Home / Opinion / What Kathua tells us about the purpose of outrage

Many are outraged that there isn’t enough outrage over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua . If a premeditated plan to gang rape and murder her, allegedly executed by members of the administration, law enforcement, and Hindu clergy, inside a temple to explicitly drive out a community from an area does not incite anger and outrage in us, then we are not human. Our humanity is at test, the shibboleth is outrage, and we have failed.

But most Indians seem to be decent, moral beings. They are sickened by this crime, and many other small and large injustices experienced daily in India. And they are just regular people, largely trying to look after their family, earn a living, be good neighbours, etc.

Why, then, has there been so little outrage until now over the eight-year-old girl who was kidnapped, drugged, repeatedly raped, starved, and eventually strangled and tossed like garbage? Are Indians truly morally bankrupt and complicit in what is happening?

Outrage, like everything else, is scarce. It is costly to produce and express, both individually and in groups. At a very basic level, one needs to muster up the emotional energy and anger that could be directed at a multitude of other serious targets (just in the last few days—the treatment of Dalits for protesting injustices, the appalling leadership in Parliament, local government, the judiciary, etc., the death of a rape victim’s father in police custody). And often, our outrage is utilized by the minor irritations of life—lack of civic amenities, traffic, lack of cellular network, long lines, noisy neighbours, and the list goes on.

For outrage over the Kathua victim, more specifically, in addition to knowing the difference between right and wrong and having basic humanity, one must follow the news, ideally from multiple sources, and have an education to articulate outrage. Then one must pick a platform to express this outrage and engage with others who may align or disagree. Group outrage requires even greater costs of organization. Given the everyday small and large problems and injustices that most Indians face, this is no minor barrier. And our political leaders understand this and often get away with murder while decent people are busy navigating their everyday lives.

But the fact that there are barriers and costs to generating and expressing outrage is exactly what makes outrage useful. Signals are useful when they are costly to the individuals and groups doing the signalling. Temporarily ignoring all the other nonsense in our daily lives and summoning the emotional energy against the perpetrators of crimes against the eight-year-old is what would make our outrage a good signal for the administration.

Outrage is a signal, but it can also act like a constraint. It is a signal from the person expressing the outrage, and acts as a constraint on the behaviour of targets. The costlier the signal, the more likely that it constrains the behaviour of the targets. Protests, tweets, phone calls and letters to democratically-elected leaders, peaceful marches, etc., are all powerful tools because they are costly to generate.

Take the example of fringe groups that are routinely outraged and offended by all manner of speech. The Karni Sena got organized, spent resources, took some risks, and their outrage turned into a constraint for film-makers. On a positive note, Delhi’s middle class, outraged by the treatment of Jessica Lal’s murder, took to the streets to collectively express such outrage, and helped the Lal family get justice. Often, outrage may work as a better constraint than rules and procedures in a slow-moving justice system.

We need outrage, not just from every citizen in India, but also from groups that have specific political representation. While there is strength in numbers, larger groups are costlier to organize. There is even greater strength in concentrating that outrage by targeting specific interests. This leads to questions of who should be outraged and how to collectivize into smaller groups.

One can easily imagine parents demanding justice for the victim. This is a sizeable population in India, but it will easily find common ground—perhaps a group of parents of girls outraged by the behaviour of the administration. Kashmiris in general, and minority groups specifically, should organize their outrage.

But the most powerful outrage will come from Hindu groups. We need them to organize by caste and linguistic affiliation to protest this injustice—because that is how our leaders are elected.

We need Hindu priests coming out in protest demanding justice. Religious Hindus should be appalled that this crime was committed in a temple. It is an outrage when people wear shoes in a temple, or consume meat, or alcohol. Isn’t it a blasphemy that the chosen site for raping a child was a temple? Devout Hindus are affected by the heinous actions committed in their name. It’s high time they got organized and protested.

I don’t think Indians are fundamentally inhumane. I think Indian society and governments impose such stresses upon the average Indian that it is really difficult to muster and express outrage at every injustice. But therein lies the test. If we do manage to overcome the barriers and take on the costs to express outrage, it will be a much more powerful signal, and therefore a much more effective constraint. We need to express our outrage for what happened in Kathua, not only to prove our humanity. Our very lives are at risk if we don’t use every tool including outrage to discipline our unruly leaders.

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University School of Law.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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