In Memory of The Unknown Citizen

We may never know her name. But not every memory needs a name or a pile of stone. Her memorial need not claim space on a city street, or square, or on the river-front. Let the well-known Leader and the Unknown Soldier have their real estate, but for the Unknown Citizen, let us not fire gun salutes, fly flags at half-mast or build portals and pedestals. And let us not for even a moment imagine that instituting police measures against the people the Prime Minister calls ‘foot-loose migrants’ will mean anything remotely resembling justice.

We can think about what the contours of enduring justice can be without being hangmen. Only safe cities, safe towns and safe villages, and freedom for all men and women will mean justice. Justice does not come from the gallows. It springs from a freedom from fear, and the gallows only perpetuate fear. Hangmen will turn the bullies who rape into the cowards who will automatically murder so that there may not be a trace of their rape. It will make fathers who rape their daughters into fathers who rape and murder their daughters. Capital punishment will lead to less, not more convictions for rape and heinous sexual violence. That can never lead us to justice.

But, even if justice is done, or is seen to be done, in this specific case, how can we undertake the other important task — that of remembering a nameless woman? We can think of a ‘nirgun’ place, a form-less, flag-less memorial. It can be a place in our hearts and minds. It can be a spark in our eyes. It can be the resolve not to forget her, even if we can never speak or remember her name. (And no, we need not deploy the made-up names she never had, just because some people on television cannot deal with the profound challenge of her anonymity to their limited imagination and constrained moral compass).

She, the unknown citizen, fought well and lived bravely, and now she cannot fight and live anymore. We have to fight and live in her memory. This only means that every person who thinks of herself and himself as a citizen (and here, by ‘citizen’ I do not necessarily mean a subject of a state alone, but any person who claims the polis) has to make themselves known against the brute force as well as the cold indifference of power. All kinds of power — especially the kind that answers to the whispers of the ghosts of dead patriarchs, that hard-codes into living boys and men that sense of impunity that rapes, gropes and traps girls, women and others who are deemed different because of the nature of their bodies or their desires. All kinds of power — especially the kind that emanates from the office, the flag and the uniform, from guns and cars and cold cash. All kinds of power — especially the kind that comes wrapped in the sanctity of scripture, the patronising confidence of expertise and law, and the perverse armour of honour. We will have to defeat these everyday. For the rest of our lives.

The unknown citizen has given us all a reason to challenge every kind of power there is. She has bequeathed to us many reasons, to fight and live. The young women and men who came out in solidarity with her in Delhi, elsewhere, are changed by the way they were touched by her. But they are not the only ones who are changed. The veterans of many marches, those more used to teargas than tears, were also surprised by their new companions, by the grace and steadfastness of the young.

The young were touched by her valour, and by their own courage in the face of the brutal repression and deceit that the government let loose in response to them.

The best homage we can continue to pay to the memory of this brave 23-year-old paramedic is to hold on to that courage, to recognise and acknowledge the transformation that we have all witnessed, in ourselves, in each other.

The words ‘Martyr,’ and ‘Shaheed,’ tend to be used too loosely in our time, and generally bring in their wake a cult of death which can never yield anything generative, let alone a positive politics. But in their original sense, both Martyr (in Greek) and Shaheed (in Arabic), do not mean a person who is killed, with or without reason. They both mean ‘witness.’ When we tag the terms Shaheed or Martyr to the Unknown Citizen today, we have a responsibility to ask what her witnessing tells us? What will it mean for us to continue to bear witness in her memory?

A name is no protection against oblivion. We know a name called Manorama from Manipur, others from Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. We know the family that was attacked in Khairlanji. And they are almost forgotten, even by some of those who weep crocodile tears for this 23-year- old paramedic.

There are other names we know. We know the names of those who raped and murdered the Unknown Citizen. We know that a man called Ankit Garg, SP, Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, supervised the humiliation of Soni Sori and was awarded with a police medal for gallantry. We know that a man called Altaf Khan, a sometime Deputy SP of the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police in Handwara, who has rape allegations against him that go un-investigated, was awarded a presidential medal for meritorious service. There are many other such men. In the Army, in the police, in our factories, schools and homes. Justice does not have to mean hanging these men, but justice does at least mean that similar crimes should lead to similar punishment, regardless of whether they occur in Delhi, or Kashmir, Manipur and Chhattisgarh. Justice at least requires that laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which foster rape and violence, are done away with. Justice at least requires that we do not forget place-names like Kunan Poshpora, in Kashmir, and what happened there.

