we do not condemn and punish acts of violence, how are we proposing to make the society understand that violence cannot be tolerated?
    As much as I respect your instinct for humanity and I do believe that there is no intentional harm in your article, I think you need to understand the rootcause of the problem properly. That’s why I’m taking time out to give some perspective.

    • I truly appreciate your honest criticism. My intention was not to justify these terribly inhuman acts. Instead it was to try and understand connections. Perhaps my understanding is flawed. In fact I see far more humanity among the migrant community I work with. Despite their problems I do not think they are more given to crime. Sexual abuse is just as common among the middle class and elite. Harsher punishments and quicker disposal of justice are one thing. But baying for the blood of criminals, the police and the system without putting place systems to protect children is very off the cuff. That’s what I was reacting to. Yell and scream on the streets. But don’t talk to your kids. Never have a family discussion about taboo topics. Suffer violence because the neighbours will talk. These are the ills we need to deal with. Thank you for writing in. I feel your anger and I am glad. But lets stop short of yelling ‘death sentence’ every time something terrible happens.

      • I will not enter into debate about capital punishment here. While I agree that we need to talk to our kids and we do need to speak up, I don’t understand the connection between empathy towards migrant population and the mentioned crime. Is the core essence of the article in trying to deal with rampant child sexual abuse or about the problems being faced by the migrant population? If it’s the latter, I don’t think the said crime should have been mentioned at all in the article. Like I said, the social/economic background of the criminal is irrelevant in this case to condemn him.

  8. A beautiful post. I found you on Anne Theriaults blog. Here is my response to hers and your.

    • Thank you Julie for your reaction. I get a lot of anger from people. Many read empathy as a justification for criminals. It’s hard to get our heads around this stuff even as anger and sadness wash over us with each such incident we learn of. So reading words of support makes me feel less like I am going crazy!

  9. An excellent article. You are raising questions that should be raised and addressed. When a large portion of society cannot have their basic needs met, it is a huge issue for the entire country. It is not an excuse for rape, and I do not see your writing as an argument to justify those actions. Crime against women, sexual assault and rape is not restricted to socioeconomic class.

    Please clarify for me: are the migrant workers a “caste” in your society?

    And you make two very good points in your response to freebird: the “taboo subject” needs to be discussed in the homes. (All homes, all countries.) Those who commit crimes of rape and sexual assault come from every class and group in society.

    • Thank you for writing in. No, migrants in India straddle caste and sometimes even class. They could be farmers whose crops have failed consistently or those whose land holdings are too small to support growing families. They could also be landless poor and these tend to be marginalised people from lower castes or minority religions even. It’s a complex phenomenon. Little understood and poor migrants lead precarious lives in the very cities that also represent opportunity for economic growth and social enhancement.

  10. Thank you for clarifying the issue for me. The migrant workers in the US, for the most part, are illegal immigrants from countries south of the US. The issue here is very political, causing anger among many citizens and legal immigrants, yet people employ them and abuse them because of their fear of being deported. Locally we have a group that organizes medical care for the migrant workers, free. No documents or papers are necessary. I believe if someone is paying them, and they are here and need assistance, I will help. Personally, I think the US citizens that are able to work should be taken off of government assistance and put in those jobs, but the government is not doing that. But I am not a politician, nor do I want to be.

  11. Hi Mukta, this was a brilliant read – your post & your conversation with freebird. You have presented the issue with a balanced perspective that is tough to keep for many of us. I like some of the points presented by Freebird, which you have answered with extremely significant points, which I feel are especially relevant in the Indian society.

    On the sexual crime subject – We grow up with (and perpetuate as adults) habits like rehne do/ jaane do/ ignore/ adjust/ compromise/ aisa hee hai/ kya kar sakte hai. It is crippling and makes me sick – the inability to speak up for yourself. Do they teach that in schools? Do we do enough to inculcate that at home? Where is the education for that?

  1. Pingback: The larger question: What are our strategies for survival as a society- vilification or empathy, us or ‘them’, paranoia or rationality? | ask maverick

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