Justice and Impunity

It was a regular day, just like any other day in the life of a college student. After a whole day of classes, I was exhausted and ready to head home to begin work on all the assignments that were due the next day because I had procrastinated to work on them. I lived a good 2 hours away from campus, so I settled into the bus for what was going to be a long ride home. It’s not easy to get a window seat on a Tuesday evening when you travel with the office crowd on their way home- but that day, I did! In fact, the bus was relatively empty with quite a few vacant seats. The lady sitting next to me nodded off to sleep within minutes of taking her seat. I scanned the bus looking for the bus conductor so I could buy my ticket and hopefully nod off to sleep myself. As I did, I caught the eye of a male passenger sitting across from my seat on the other aisle staring at me- he was quite clearly touching himself. Disgusted, I turned away and made sure I didn’t lock eyes with him again, all the while keeping track of his movements from the corner of my eye- girls, you know what I mean.

Well eventually, it was time for the lady sitting next to me to get off and I was glad for the extra room that awarded me to settle in my seat. I placed my heavy bag on the seat beside me and looked outside the window, breathing in the evening air. However, no sooner had the lady gotten off, than the man came and asked to sit next to me. I recoiled immediately. I asked him to find another seat as there were plenty of empty seats available on the bus. He insisted he wanted to sit on my side of the bus. I adamantly refused, all the while wondering why nobody else on the bus was intervening. Finally, the conductor- a lady, came by and asked what the problem was. So I stated the facts- that the man wanted to sit next to me when there were multiple empty seats on the bus. I was comforted, that it was a lady, fully expecting her to be sympathetic to my concern. However, much to my dismay and anger, the conductor asked me to move to a ladies-only seat in the front of the bus. As hot angry tears filled the back of my eyes, I kept asking myself why the man thought he could get away with something like this- and why we were letting him get away with it.

This is a relatively mild incident, certainly not the worst thing that has happened to me in a public space, and I’m confident I’m not the only one something like this has happened to. But here’s the question that kept burning at the back of my mind that day, and multiple times since- WHY WAS THE MAN SO CONFIDENT IN A SITUATION WHERE HE WAS WRONG? HOW DID HE THINK HE COULD GET AWAY WITH SOMETHING LIKE THAT?

lady-justice

Let me share with you another incident…. I was doing fieldwork as a researcher in rural South India and part of my work involved understanding the lived realities- everyday life- of the people in the village I was studying. The quick basic mapping of the village revealed that the village was divided along the lines of community. There was a clear demarcation between the rich and the poor, the upper caste and the lower caste.

The upper castes living in one part of the village- closer to the village center, with easy access to all amenities like hospitals, schools, shops, drinking water, and the lower castes would live further away from the center ensuring the two groups would have little reason for daily interaction. As I began speaking to the community, I found out that very few young girls from the lower caste community went to school. A majority of them dropped out after a certain age because of multiple factors, including- poverty, that they were needed to help out with the home, but also largely because they had to travel long distances to get to school. Their access to education was made even more difficult by some local boys who would follow the girls and taunt and threaten them. Eve teasing, being followed, constant harassment and suggestive remarks being made at them was part of their everyday commute to school- can you imagine having to deal with that EVERYDAY? With the added disadvantage of being from a community where even if they were to reach out for help, because of their poverty and social location, nobody would help them.

Here as well, the young men who abused these school girls, and the upper caste villagers who had the monopoly on the layout of the village were absolutely unafraid of any consequences as a result of their actions. They had no concerns about getting caught, or even being punished, for the distress they were causing. What is common about these 2 stories is that- they are regular, everyday stories. Easily unnoticed, and yet, so intricately part of our social fabric. I highlighted them as instances that I came across in my everyday life, but they could’ve happened to anyone.

And that is what I would like to talk about today- Everyday violence: usually hidden in plain sight. Often, certain acts of everyday violence are normalised and part of the culture, and therefore not acknowledged as acts of violence.  Some people benefit from the perpetuation of this violence, and therefore it is not addressed. Usually, we do not consider it violence because it isn’t connected to us directly.

