As the father of the six-year-old rape victim was relating his woes with the police to television cameras, my maid didn’t share my shocked reaction. She merely shrugged: “Hamari baat kahan sunte hain? Hame bhaga dete hain (where do they listen to us, they shoo us away).”
Bhaga dete hain is a constant refrain in the joyless song that is the life of the nowhere people at the bottom of the pyramid. It isn’t just apathy alone. Maybe they can live with that. It’s the dehumanising contempt with which they are dismissed.
This refrain played for the family of another rape victim, a 13-year-old. The girl had been abducted and had returned home after nine days in captivity. The police did not act on the missing person complaint and, on her return, did not file a case of rape. It took a court order to get them to do so.
This refrain played for the parents of the children who disappeared from Nithari years ago. When the parents went to complain, they were turned away by the police who brusquely told them that the children may have run away because of poverty. In one case, where the girl was a teenager, the accusation was worse – she must have run away with someone. All this came to light only when their skeletons were later found.
It isn’t the police alone. When you are at the bottom of the socio-economic pile, nothing, absolutely nothing, works for you. Not a single government department. Not a single welfare scheme supposedly designed for you.
That’s what my maid found when she wanted to apply for a BPL card which will enable her to access the Delhi government’s much-hyped Annashree scheme (where BPL families get Rs 600 a month for foodgrain). Application forms were not available. I tried getting one online but the link to the form was a dead one. She finally found out that forms were available in one corporation office. She went there, only to be told that forms were available but it would cost her Rs 3,500 to get the BPL card made.
For politicians and bureaucrats, their work is over once they have designed and launched a scheme for “the poor”. How it is working on the ground is an irritating detail they don’t want to bother with.
Are politicians above the bhaga dete hain attitude? Sadly, no. Their populism will be directed at these nowhere people but basic courtesy is something they will deny to them.
I asked my maid to approach the local councillor of her area for help with the BPL card. She got short shrift there. Things were no different at the local MLA’s office. The councillor was from the BJP; the MLA from the Congress. “Jaao, time kharab mat karo. (Go, don’t waste our time),” she was told at both places.
If the politicians don’t want to waste time on them, the media too doesn’t want to waste column-inches and airtime on them. Unless there’s some sensation involved, as in the latest case. Think back to Nithari. A month before the skeletons were found, the child of a multinational company executive had been kidnapped in Noida. That captured media attention. Around that time, there was a small news item about children going missing in a Noida village. No one followed it up.
Take also the Aarushi Talwar case. The media outrage that erupted when Dr Rajesh Talwar was kept in custody initially for 50-and-odd days on what the media decided was an unsubstantiated charge was completely absent when three servants were detained for a longer period. Their relatives were not called into television studios to present their case. No follow up stories have been done on how their lives have been affected.
Is the outrage over the police attitude in the two recent rape cases going to bring about lasting change to time kharab mat karo attitude? It could, if political activists go beyond trying to capitalise on individual incidents and actually help this underclass, if People Like Us went beyond hyperventilating in our drawing rooms and actually listened and tried to help People Like Them deal with officialdom.
But the chances are that this outrage will peter out, just like the fury after the 16 December 2012 rape case did. Other rape cases kept hitting the headlines, instances of official apathy in earlier cases came to light, but didn’t cause a ripple. Activists didn’t lend a helping hand; people didn’t gather at India Gate; and the media didn’t follow up.
We all shoo-ed them away. And we will continue to do so.