World

Anti-Rape Protests in India Show a Growing Public Stand Against Sexual Violence

The BJP-led government has let horrible crimes go unpunished for too long.

Both stories are horrendous. An eight-year-old girl kidnapped in Kathua (Jammu and Kashmir), then sedated and gang-raped before she was killed. A 17-year-old woman raped by an elected official in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district. In both cases, the perpetrators were powerful people—policemen, priests and elected officials, protected by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political party.

I remember being in Delhi in December and January of 2012-13. Mass protests took place, with mainly women on the streets demanding an end to violence against women and to state complicity in such violence. The government, led by the Congress Party, was forced to ask Justice J. S. Verma (assisted by Justice Leila Seth and Gopal Subramanium) to study the criminal law and make recommendations for its amendment. The Verma Committee Report appeared swiftly, its recommendations taken in hand by the government. It was felt by many that this moment—the mass protests and the Verma Committee Report—would be the start of a new process in India.

Illustration by Orijit Sen, displayed prominently at protests. 

But, of course, change does not come so fast, and powerful people do not lose their sense of immunity from the law. These two crimes—in Kathua and Unnao—both demonstrate the total lack of concern by the criminals against the young girl and young woman.

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The eight-year-old was held in a temple in Kathua, drugged with clonazepam, beaten and raped. The men who did this crime bribed police officers and attempted to whip up religious sentiments to defend themselves. They earned the support of the right-wing BJP, who tried to turn this from a criminal into a religious issue. Two BJP ministers in the state government—Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga—defended the criminals. Both men went to rally in favor of the criminals. They joined with the fascistic Hindu Ekta Manch. They said that the party had sent them on this mission.

The rape in Unnao took place a year ago. The perpetrator is a BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who used every lever he could to protect himself from prosecution. His party leader—Yogi Adityanath—was not moved to call for an investigation. When the woman’s father tried to get justice for his daughter, he was arrested. He had been beaten by supporters of Sengar. The father died shortly afterwards. The young woman tried to immolate herself in front of Adityanath’s home. It took a great deal of bravery for the family to make sure that the authorities did not ignore the crime.

The men of Kathua and Sengar of Unnao are now in custody. Protests across the country reminded the ruling elites that the popular mood is against sexual violence and against the State’s failure to act according to the law.

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These two cases—in Kathua and Unnao—have once more seized the popular imagination. But these are not isolated cases. Earlier this year, in Haryana, five young girls and women were raped over the course of five days. Two of the girls were killed.

The National Crime Record Bureau suggests an uptick in the number of rapes—a hundred reported cases a day. The victims are from all classes and castes, although most of the young children who are raped and killed are from oppressed caste and rural communities. The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act and the new sentencing guidelines have done little by themselves to stop the epidemic of sexual violence. They are important, but not decisive.

Reports from various human rights and advocacy groups suggest that there are multiple reasons for the continuation of the problem. One of the key factors is the immunity given to the criminals of these rape cases. Police officers do not take rape allegations seriously and prevent the filing of cases against rapists if they are politically connected. This gives the rapists total confidence that they are free to do what they do.

A second factor is a broad culture that tolerates violence against women by making the rape a matter of the woman’s shame rather than the criminality of the perpetrator. This not only silences women, but it also allows the rapists to manipulate shame and honor to their advantage. Even though the Indian Supreme Court found the vigilante khappanchayats to be ‘wholly illegal,’ they continue to operate and define how rape is understood. These panchayats—gangs of powerful men—threaten women who attempt to file rape charges, giving fodder to an already lackadaisical and hostile police station.

Add in a poorly developed legal infrastructure and barely existent health and support services for the survivors. Few authorities care that in 2014 the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare laid out guidelines for the medical care necessary for sexual assault survivors. Terrible ideas—such as a woman being ‘habituated to sex’—were to be rejected. But these persist, as do out-of-date intake forms that make ghastly insinuations about the victim of assault.

Appalling attitudes by politicians embolden the worst of prejudicial habits. Mohan Bhagwat heads the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the fascistic political organizations to which India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs. In 2013, Bhagwat said, “Rapes take place in cities and not in villages. Women should refrain from venturing out with men other than their relatives. Such incidents happen due to the influence of Western culture and women wearing less clothes.” This ridiculous statement earned Bhagwat scorn from some quarters. Most rapes take place in rural areas—as the incidents from Haryana earlier this year show and as the Kathua and Unnao rapes demonstrate. But Bhagwat’s statement also reinforced toxic ideas about testosterone-laced nationalism.

When news came of the gang rape in Unnao, Bhagwat—the leader, in a sense, of the political movement that rules India—made a statement about temples. The young girl had been confined, drugged and raped in a temple. Instead of offering any solace to the family or to those in the country shocked by this incident, Bhagwat spoke of a long-standing right-wing desire to build a temple in the town of Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh)—a four-hour drive from the town of Unnao, where the young woman had been raped last year. If the temple is not built in Ayodhya, Bhagwat said, “the root of our culture will be cut.” What was Bhagwat trying to say? That rape would end if the temple to Ram were built in Ayodhya? But the young girl was raped in a temple. That did not cross his mind. Temples, control over women’s behavior—these are the contours of the toxic right-wing in India today.

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Three hundred kilometers north of Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir is the town of Shopian. In May 2009, the bodies of two young women—Neelofar Jan (age 22) and Asiya Jan (age 17)—were found in a stream. They had been abducted, raped and killed within sight of a camp of the Indian military. There are now about 700,000 Indian troops in Kashmir. By any measure, the presence of these troops resembles an occupation. Initially the police tried to cover up the Shopian rapes and murders. But they could not. Nonetheless, there has been no justice for Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan.

A few days ago, ordinary people gathered at Gole Chowk in Shopian to demand justice for the eight-year-old killed in Kathua and to remind the world about Neelofar Jan and Asiya Jan. Gazi Muzamil, vice president of the All Jammu & Kashmir Students’ Union, said, “We have not forgotten and will not remain silent until justice is delivered to the victims.”

 

 

Main article photo: Anoo Bhuyan / Flickr, One Billion Rising Delhi, February 14, 2013

Vijay Prashad is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is also the author of Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016), among other books.