I find it disturbing that the Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria a month ago has been somewhat brushed aside by our election-obsessed media. I find it very disturbing that even when these Islamist militants barged into homes and abducted eight more girls – some barely eight years old – last week, we merely shrugged. At least the rest of the world is showing some interest in trying to shape or join efforts to find the kidnapped children. The global campaign to free the girls includes people like the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, US President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
But there too, I find it disturbing that even the best intentioned people talk casually of ‘over 200 girls’ or sometimes simply ‘200 abducted schoolgirls’ as if the other 76 plus eight, ie 84 schoolgirls, did not exist. If 84 schoolgirls had been abducted by militants in a separate incident, would that not concern the world? How can we so easily round it off at 200? Because some schoolgirls (some say 30, some say 53) escaped and managed to come back, it doesn’t mean we cannot find out for sure and have a real figure on how many girls remain in Boko Haram’s clutches now. Perhaps we should start looking at the girls as people, rather than as a vague bunch of victims in the oh-so-dark continent.
And excuse me if I am being unforgivably crude, but would it not concern us if even one White American or British schoolgirl had been abducted by Islamist rebels? Wouldn’t the media the world over go crazy with personal stories of the little girl, the tragic plight of her parents, what her friends remember, what she had scribbled on her school notebook, what she last wrote on her diary? Would the whole world not be familiar with her face and smile – reproduced from a family album or a Facebook page – contrasting this tragic news with the happy moment of the girl with laughing eyes, perhaps blue, her pink lips spread out in mirth, her blond hair slightly dishevelled?
Sure, Nigeria is not exactly the cleanest of places. The country of scams, a fast-growing economy and an apparently irresponsible army and government, it is the land of cheap tricks and impunity. It is reported that the Nigerian army had four hours’ warning that an armed convoy of Boko Haram militants was approaching the town of Chibok in the early hours of April 15, but they did nothing. As a result, rounding up and carrying off 276 girls from the school was a cakewalk for the militants.
I find our silence in India particularly disturbing because we should have, if we were thinking properly, identified with this tragic situation.
First, because we have a history of militancy and violence. We know what it is to feel powerless as militants take over our lives, change the way we think, kill our loved ones and rip through our social fabric. We know what religious fundamentalism is – in many shades of green and saffron.
Second, we know what it is to have our young snatched from us. To have either militants or military men kidnap our girls and boys at gunpoint. It happens mostly in ‘disturbed’ areas, it happens mostly to the underprivileged. And we know what it is like to have holes in your family where a son or daughter or father or brother used to be. Kashmir has a list of about 8,000 ‘disappeared persons.’ Nothing much is being done about it.
Third, we know what it is to have your children kidnapped. About 60,000 children go missing every year in India. Many of the kidnapped girls end up in the sex trade. “I abducted your girls, I will sell them in the market,” Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, warned the Nigerian people. “There is a market for selling humans…”
So there is. According to the United Nations about 27 to 30 million people are caught in the slave trade. And our dear motherland tops this shame list. With 14 million slaves, India is the country with the largest number of modern-day slaves in the world. They include people forced to work in pathetic conditions for reasons of caste, or as bonded labour, or as illegal migrant labour or as child labour. And, of course, in the sex trade. Trafficking in women and girls is rampant in India.
Fourth, the Boko Haram suggested that they may sell the abducted girls for sex or for marriage. We have both. Early and forced marriage is recognized the world over as a form of slavery and we excel in it. In many parts of India, a girl child is married off by poverty-stricken parents into families where she is subjected to all kinds of abuse. A few days ago, we celebrated ‘Akshay tritiya’ – the day when child marriage soars in Hindu families.
Fifth, and most importantly, it is not merely a matter of these abducted girls whom we have seen chanting verses from the Koran in a video recently released by the Boko Haram. We should be concerned about its background, its breeding ground. It is the culture of impunity that made the Boko Haram possible that we should be most worried about. The culture of impunity that we in India share with Nigeria. It is the habit of bringing religion into politics that gave rise to religious militancy like Boko Haram’s that we must be concerned about. Because like the Nigerian politicians, our political leaders too routinely give in to cheap populism and encourage Hindu and Muslim religious fundamentalism.
We need to be concerned about the Boko Haram’s abduction of 284 girls in Nigeria. Because it is a slap on the face of the world. And because it is closer home than we think.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor, The Little Magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org