Sexual violence

Shock and despair

Print edition : May 11, 2018

A protest against the rapes in Kathua and Unnao, at Carter Road in Mumbai on April 15. Photo: Prashant Waydande

Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Lal Singh, who resigned from the State Cabinet over the Kathua rape case, leading a rally demanding a new probe into the case by the Central Bureau of Investigation, in Jammu on April 19. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

Lawyers protesting against the Jammu and Kashmir government during a shutdown in Jammu on April 11. Among their various demands was one to hand over the Kathua rape and murder case to the CBI. Photo: Channi Anand/AP

Supporters of BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar, the Unnao rape accused, holding placards saying “My MLA is innocent”, in Lucknow on April 11. Photo: Shubham Nigam

The temple in Kathua in which, according to the police, an eight-year-old girl was held captive for a week and raped before being murdered in January. Picture taken on April 12. Photo: REUTERS

As outrageous as the sexual violence against minor girls in Kathua and Unnao are Bharatiya Janata Party leaders’ involvement in the crimes and defence of the culprits.

FIVE years ago, a brutal gang rape in Delhi that led to the death of a young physiotherapist drew widespread public attention to the increasing crimes of a heinous nature against women and children. It compelled leading political parties to hold forth on the rising graph of crimes, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was then in the opposition, projected the incident as a symbol of the law and order situation under the then United Progressive Alliance regime led by the Congress.

The abduction, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old in Kathua in Jammu district of Jammu and Kashmir by eight persons in January this year and the almost year-long sexual exploitation of a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, allegedly involving a legislator from the ruling BJP are incidents that bring back the horrific memories of the 2012 incident and are symbolic of the violence against women and children in general. In Kathua, 90 kilometres from Jammu, the body of the little girl who had gone missing was found in a forest area on January 17. The Crime Branch of the State police investigated the case, and the charge sheet, close to 500 pages long, was filed and the trial was to begin in the Sessions Court in April when the incident roused public opprobrium because of the open support given to the accused by two BJP Ministers—Chandra Prakash Ganga and Lal Singh—in the coalition government the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is running with the BJP in the State.

What was most galling was the stoic silence of none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi who refrained from condemning the participation of Ministers from his party in a rally called to support those accused in the Kathua case. His silence in the case involving the prolonged sexual exploitation of a teenager in Unnao allegedly by a BJP MLA and the subsequent death of the victim’s father in suspicious circumstances after being allegedly assaulted by the supporters of the MLA was equally inexplicable.

It was widely observed that the otherwise voluble Prime Minister had been silent on both the incidents throughout much of March and April. On April 13, he broke his silence at a function in New Delhi held to commemorate B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary and said that the culprits would not be spared.

On April 18, when Modi, who was on a visit to London, was greeted with protests over the rape and murder of the eight-year-old, all that he could say was that rape should not be “politicised”. Interacting with the Indian community in Westminster at an event titled “Bharat ki Baat, Sabke Saath”, he made it a point to say that when a child was raped, “we cannot compare these incidents in numbers for different governments”.

Yet it was difficult to overlook the fact that the two incidents of violent crime against women and children had taken place in States governed by the BJP, one by itself, Uttar Pradesh, and the other in coalition with the PDP. The other more shocking feature was that in both cases, elected representatives from the BJP were either directly involved or appeared to be supporting the accused.

Retired civil servants’ missive

On April 14, as many as 49 retired civil servants wrote to the Prime Minister pointing to the “terrifying state of affairs” in the country and sought strong action against the perpetrators of these crimes, saying that it was the “darkest hour in post-Independence India”. The letter says: “The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into. In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties, inadequate and feeble. At this juncture, we see no light at the end of the tunnel and we hang our heads in shame. Our sense of shame is all the more acute because our younger colleagues who are still in service, especially those working in the districts and are required by law to care for and protect the weak and the vulnerable, also seem to have failed in their duty.”

Former Director General of Police of Gujarat Julio Ribeiro and former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah were among those who signed the letter, which said: “We had hoped that as someone sworn to upholding the Constitution, the government that you head and the party to which you belong would wake up to this alarming decline, take the lead in stemming the rot and reassure everyone, especially the minorities and vulnerable sections of society, that they need not fear for their life and liberty. This hope has been destroyed. Instead, the unspeakable horror of the Kathua and the Unnao incidents shows that the government has failed in performing the most basic of the responsibilities given to it by the people.”

