The recently surfaced incidents of rape and sexual violence against an eight-year-old girl in the Jammu district of Kathua and a seventeen-year-old in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh have justifiably sparked outrage across India. Celebrities, politicians and hundreds of thousands of laymen alike have taken to the streets in protest against the systematic patriarchal practices still at large in the world’s largest democracy. Although reminiscent of the 2012 gang rape incident that made headlines and spurned a wave of demands for social change and greater punitive measures, the recent incidents exhibit a subtle yet vital difference: the involvement of high-level politicians and law enforcers in perpetrating and then attempting to hide the crimes.
In Kathua, eight-year-old Asifa was grazing her horses in the forest when she was kidnapped, held captive for nearly a week during which she was repeatedly raped and starved and finally killed. Although her death has been ruled as due to asphyxiation, evidence of sustained sedation and sexual violence have also been corroborated. Due to a haphazard investigation taking place by the local police, some of whom are accused of destroying evidence and obstructing justice themselves, the chief minister ordered a probe by the criminal branch to conduct a detailed study of motive, evidence and culprits. What was found left the country in shock: the kidnapping and subsequent torture of the young girl was an attempt by local authorities – one retired government official and four policemen – to scare her shepherd Muslim community into fleeing the dominantly Hindu district of Kathua. Soon after the probe was announced, right-wing group Hindu Ekta Manch or Hindu Unity Forum organized a rally in protest, defending the culprits and urging the criminal branch “not to arrest anyone.” More shocking still, this rally saw a massive turnout and was spearheaded by two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers – Forest Minister Lal Singh and Industries Minister Chandra Prakash Ganga.
The involvement of two top-level ministers of India’s current ruling party in what can only be considered a communally-charged, misogynist protest has brought to light some of India’s deepest patriarchal norms that are still prevalent across all levels of society, from the local community to the political ambit. It also reveals the intersectionality of violence throughout India, motivated by both religious hatred and blatant sexism. Succumbing to the mounting pressure the BJP has faced since being associated with the rally, both Singh and Ganga have been asked to step down from their positions. However, it has not stopped the thousands of protesters, mainly Hindu nationalists, who maintain that the men are innocent and their arrests are unconstitutional.
In an unnervingly similar series of events, a seventeen-year-old girl in Unnao approached Kuldeep Singh Sengar, an MLA and a member of BJP, to ask for employment and was then raped by him in his residence in June 2017. While filing the complaint with the local policemen, she was not allowed to name her assailant. As this case rose to national prominence, the girl’s father was assaulted by Sengar’s supporters and died in judicial custody earlier this month. Sengar is currently under the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
What is most perplexing perhaps is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reaction, or lack thereof, to these hate crimes. The gruesome nature of the rapes, coupled with the involvement of his own party members, should have incentivized a more meaningful statement from India’s head of state and a staunch supporter of the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme, his own flagship program to improve welfare and education services for young girls in northern India. However, his Twitter account has remained silent on the issue. PM Modi’s first acknowledgement of the crimes was in New Delhi during the inauguration of Dr. Ambedkar’s National Memorial where he stated that “the incidents being discussed since past two days cannot be a part of civilized society” and that “our daughters will get justice.” Many have had mixed reactions to this speech, citing his use of the word ‘incident’ as trivializing the issue at hand and a vague mention of justice with no legal backing as woefully inadequate. Despite addressing the country and the rest of India’s diaspora from London’s Westminster Hall on April 18, PM Modi again brought up the issue but failed to deliver an admirable response to quell the anger he was greeted with. He went on to say that rape should not be politicized and suggested household measures to take included asking our sons their whereabouts and not our daughters.
Thus, the government’s initial reaction, both in terms of building the case against the accused as well as delivering a powerful message on behalf of the leadership, has been subpar and, in general, a step backward for the country. Despite more measures being taken to ensure rapes are reported and fast-tracked in courts, there were 19,675 cases of rapes against minors in 2016 alone, as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted. However, it would not be prudent to trivialize the power of public outrage. In a democracy such as India, public opinions tend to carry sway in bringing out social change through forcing legal reform. Although insufficient on its own, legal reform, if coupled with proper educational reforms and better crime detection and reporting measures, might lead to sustained social change for the generations to come. In an astonishing but optimistic display of India’s democratic power, the penal code was changed last week to introduce the death penalty for rapists of girls under 12 years of age. One can only hope the step taken in the right direction is just a starting point in what should be a critical analysis of our country’s legal code to protect our daughters.