Anjali Singh, Air India incident, ‘love jihad’ cases, police encounters: Our outrage and our blind eye

Before everyone with internet access had a pulpit, “outrage” did not quite mean what it does today. It was used more often as the description of an emotion, an uncountable noun – a feeling that was not really measurable. Not so in the age of social media. Now, it is a verb, a performance that news stories can often trigger. And it can be counted in likes, shares, impressions and views. In the last few days, two outrageous incidents justifiably pushed Indians to display their righteous rage. But what we choose to be angry about can often mask the things we would rather not confront — and it is in those hidden corners of our collective (lack of) conscience that we might find the answers to the culture of entitlement and brutality that is so often on display in our public life and spaces.

The first of the two incidents was the brutal death of Anjali Singh on the intervening night of New Year’s Eve and January 1 in a drunk driving incident. The manner in which her body was dragged for over 10 kilometres, and the implied apathy and negligence of society and state, are perhaps why it has struck such a chord. It is also a haunting reminder of just how unsafe our streets and public spaces are for women, and the entire architecture of our social life is one in which precarity seems to be built in. While writing about the incident, many women have recalled the 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder and illustrated how the promises of policing and less violent, dangerous streets stand belied a decade later.

The second incident is from November but came to light only earlier this month. An inebriated man on a flight from New Delhi to New York urinated on a woman passenger, and little was done to punish him till now. (Since his behaviour became public, he has lost his job and faces criminal charges. Air India has apologised for the incident, which has become an international news story). In this case, the entitlement of the Indian male, the constant victimisation of women even in spaces where they expect basic decency, the lack of travel etiquette and the general inability to drink responsibly (especially when the liquor is free) have all been laid at the door of one drunk, boorish man.

Both incidents are clearly, and graphically, repulsive. But are they the only kind of graphic violence that Indians are exposed to? Sample the following list: Young Muslim men are publicly flogged by the police at a garba event; Dalit men are beaten in the name of cow protection for plying their trade; a young man on a train is knifed to death for refusing to give up the seat he paid for; an elderly man is forced, while being beaten and threatened, to chant a political-religious slogan; adults in love are accused of “jihad”; in one state, people are killed by the police and the “encounters” are celebrated by the chief minister; in another, the police are caught on camera seemingly shooting a prison escapee while he is already subdued; murderers and rapists are released while an old man is denied a sipping cup (he dies in prison); a man is killed for the suspected possession of beef — the police test the meat to ensure it’s beef. This list is not exhaustive. It barely scratches the surface.

The purpose of this contrast is neither to engage in crude whataboutery nor is it to target those who are moved by Anjali Singh’s or Jyoti Singh’s death. It is, rather, to point out that the cries against injustice are about more than just morality. What we feel “outraged” about is mediated by several factors.

The first is who we identify with – the victim or the perpetrator. At a time when the politics of identity is rampant, almost totalitarian in its reach, who the victim is matters. When the person attacked is a member of the minority community, when the chant they are forced to utter is “Jai Shri Ram”, empathy is now hard to come by for many. This is the essence and success of a now over-used term – “othering”.

The second is a fear of consequences, or the lack thereof. Only a select few — often with ulterior motives — will try to blame Anjali Singh for her death. For most, standing with her and grieving her passing — especially through a social media post — is unlikely to invite retribution. It is also, unambiguously, the right thing to do. This may not be the case when the same is done for, say, someone killed in an “encounter” or jailed for being an “urban Naxal”. After all, cases are now filed because of cartoons and social media posts.

Third, these cases are not “polarising”. They will not lead to fights on family WhatsApp groups or a pointless, exhausting and eventually, depressing argument at the school or college reunion. Few will say, “but these people did…” of the victims. And given how intimate politics has become, and how it has wormed its way into so many aspects of our lives, it is understandable why so many of us want to avoid those battles now.

Finally, the contemporary form of “outrage” is indeed driven by social media and 24/7 news in search of TRPs and views. But equally, it provides us with something that human beings have always needed — a sense of collective action.

For all the talk about “135 crore Indians”, we are — too many of us and too often — divided on too many things, even within the bubbles of class and caste. Since so much injustice is now commonplace, and so much of it acceptable in the name of politics, imagined wounds of history and religion, the few times when we can come together become all the more precious. That we can do so in grief for a fellow citizen we did not know, or a stranger on a plane and to make the case for a world that is safer and less entitled perhaps mitigates all the injustices we turn a blind eye to.

Perhaps not.

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