We know names like Abhijit Mukherjee, Anisur Rahaman, Botsa Satyanarayan, Mansukh Bhuva, Shriprakash Jaiswal, Narendra Modi, Kakoli Ghosh-Dastidar, Sushma Swaraj and Mamata Banerjee. We know their glib talk, and how it speaks the patois of patriarchy. We know now that these men and women deserve neither the offices they hold, nor our confidence. They cannot represent us.

In the last few days, the streets of Delhi have erupted with protest. We have heard the infectious roar — hum kya chahtey, Azaadi. The Azaadi (freedom) that the young women and men of Delhi are demanding for is a place where ammunition, money and machismo do not rule. That is a new city, and building it will make us leave the protocols of this tattered republic far behind. We will all build that new city in the memory of the Unknown Citizen.

[ This text was also published in ‘The Sunday Story’ section of The Hindu ]

13 thoughts on “In Memory of The Unknown Citizen”

  1. in the list of names why have you left the man who has wed silence ever since he entered office our own manmohanji and the so called charismatic madamji. To me though this rise of people is a good beginning but fear it will all die down once the media has another one to prey for .And not punishments but inculcating values from the very outset and a change in the mind set of the people not out of fear but from commonsense will only be the way that such heinous things can be done away with.


    1. The list of names includes politicians who have made specifically sexist and misogynist remarks. Which MMS is yet to do. However, I have called him and Sonia Gandhi out on their apathy (in earlier posts) and MMS’s preposterous suggestion that rape can be combatted through measures to police ‘footloose migrants’ both in this post (see the first paragraph) as well as in earlier posts on Kafila.


      1. Respected Shuddhabrata,

        a very apt description indeed. I wish you too must be doing something on your part rather than just being the media.

        Thanks for a wonderful article.


  2. Its very sad to hear about that girl, but however we cannot go in the past and save her but we can save the future of the women in india. I have suggestion for this hope you will like it:
    first of all we have to install 2-3 computerised servers in every city/village and we should have 24*7 hr police station at every 5-6 km. And we will assign some antigang rape no. Nd women can call it. Mobile is the basic requirement for women.
    Now here is the suggestion:
    if a women is going to be raped then at that time she can contact that short antirape no. Like 3 or watever nd this call will reach to the servers installed nd within 10 to 20 seconds her location will be traced and the server will automatically send a msg to the nearby police station and police can reach the spot and save the grl…….
    Friends spread this technology which i have named it as Geological Tracing (GT)…


  3. This is nice rhetoric, but we also need concrete changes to ensure accountability from the police. No ideas on that front?


    1. How can you blame the now infamous Rapers? They might have thought if Kashmiri girls and women can be raped without impunity they may get the same benefit. Its their bad luck that the place was not in Kashmir but in the Capital of the Republic of India, the land of largest practicing democracy.


  4. Dear shuddhabrata

    You are truly worthy of her . Your ideas. have mesmerised me with their moral depth lyrical expressio n and width of understanding Power – indeed that is the hub of these and many crimes and pains . Your list of rejections of the various kinds of memorials , and then the virtues that can create the City that the young would want is just perfect .

    We must enable this to happens Build this , dear friend , spread these thoughts may they catch fire or should we say another word or ? You find the word as only you can
    Devaki Jain


  5. Shuddhabrata,
    It is the most moving piece I have read. Wish mainstream media, other than Hindu, lends space to such articles. There is too much noise and no substance in what newspapers and TV channels are dishing out.


  6. We are all parts of a degenerated society that erupts sporadically with a distinct thoughtful conscious design based on the locale and the possible benefit thereof. Our eruptions are mere lava spewing, tremor a while and then the usual tranquil….. willfully ignoring many in forlorn lands for the mere strength of the cord that keeps them bound. We as a conscious society have a long way to go to come to exist……however, noisily we may claim to have protested on these beastly deeds that befit our silence on matters that erupt us must. Brilliant stuff Shuddharbata.


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