Two weeks ago, a 10-year-old was murdered in Mumbai. This could have gone down as just another of those murders that take place in any metropolitan city. But little Sonu's death haunts our conscience. For the circumstances of her death are so revolting that they are hard to repeat.
This little girl from Bhopal worked as a domestic a "servant" as people still call those who help us in our homes for a family consisting of three grown-ups, a father, a mother and a 26-year-old son. They lived in one of the more upmarket buildings in a Mumbai suburb.
On that fatal day, little Sonu was caught by another member of the family, a married daughter who lived in the same building, trying out some lipstick from the dressing table. For this, she was "punished". And how? The woman beat her, tortured her in the most horrific way, tied her up and left her to bleed to death. When her parents and brother returned and found that the child had died, they first cleaned up the mess and then hung the poor child from the ceiling fan before reporting her death to the police as a suicide. There are few more wretched and inhuman tales that one has come across in recent times.
The police, fortunately, did not buy the suicide story and are investigating the crime. The father, mother, brother and sister have been arrested on charges of murder, sodomy and possibly rape. But the story has not ended because it raises questions that all of us, educated, middle-class Indians need to face.
Attitudes to "servants"
What is our attitude towards people we still call "servants"? Take any residential building in Mumbai. You see notices that state that certain lifts are not allowed for "servants". Yet none of our homes would function if we did not have these "servants". All the new household gadgets that are available notwithstanding, middle class families still want someone else to do everything for them, put the toast in the toaster, place the dish in the microwave, load the washing machine. The list goes on.
Professional women in India know that they would not be able to get ahead in their careers if they did not have the kind of support system that domestic help provides us. Those who have older parents know that they would be severely restricted if they did not have someone who could help with the daily chores.
For many children, the "ayah" is a second mother, someone who knows them as well as their biological mother.
In Mumbai especially, the "bais", the Maharashtrian women who work as domestics, could teach lessons in efficiency and time management to the best-trained manager. They work in several homes, they cook, clean, wash, and they do all this with speed and utmost efficiency. In fact, many families leave their house keys with these women so that they come in and out of their houses whenever they have the time.
Yet, why do we find it so difficult to think of people who make our lives comfortable as fellow human beings? How often do you hear people say you should not "spoil" your "servants" by paying them too much? Where do these concepts come from? From our colonial past or our in-built prejudices through the caste system where we believe some people are born to serve and others to rule?
Coming back to the case of 10-year-old Sonu, how many children of her age are "employed" in middle class homes? Child labour laws prohibit children under 14 being employed in hazardous industries. But how is working in a household where you are tortured any less hazardous for a small child who should instead be in school? Someone should have asked the family that employed Sonu, what tasks a 10-year-old was expected to do in a household of adults.
Domestic workers are being organised in Mumbai and have been demanding regularisation of wages. Many of them demonstrated in front of the building where the murder took place. As a result, the media was alerted and there is some pressure on the police to follow up the case. Otherwise, little Sonu's death would have been forgotten, buried in the pile of daily crime statistics.
A new law?
Also, as a result of efforts by groups working with domestic workers, the Maharashtra government is seriously contemplating bringing in a law governing work conditions and wages of domestic workers. It would set an important example for the rest of the country if it did take such a step. With all this talk of India becoming "global", we cannot continue to justify such medieval practices.
There is nothing wrong with domestic work. But it should be recognised as that - as work and should be governed by basic standards including a minimum wage. And there should be an age limit. "Employing" a child as young as 10 is simply not justified. And torturing and killing her for a childish prank is unspeakable.