They said they were writing to give voice to a “collective sense of shame” but wanted to express “rage over the agenda of division and hate your party and its innumerable, often untraceable offshoots that spring up from time to time, have insidiously introduced into the grammar of our politics, our social and cultural life and even our daily discourse. It is that which provides the social sanction and legitimacy for the incidents in Kathua and Unnao.” On April 19, at a function in Katra, Jammu, President Ram Nath Kovind called the Kathua rape “barbaric”.

Kathua rape and intimidation

The gang rape and murder of the eight-year-old from the Bakarwal nomadic community has shocked people’s sensibilities. And the open support given to the accused by one political party has only confirmed suspicions that the heinous act was deliberate and aimed specifically at removing the nomadic community from the area. It also appeared communal in nature as the Bakarwals are Muslims.

Investigations by the Crime Branch, which took over the case on January 22, revealed that the child had been sedated, raped three times, suffocated and bludgeoned to death. Her internal organs, including the uterus, had received severe injuries. The act of rape itself took place in a temple. The caretaker of the temple is the main accused, according to the charge sheet. The others among the eight accused include a juvenile and a former revenue official and a special police officer of Jammu and Kashmir. Two members of the Jammu and Kashmir Police have been named in the charge sheet for taking money to destroy evidence.

The distinctive and yet shocking element in the Kathua incident was the polarisation along communal lines by way of the overt support given to the accused by the two BJP Ministers. They took part in a road show from Jammu to Kathua protesting against the charge sheet filed by the Crime Branch and demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the incident. Interestingly, no such demand for a CBI probe has been made to date by the victim’s family, which seemed satisfied with the Crime Branch probe.

Part of a larger conspiracy

A significant difference between the gang rape of the physiotherapist in 2012 and the eight-year-old in 2018 was the direct political intervention in favour of the accused in the case of the latter. The widespread outrage that erupted over the public support given by the BJP to the accused compelled the party’s central leadership to demand their resignation from the State government. It was only after the rally in support of the accused and the speeches of the BJP Ministers were widely publicised that the central leadership swung into action.

Even as violence against women and children has risen exponentially as exemplified by the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the Kathua incident has drawn attention to the use of rape as a tool to terrorise and intimidate sections among the population, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Not only was there overt political support for the accused; the Jammu wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association on April 9 prevented the Crime Branch from submitting its charge sheet. The charge sheet had indicated that the crime was part of a conspiracy to “drive out the Gujjars and Bakarwals from the area”.

Talking to Frontline, Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, the lone Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA in the State, said that communal polarisation as an agenda was being assiduously pursued ever since the formation of the PDP-BJP government. He said it was shocking that none of the BJP legislators or Members of Parliament representing Jammu had visited the victim’s family.

In February, Tarigami became the only MLA to give a calling attention motion in the Assembly demanding a status report on the investigation of the rape and murder in Kathua. In his notice, he stated that some anti-social elements were trying to politicise the issue and derive political mileage. The government informed him that the case was with the Crime Branch, which had constituted a Special Investigation Team. No one took the kidnapping of the child seriously, he said. There was no concern for the victim by the elected representatives from the area, all of whom were from the BJP, including the MP from Jammu, Jitendra Singh, who is a Minister at the Centre.

Tarigami told Frontline that an eviction campaign against the Gujjar-Bakarwals in Jammu and Samba districts had been going on ever since the coalition government had taken charge. He had received complaints that the targets of eviction belonged to a certain community. “In Samba, Gujjars were being made to relocate to facilitate the setting up of an AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences]. We protested against the forcible eviction,” he said, adding that he had organised a meeting of Gujjar-Bakarwals with the Chief Minister on the harassment faced by them.

Clamour for the death penalty

Five years on, the Nirbhaya case, as the Delhi gang-rape case came to be known, has got reduced to a talking point even as incidents of rape and other serious crimes against women and minors soar. The involvement of people from political parties, including elected representatives, in such crimes and the overt and covert forms of support given to the accused in order to influence the outcome of the investigations are the new challenges. The standard response to sexual crimes against children is the demand to award the death penalty to those convicted.

Disturbed by the Kathua incident, Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, asked her department to work out a proposal to amend the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, in order to include a provision for the death penalty for the rape of a minor below 12 years. The maximum sentence at present is life imprisonment.

Farooq Abdullah, National Conference president, demanded a special session of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly to pass a law awarding the death penalty to those convicted of child rape. The outcry for the death penalty has been mainly from the BJP; three BJP-ruled States, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, had recently amended their criminal laws to introduce the death penalty for child rape in their statutes. On March 16, Arunachal Pradesh became the fourth State to amend the law to include the death penalty for child rape.

