Monday, April 16, 2018

A Murdered Child and a Divided Nation: Candle of Civilization Flickers as Bigotry and Jingoism Run Amuck

We live in shameful times when the world's oldest surviving republic, America, and the world's largest republic, India, make it fashionable to support Neo-Nazis and rapists fueled by tribal instincts of hyper-partisanship, naked bigotry and even jingoism, that insidious sibling of patriotism. How else does one comprehend the fact that faced with a brutal rape and murder of a child a nation is divided into those clamoring for justice and those actually more interested in conspiracy theories and some more interested in establishing, on very questionable statistics, that India is a land of safety. Alas, in Trump's America and Modi's India all of the above are possible.

Image Courtesy an145537656an-indian-man-ho.jpg
Asifa Banu, 8 year old girl from the nomadic Bakarwal community, a Muslim tribe, went absconding on January 10th in Kathua, a town near Jammu. Asifa, kept captive for 6 days was dumped on January 15th and found on January 17th. Subsequent investigations reportedly showed that the child was gruesomely drugged, raped, maimed and killed. A four month investigation identified 8 Hindus including a custodian of a local temple where she was allegedly kept captive and the heinous crime committed. Jammu is a Hindu majority twin of the Muslim majority Kashmir in the state of Jammu-Kashmir that India tenaciously holds on to with the brute force of the world's fourth largest army. The accused were Hindus and the murdered was a Muslim and in a state torn asunder with communal strife that was enough to light a keg. Hindu Lawyers, yes lawyers, joined with others and organized protests to prevent the lodging of a charge sheet against the accused.

A personal anecdote here. I went to Disney World at Orlando when my child was 5 years old. One day at the park as my wife and I were looking at a map in a minute our daughter slipped away from us. We found her within 5 minutes. Within those 5 minutes we lived a life time. Our thoughts raced from alerting park police, checking cell phones for latest pictures of her, figuring a strategy etc. When we found her we hugged her like there was no tomorrow. We're in Disney World where the chances of her really getting lost is almost nil. We're in America, she knew our address, contact phones, we had cell phones, so on and so on. Yet for those few minutes we were on edge. Asifa's parents are possibly dirt poor, else why should a girl who should be at school be out grazing and they live in a state that has not known peace for over 20 years. Words cannot capture the grief of a parent to find their child like that.

The murder of 17 year old Navarasu, a medical college student, by John David shook Tamil Nadu and led to the promulgation of stringent laws against ragging which was said to have been the root cause of that grisly murder. John David murdered and dismembered Navarasu's body and dispatched them. Though John David was acquitted in the High Court, overturning a lower court sentence of double murder, the Supreme Court reinstated the verdict after 11 years and John David surrendered. I cannot remember Tamil Nadu getting cleaved along religious lines then.

In the heels of Asifa's murder I find despicable posts about children or others being murdered in a mosque or by a christian priest etc. What the posts always fail to mention is the lack of support from anyone for those let alone support from lawyers and suspicions of orchestrated support amongst even the police. That the legal establishment would brazenly rally in support of the accused is what raised the ire of the country more.

That the venue of the crime was a temple and that the perpetrators were probably intending to terrorize the nomadic Muslim tribe have provided some patented idiots with the excuse to lampoon Hinduism and that in turn has provided the perfect cover for fundamentalist amongst Hindus, who are in no short supply these days, to trot out despicable posts about Islam.

A staunch fundamentalist Madhva, as he calls himself after some arcane sect of which I know little, posted on Facebook a questionable quote from Koran alleging that the prophet Muhammad married a 6 year old and that Koran supports such marriages. Muhammad lived in the 6th-7th century CE at which time such marriages were par for the course in India too. If one attended meetings conducted by atheist Davidar Kazhagam one could learn of contentious history of Hinduism, of course narrated without a nod to any nuance or context. This Madhva then had the cheek to argue how Hindu Srutis and Smritis do not offer any scriptural support for child marriage. This is shibboleth. The support offered to child marriage in 19th century by India's venerated freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak shreds the arguments of that Madhva fundamentalist. Here's a selection from an earlier blog of mine.

Historian Stanley Wolpert charts the ebb and flow of Tilak's ideas on India being a "Hindu state" and of various people in various states cannot "have one nationality". When a colonial official wanted to open a school for girls Tilak railed against it and waxed eloquent on the duties of girls as per Hindu Dharma. Commenting on the case of Rakhamabai, an educated woman who refused to go to her much older husband after her father's death, Tilak wrote "if a woman does not go to her husband she should be punished by the king, and if she disobeys the king's order she should be imprisoned" and then helpfully compared her to a eunuch from India's epic story Mahabharata, Shikandi.