As I reflected on these instances it became clear that the reason such cases of everyday violence, which often seem hidden and go unreported, exist, is because we live in a culture of impunity.

woman crying

I work for an organisation that supports the government to end everyday violence against the poor. We believe that the end of violence requires the end of impunity. But what is impunity?

It is the man demanding to sit next to me on an empty bus, it is the young schoolgirls having to drop out of school because of the abuse they face on their daily commute, it is the domestic worker who pushes herself to work despite being unwell because she isn’t allowed to take any leave and she cannot afford to lose her job which pays for her kids’ education, it is the young boy being forced to make bricks, separated from his family, because his grand-father borrowed some money and didn’t repay it—it is, in essence, unrestrained exploitation and freedom from punishment!

When the justice system fails to respond to the cries of those in the margins, when access to justice is a mere notion that is debated in academic circles and prime time television, when it is more likely to be struck by lightning than to see a perpetrator held accountable for their crimes, we know we live in a culture of impunity.

Many of us may recall the case at Mahagun Complex in Delhi. This is a posh neighbourhood in Noida that awoke to a mob from the nearby slum trying to get through the gates on 12th July 2017. The angry mob claimed that one of their neighbours, who was a domestic worker in the complex, had not returned from work the previous day. Eventually, the lady was found- inside the basement of the home of her employers. She reported that she had quit her job the previous day and had gone to collect 2 months’ salary that she was owed by the employer. The employer was upset that she was leaving, and locked her up in the basement.

What a bizarre story! I wish I could say this is a stand-alone incident, or the exception, rather than the norm. But such forms of everyday violence, which happen around us, possibly even in our own homes or in homes of people we know, go overlooked and are not even counted as crimes because we often believe we “own” the people we employ and can do with them as we please. This is the everyday violence that we must address, by addressing the culture of impunity that we live in.

Often when we talk about issues that plague society, it’s easy to feel helpless and so far removed from the reality of the issue that we’re not sure how we can contribute impactfully. I’d love to share 4 practical ways you can join the fight to end the culture of impunity:

  1. First- look inward- I know I love knowing how many days off I can take in a year and that my supervisor will understand if I call in sick occasionally- could we make these options open to our domestic help as well? How about ensuring that I’m paying the minimum wage and also factoring a yearly bonus perhaps?
  2. Get involved- forums like this are a great place to begin uncomfortable, yet thought-provoking conversations on issues of everyday violence around us. The more we shine a light on these oft-hidden issues, the higher the chances of action.
  3. Quit whining and start working with the public justice system. When you encounter a case of violence, don’t take the law into your own hands or worse, push it under the rug-file an FIR, get the local police and officials involved. Sure, call out incompetence, but be sure to celebrate commitment and progress as well. We must work with the system if we want to see a change in the system.
  4. Know your rights, and the rights of everyone under the Constitution. Educate yourself on laws that may be relevant. Make use of resources that make law accessible to the public like Nyaay, live law, etc

Yes, everyday violence exists all around us. Yes, it is often hidden and won’t be easy to call out. Yes, there is a culture of impunity that pervades our society and each of us may have, at different times, benefitted from it as well. But I believe everyday people like you and me, can be the difference in changing the system and addressing everyday violence. Yes, it will cost us. Yes, it will inconvenience us. Yes, it WILL TAKE TIME and won’t happen overnight. But this is a battle we must fight, so let’s be loud, fearless and unrelenting in our pursuit for justice. The call to courageous action is a bold one- and it’s one that is open to us all.

By Divya Ruth Jose


One thought on “Justice and Impunity

  1. This is so moving and practical, also gently hinting that any of us might be oppressors without quite meaning to. It hurts to see how maids are treated in the homes of some ‘good’ people – not ill treated exactly, but their human dignity assaulted in subtle ways. We need to practise justice at every level, to begin with.

    Like

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