According to NCRB data, the incidence of crimes against children went up from 89,423 in 2014 to 1,06,958 in 2016. From 2015, it rose by 13.6 per cent in 2016. The three States of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh accounted for the highest number of cases filed for kidnapping and abduction and registered under the POCSO Act. Similarly, while there was an overall rise in the incidence of crimes against women from 2014 to 2016, the four States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan accounted for the highest number of rape cases in the country. All four States are at present ruled by the BJP.

Role of the police

It is well documented that after the 2012 Nirbhaya case, there has been an unprecedented rise in the reporting of crimes against women. But the role of the police, in both the Unnao and the Kathua cases, has been particularly shocking. In the Unnao case, the police refused to register a complaint and face allegations of torturing the father of the accused to death. In the Kathua case, the police apparently tried to destroy evidence by washing the clothes of the victim. Deepika (’Thusoo’) Rajawat, the advocate who is arguing the case on behalf of the victim’s family, was intimidated by her colleagues in the Bar Association for having taken up the case and was branded anti-Hindu. The Bar Association also wanted the case to be transferred to the CBI, stating that it had no faith in the investigation by the Crime Branch, a demand which has not been entertained by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, bizarre and fake stories about the “truth of the Kathua rape” are being planted, with one suggesting that Rohingya refugees were behind the heinous crime.

The BJP, after coming to power in 2014, launched with much fanfare the Beti Padhao Beti Bachao scheme, which was aimed at increasing the enrolment of girl children in schools and in addressing the skewed child sex ratio.

However, a Comptroller and Auditor General report of the scheme in States with the worst sex ratio shows that all is not well with the scheme (see story on page 21). It is equally surprising that a good number of persons affiliated to the BJP have been booked, accused or even charge-sheeted over the past few years in incidents involving crimes against women and children. All such cases have been widely reported in the mainstream media.

For instance, in February 2017, four local BJP leaders in Gujarat’s Kutch district were among the accused in a case of a gang rape; the leaders named in the first information report (FIR) were suspended by the party. In June 2016, another BJP leader from Gujarat was booked for raping a nursing student. The accused are still at large. In 2016, a local BJP leader in Gujarat was arrested for allegedly molesting a 13-year-old on a Goa-Ahmedabad flight. He was booked under the POCSO Act, and the State BJP leadership assured action against him.

In 2015, a BJP legislator from Gurugram, Haryana, faced trial for offences of rape, assault, poisoning, criminal intimidation and abetment. A former BJP Minister in Karnataka was arrested following rape charges made by his friend’s wife.

In 2014, a BJP leader and five others were arrested in Madhya Pradesh for alleged sexual assault and trafficking of a minor girl from Assam. In 2013, a senior BJP leader, also the party’s Maharashtra spokesperson, was charged with sexually exploiting an office-bearer of the party. In 2009, the shocking news of a BJP leader from Punjab raping his daughter came to light.

Perhaps the most controversial of all was the induction of Nihal Chand Meghwal, BJP MP from Ganganagar, in the Central Council of Ministers in 2014. Meghwal was a four-time Member of Parliament. At the time of his induction, he was one among 17 persons accused in a case of sexual exploitation in 2011. It was with much difficulty that the victim managed to get an FIR registered (see “Double Standards”, Frontline, July 2014). A Jaipur court had issued him a summons. In 2016, Meghwal was dropped from the Council of Ministers.

The extent of political mileage that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) received in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident in 2012 cannot be gauged in electoral terms. But the Budget cuts to the Nirbhaya fund speak volumes of the sincerity of the government in dealing with crimes against women and children. And though there was a huge outcry from the NDA over the safety and empowerment of women in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, it has failed to pass the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill despite the numbers it has in the Lok Sabha.

Victim-specific response

Its attitude towards women is also one of superiority or contempt. The controversial statements by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders and a few influential religious leaders exhorting Hindus to produce more children have contributed a lot to vitiating the atmosphere. In 2015, it was the Unnao MP, Sakshi Maharaj, who courted controversy with his declaration that Hindu women should produce four children each. No reprimand was issued to the Lok Sabha member.

It may well be that crimes may not be government-specific, but when the response is victim-specific doubts prevail over the impartiality of those at the helm. The context in which there has been an increase in hate crimes against minorities, mostly in the name of cattle vigilantism, and the rising crimes against women and children is significant. In such a scenario, the selective silence or the calibrated response of the BJP’s top leadership appears opportunistic in every sense of the term.

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