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?