The Outrageous Response to a Child Murder

The police in Uttar Pradesh have produced an outrageous scandal while "investigating" the gruesome murder of Arushi Talwar, 14, and the domestic worker, Hemraj, 47, a Nepali immigrant in the employ of a couple who are doctors, in NOIDA.

The first scene of the scandal opened with the police alleging that Hemraj had killed Arushi. However, the discovery of Hemraj's brutally murdered body at once falsified police sociology that all urban murders are naturally committed by domestic help.

The police are not embarrassed by the fact that their assumption has converted an entire class of domestic workers into a suspect community. Yet, the vulnerabilities of domestic workers to everyday forms of exploitation, abuse, violence, suspicion, and indignity hardly ever finds redress. Nor is the murder of a domestic mourned similarly. No candles were lit for Hemraj.

The second scene of the scandal followed the assertion by the law enforcers that it was Arushi's father, Dr Rajesh Talwar, who killed his daughter and the domestic worker. The 'act' was described as an 'honor' killing and/or a crime of passion.

The use of this form of sexist police sociology is extremely startling, if not confusing. The language of crimes of passions or so-called honor crimes has historically denied justice to women who have been murdered.

In this case, the term has been used to address a spontaneous fit of rage against one of the victims. Traditionally, crimes of passion have been used to describe cases involving sexual transgressions, for example, where husbands murder their wives on grounds of sexual jealousy in a fit of rage and as acts of spontaneity that find reasonable husbands turning murderous. The grave and sudden provocation defence has helped many husbands to get a lighter sentence for murder.

Women have been the paradigmatic suspect community in Indian society.

Honor crimes are not a category of criminal law, they are a popular category that describes certain kinds of killings which are described from the perpetrator's viewpoint.

A murder is described as an honor killing when patriarchal fathers [or families] kill their unmarried daughters for exercising their right to choice to marry or engage in consensual sexual relationships, which are perceived to bring disgrace to the family. Since the police often see the right to choice as an instance of a crime against the honor of the father, there have been many cases when the police have assisted in hunting down a runaway couple, putting the couple's life in danger. Or a daughter may be murdered after she has been raped, since women are routinely blamed for provoking a man to cause him to rape her.

To clarify matters further, a dowry murder is not perceived as an honor crime since the father's honor is not lost if his married daughter is murdered, nor is the honor of a husband diminished by the murder of his wife.

The category of so-called honor crimes has been criticized since it describes the crime according to the motives of the perpetrator rather than the rights of the victim.

Since the police are not concerned with the rights of the child victim, it is able to sexualize the child's body by proclaiming that the father killed his 14-year-old child on suspicions of an objectionable relationship with the 47-year-old domestic help. Hence, the police are able to claim that a dead teenager was "characterless", just as her father supposedly is.

As in the Scarlett Keeling case here, too, the child's body has been sexualized. Arushi Talwar did not fit the police pictures of a "modest" child. Rather than combating the colonial construct of a "seductive child" whose nature is to willfully attract sexual attention of adult men, the police endorse this dangerous model.

Such sexualization of children's bodies encourages the vibrant rape culture, which promotes sexualized violence and places the blame on the naturally seductive child for the wrongs of adult men. It also naturally assumes that a class of men is responsible for all the sexual wrongs in our society.

The claim of the police, akin to the claim of the medical expert in rape cases, that they can read signs of "consensual" sexual relationships from a dead body, is breathlessly voyeuristic. It has nothing to do with technique or science.

The voyeuristic gaze on the so-called characterless child in public discourse signifies the fact that crimes against children are understood through heterosexist adult categories. Their lives are not understood through their voices, or the traces of their voice.

It is appalling that we accept adult categories of sexuality, which defame and defile a dead child, whose voice represented as a trace in a scrapbook and a video, is so opaque to us.

There is something very wrong with a public, which consumes images of a sexualized child to debate whether this is the limit of a new urban pathology.

It is really distressing that we accept the framework of honor crimes as appropriate to this case. Not only does the use of the categories of honor crimes or crimes of passion obscure the facts, but it also allows the police to sexualize children's bodies as being "characterless".

If we wish to grieve for the terrible murders of Arushi and Hemraj, we must challenge the practices of policing that frame a child as a sexualized child-adult and the domestic as the sexual transgressor or potential criminal.

If we wish to truly mourn these deaths, we must refuse the voyeuristic gaze forced upon us by the police framed by the camera.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)


More by :  Pratiksha Baxi

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