Faced with opposition from reactionary Hindus to raising the 'age of consent' for marriage and sex from 10 to 12 (yes that was the age) the Colonial government balked until a 11 year Phulmani Bhai died of lacerations during intercourse in 1890. Tilak, Wolpert notes, did not see "any need of reforming the law at present". Arguing on behalf of Phulmani's husband Tilak wrote:
"Hari Mohun could not be responsible for intercourse with his wife, 11 years old - an intercourse which neither he nor almost the whole of India, nor even her legislators, had reason to think to be dangerous to life". 
Unlike Wolpert the Indian biographers praise Tilak for "his accurate knowledge of Hindu scriptures and his legal acumen...He took up cudgels on behalf of tradition and attacked all those who wanted to defy it. His retorts were crushing, his language biting and his tone was offensive throughout the controversy". Some cudgels, some acumen indeed. 

Several of India's founding fathers, as I wrote in an earlier blog, had taken child brides. Rabindranath Tagore married Mrinalini Devi in 1883 when he was 22 and she was 10. Tagore not only had a child-wife but gave one of his daughters in a similar marriage. Bharathiar too had a child-wife. Tilak, we learn, was married when he was 16. I'm sure his wife was not 17, to say the least. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan married Sivakamu in 1903, he was 16 and she was 10.

Rajaji was married to one Alarmelu Managammal, known as Manga in 1897 (note, the biographer does not give the year I got it from wikipedia). Manga, Rajmohan writes, was a 'child-wife'. Manga was 10 years old, Rajaji was 18-19 years old. As was the custom Manga lived with her parents till she attained puberty. Meanwhile Rajaji passes his law exam in 1900. Then, aged 12 and apparently having reached puberty Manga comes to Rajaji. Manga, gave birth to their first child a "day after her 13th birthday".

20th century liberalism learned from Colonial rulers made these stalwarts recoil in horror at what their lives were and against much opposition from fellow Hindus outlawed child marriage. Only a bigoted fundamentalist would dredge questionable episodes of a religious leader's life in the 7th century while the country is mourning the mind numbing murder of a child. Apparently the Muhammad episode is very questionable. 

A simple google search led me to this column by Shaista Gohir in The Guardiam.

So why is the practice of child marriage sanctioned in Muslim countries? Unfortunately, ultra-conservative religious authorities justify this old tribal custom by citing the prophet Muhammad's marriage to Aisha. They allege Aisha was nine years old when the prophet married her. But they focus conveniently on selected Islamic texts to support their opinions, while ignoring vast number of other texts and historical information, which suggests Aisha was much older, putting her age of marriage at 19. Child marriage is against Islam as the Qur'an is clear that intellectual maturity is the basis for deciding age of marriage, and not puberty, as suggested by these clerics (
This Madhva fundamentalist cheekily asked me if I, whom he considers a Christian, had condemned unequivocally the child abuse scandal of Catholic Church in US. Unfortunately for him I had written a note on Facebook just weeks earlier after having watched the Oscar Awarded movie, 'Spotlight'. Let me reiterate, I'd have preferred that the Boston diocese, the priests who were accused, the Boston Cardinal were all prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and jailed. I wish the punitive damages were of such nature that the Church would've been compelled to root out the evil that was allowed lurk within its conscience. As for Pope John Paul II I prefer that he not be sainted, a ludicrous practice by itself, on account of how he handled the scandal. Of course, unlike me, the fundamentalist could not find it in himself to be unequivocal in this heinous crime. He had to wait to find an excuse to indulge in mudslinging to his hearts content. 

If one started citing religious texts then one can play football with any religion. When it comes to India this fundamentalist and others blather about Sruti and Smruti etc turning a blind eye to reality. Sruti or Smruti who cares, here's reality. Per the Census of Indian state even in 2001 the incidence of child marriage was 14.4%. The percentage then rapidly decline to 3.7% in 2011. Remember that's still in the thousands since it is 3.7% of nearly a billion people. Incidentally my maternal grandmother was a child bride in 1930s. She became a widow with 5 children, the youngest aged 6 months, when she was barely in her teens. This is reality and it'd be straining credulity to say that this happened over hundreds of years into the recent past without any scriptural support. Sure, India can feel proud about the reforms.

Incidentally, there are mosques, yes mosques, for LGBT in Paris, Berlin, Australia and Chicago. Two days ago I listened to a broadcast on NPR about the mosque in Chicago and need to write about it separately. I don't know of any temple that openly accepts LGBT. Protestant denominations have opened their churches and even clergy to LGBT. The Madhva fundamentalist and others exaggerate the liberalism of Hinduism while grossly underplaying the varieties and progressiveness of Abrahamic religions. The truth, as always, is in the middle. There's more theological variety and liberalism in Abrahamic religions than the Hindutva brigade and frankly even many Hindus realize. There's more unitary structure and orthodoxy in Hinduism than the Hindutva brigade would like to admit or Hindus would like to acknowledge. 

Given that my citizenship is an open secret I'm often faced with "oh is it great in America", "why don't you write about faults in America". I'll briefly answer both.

