In Memory of the Unknown Citizen

<b> The Sunday Story</b> She fought well and lived bravely, and now she cannot fight and live anymore. We have to fight and live in her memory.

Updated - November 16, 2021 09:58 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2012 01:07 am IST

It was spontaneous grief, anger and protests all over the country for the gang rape victim. Here, a candlelight vigil in Delhi.

It was spontaneous grief, anger and protests all over the country for the gang rape victim. Here, a candlelight vigil in Delhi.

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.

(Shuddhabrata Sengupta is an artist with the Raqs Media Collective and writes on

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