A couple hires a maid. The maid goes missing and the heat is squarely on them because she was last known to have gone to their house. The woman’s family is worried sick. They try looking for her with the help of the police. But when all else fails and the woman is finally handed over to them in a distraught condition, her family demands answers, they get none and in a misguided – but unplanned – step they turn violent for a few hours on the morning of the incident.
Till this far, the picture is not an unusual one. In India, abuses against domestic workers are rampant. They have scant rights. Humiliation is a way of life. They are mistreated by their employers and are often paid wages much lower than standard rates. In 2009, the government had drafted a bill to protect the rights of domestic workers, including minimum wages, and set working hours and proper working conditions. The bill is still pending. And yet, despite there being no political will to address the issue, in the last few years, whenever such an incident has come to light, it has been followed by a certain outrage.
The day the Zohra incident breaks out, there is also outrage, wide outrage. But the wrong kind of outrage. A whatsapp message sent out by Zohra’s employers to a resident’s group claimed that Zohra was an illegal immigrant. A facebook video that claimed Bangladeshi muslims were rioting in Noida. Another whatsapp message that is doing the rounds now calls them ‘jihadis.”
Do you see the problem with this picture?
Zohra’s story is that of workers rights. Its about rights abuse. It’s about an alleged assault on a woman. But that narrative has been completely submerged in the narrative of hatred that has been engulfing India over the last few months.
It is also a scary reminder of how deep this polarization is. A single message by a couple, who are not known social media influencers, have been roiling and diluting Zohra’s narrative for two days now. It also shows that a certain class of Indians – who know the ins and outs of the workings of the social media and who have been successfully polarized along religious lines – are able to distort any kind of narrative at the click of a button to suit any kind of agenda. And the worse is that the liberals among us are too busy sitting on the fence to put up a strong opposition to this.
The past two days have been exhausting for the million times I have been asked about Zohra’s version of events. The amount of times I have heard the refrain “I am still iffy about this incident” from my liberal friends have depressed me more than the continuous attacks against Zohra on social media. From trolls, I expect nothing. But from my liberal friends I expected a bit more.
I understand Zohra’s story is complex. There are no straight answers.
So, yes she changed her versions. Please, won’t you excuse her for being distraught and incoherent and sick-scared for whatever ordeal she went through? You won’t, right? No, you won’t. Because no matter how liberal you are, there’s a tiny part in you that is still loathe to unconditionally support a poor person’s account. Because aren’t all poor people crooks or prone to be so? This chink in the liberal armour is what I fear the most. It is this chink in your armour that the Hindu right has been exploiting, and will continue to exploit.
The communal color that has engulfed Zohra’s narrative, concerns and alarms me greatly. India is hurtling towards a deep gorge of communal hatred and intolerance. Haters have immunity, impunity. Violence has been mainstreamed. One whatsapp message, one FB video, and Zohra’s story – a story of rights abuse and assault against a woman – is now submerged under an unreal cloak of hate.
Jump off that fence now and stand with Zohra. If we fail her today, we will be failing ourselves and the secular values that we hold so dear.