The movie 'Spotlight' deserves a blog by itself. So why would I postpone that or not write it with as much eagerness or immediacy as I write about Asifa? Simple reasons. In America I did not see Catholics rushing to defend the Cardinal or priests. In America a major newspaper published investigative articles and eventually that got made into a movie. The movie was celebrated at the world's most watched awards show. As I always says, there's no paradise on earth. Every nation and society has dark chapters but those nations that unflinchingly face up to their warts have a redemptive quality. I'm yet to see India measure  up the standards of the West on that. It is easier to get a Western Christian to accept that the Church had a bloody past than to get an Indian accept that the past in India had very dark chapters.

Columnist and writer P.A.Krishnan surprised me on a different count. While he would like to see justice done and he wages a daily battle against the worshippers of Modi his patriotism sometimes makes him take a jingoistic hue. I cannot fathom the reason as to why he chose this moment of grief to argue that India has far less cases of rape than United States. 

I looked up reports of rapes being underreported in India and I chose only reports from Indian newspapers lest I be accused of being a biased westerner. A report in Hindu says "husbands commit a majority of acts of sexual violence" and "only one per cent of marital rapes and six per cent of rapes by men other than husbands are reported to police". Anyone who has remotely lived in India will readily attest to not only that but will also add that thousands of blatant harassment and sexual violence, for example in mass transit and other places, are literally not reported. I know wives of friends and relatives who have commuted for 15 years to New York City or Washington DC without a single finger touching them and yet many of them have experienced horrifying assaults in Chennai buses. In the recent agitations for Cauvery water blatant sexual harassment of girls was recorded and shared on social media but not a single case, as far as I know, was registered for that. In another recent notorious case in Uttar Pradesh a BJP party MLA was arrested for rape only after months of the rape victim's relatives trying to register a case. 

Whether it is US or India reporting rape and prosecuting the perpetrators is a harrowing experience for the victim. The US certainly has made strides in that and India is yet to catch up. The smug question of "where's statistics" is completely a partisan question when it comes to iNdia, a nation that has a very, very long history of not maintaining history. Data and record keeping are pathetic in India, for many reasons, compared to the West. This is often used to sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet.

The movie Lion, based on a child who gets lost and comes back as adult in search of his parents, underscored the issue of missing children in India. Nearly 80,000 kids go missing in India every year says an article that also mentions that nearly 400,000 children go missing in US. The reason for the lopsided difference becomes understandable if one check the hyperlink to the data. In US the FBI maintains a data of a missing child and every time a child is reported missing it is counted, that includes children who often run away too. The missing kids website also informs that that number might still be underreported in US. 

In these days of social media lies travel around the globe in the time taken by truth to just put on its shoes. The fundamentalists are spreading a vile post by a known purveyor of lies, Shanknaad, that supposedly pokes holes in the police case against the accused. The Quint has done a decent job of debunking the lies at

I cannot for the life of me understand the Indian impulse to haughtily pretend that, against all evidence to the contrary, that things are not too worse compared to developed and advanced economies and may even be better. 

My plea to Indians is simple, "Let America be an uncivilized hell hole. That's ok. Just look at the numbers for India, even the underreported ones, it is still an unconscionable one".

Yes many American states do not have a proper age limit for marriage but actual incidences of child marriages are next to nothing in US. A PEW research report says five out of every 1000 15-17 olds in US are married. That's it. Now compare with the 3.7% (remember it is per cent not per thousand) of India's one billion are child marriages in 2011. A Times of India report puts the number of girls marrying before 18, the legal limit, at 7%. This is a problem. Accept it.

America is undergoing a pivotal moment after New York Times broke the story of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassments. The #Metoo movement spawned by that has felled many powerful men across entertainment industry and even corporations. Where is India's #Metoo movement? A court recently ruled in India that a feeble "no" by a woman is actually consent for sex. 

P.A. Krishnan angrily asked me, because of course I'm an American citizen, does not America have the world's largest prison population and are not most of them African-Americans? Guess what, today the Pulitzers were announced and in the general non-fiction category the prize went to a book titled, "Locking up our own: Crime and Punishment in Black America" by James Forman Jr. The last presidential election saw a vigorous debate on that topic. Show me when was the last time India's pathetic juvenile convicts condition was spoken of on a public platform of that nature?

India, as V.S. Naipaul, in a mellowed third part of what started as a bitter trilogy, put it, is a "million mutinies". While all my complaints and anger above are warranted it'd be unfair not to credit the part of the country, including thousands of Hindus, who would like to see harsh justice meted out to the barbarians who defiled a child. "Hope", as Alexander Pope wrote, "springs eternal in the human breast". 


7. My blog referencing Tilak on 'Age of consent'
8. My blog on Rajaji's marriage
9. Pulitzer 2018
10. PEW research report about child marriage in US
11. Child marriage in India
13. Rape cases underreported in India
14. Crimes underreported in India
15. Marital rape and other rapes underreported
16. "Lion" movie and Scary Statistics

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.