Double standards

Even as the outcry for the resignation of a Union Minister accused in a sexual assault case grows, the Bharatiya Janata Party tries to play it down as a conspiracy.

Published : Jul 09, 2014 12:30 IST

Nihal Chand Meghwal, the Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers. A Jaipur court has issued a notice to him along with 17 others in connection with a rape case.

Nihal Chand Meghwal, the Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers. A Jaipur court has issued a notice to him along with 17 others in connection with a rape case.

AFTER all its grandstanding about upholding high standards of propriety and morality, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finds itself in a tight spot as far as Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Nihal Chand Meghwal is concerned. There has been a growing outcry for the Minister’s resignation after a Jaipur court summoned him and 17 others in a sexual assault case. The case relates to the complaint by a 20-year-old woman from Sirsa in Haryana accusing her husband and 17 others, including the Minister, of raping her over several months in 2011.

According to the woman, she was subjected to sexual assault soon after her marriage, and her husband, Om Prakash, used to offer her in a drugged state to the accused persons. Some Congress party workers, too, are among the accused. The opposition, including the Congress, the Biju Janata Dal and the Left parties, have demanded the resignation of the Minister, but the BJP’s zero-tolerance dictum does not seem to be applicable in this case.

It is to be seen whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest dictum to have a Parliament free of tainted MPs and the Union Home Ministry’s notice to all States to fast-track cases against sitting and former Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies will be taken seriously in the Union Minister’s case.

Frontline met the rape survivor at an undisclosed location in Rajasthan where she has been staying in hiding with some relatives. A resident of Abubshahar village in Sirsa district, the tall and attractive woman from the Bishnoi community was studying in Class 12 in her village when the marriage proposal came. She told Frontline that she was married on December 20, 2010. Her husband was a BJP worker who wanted to make it big in the party. No one in the village knew the antecedents of the young man apart from the fact that he had been married earlier and was separated from his first wife.

Having lost her father when she was six years old, the girl was brought up by her uncle. She told Frontline she wanted to complete her studies and become a lawyer. But with two younger sisters to be raised, she had little choice but to accept the proposal. “We live in dhaanis [homesteads built on agricultural land] and are cut off from the main village as such,” she said. “His character changed completely after marriage. He used to harass me for dowry even after being given so much,” she said.

Within three months of the marriage, she was brought to Jaipur in Rajasthan. “He used to lock the door from outside each time he stepped out. He mixed some intoxicants in the food, after which I felt drowsy, but I knew something had happened to me when I woke up,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

She was shifted from house to house in the dead of night, where she would not be allowed to meet or talk to anyone. “I was from a village. The city was completely strange to me. I knew no one, had no means to contact anyone. He kept me prisoner,” the woman said.

On one occasion she refused to eat. Soon after, she found her brother-in-law molesting her and trying to abuse her. To her protests, her husband remarked that “this had been happening for a long time, that he did not consider her as his wife and that he was using her for his political ambitions”. Her husband had recorded all the instances of sexual abuse with the accused persons. He bragged about this to his wife. “He showed it to me on the television once,” she said, breaking down.

She said they used to stay in one establishment for 10 to 15 days and would move out. According to her, he always had the most expensive of vehicles and used multiple phones and SIM cards, which he kept in the seams of his pyjamas.

Om Prakash had meanwhile graduated from being an ordinary BJP worker to an elected member of the Pilibanga Zilla Parishad. His connections with Meghwal, a four-time MP, had consolidated over time. Meghwal was after all an old friend, and his presence had been recorded in the marriage video of Om Prakash and the rape survivor. For eight months, her ordeal continued—from February 2011 to September 29, 2011. Nine months into the marriage, her family gathered courage to file a dowry case against Om Prakash.

The young woman managed to narrate her plight to her uncle, who decided to deal with the problem. He was called to Jaipur by the husband. After her marriage, this was the first time she was allowed to meet a close relative of hers. “My uncle was beaten up and forced to say that he had illicit relations with me and that he had sold me for Rs.8 lakh,” she said. The uncle was also kept captive for days. When he reached the village without his niece and narrated what happened, the community was incensed. Meanwhile, as local panchayats in Ganganagar got involved in the matter and news spread of the incident, Hetram Beniwal, district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who belongs to the Bishnoi community and had led several farmers’ struggles in Ganganagar, intervened.

To file an FIR

The Bishnoi panchayat at Abubshahar tried to get the victim back home, but their attempts were thwarted by Om Prakash, who used his influence with the police. In one particular instance, at a panchayat called at Pilibanga, where her marital home was located, the girl managed to escape the clutches of her husband and reached home with the help of her community members. The Dabwali police at Sirsa refused to file a first information report (FIR) based on her complaint of sexual assault. They said she would have to go to Jaipur for that.

It was not easy getting an FIR registered in Jaipur either. “They made us sit the whole day in the Sham Nagar police station. They told us, ‘ kyon baeizzati karwatey ho? ’ [Why do you want to dishonour yourselves?],” the woman said. “I want all of them punished. I have named them. I can identify each one of them. The Minister is putting pressure on my village because he is a powerful man. But I am not changing my statement. What has happened to me has happened. It should not happen to anyone else,” she said. She has named all the locations where she was taken to in Jaipur.

Inderjit Bishnoi and Navrang Chaudhary, both of whom are lawyers in Sri Ganganagar, and Hetram Beniwal pursued the matter and raised funds to help the family.

The Congress remained quiet until the BJP leader was made a Minister at the Centre. Congress workers were among the accused. The police never investigated the matter properly at any stage. The Haryana Police claimed that the alleged assault had taken place in Jaipur and not in its jurisdictional area. Despite an order from Jaipur Police Commissioner B.L. Soni on February 29, 2012, directing the Rajasthan Police to investigate the allegations of the rape survivor, they did not do so. The Commissioner’s letter, a copy of which is with Frontline , directed the police to investigate the role of the husband, the sources of his disproportionate wealth, the mobile phones and the SIM cards he used, the obscene videos allegedly recorded, and the vehicles used in the alleged offence. His letter urged that a deep and thorough investigation be conducted and a report produced within 10 days. Needless to say, nothing happened.

“We filed a writ petition in the High Court. The DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] of Rawatsar threatened the girl, saying that he would put her kith and kin in jail,” said Navrang Chaudhary, adding that only after the intervention of the court was the girl’s statement recorded under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Hetram Beniwal and Inderjit Bishnoi said they had met Kuldeep Bishnoi, the leader of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), to seek his intervention in the matter, but he did not do anything. The HJC had an alliance with the BJP in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Ashok Tanwar, the Congress MP from Sirsa, also did not help them. But the Congress unit of Sirsa has taken up the case actively after the elections.

Meghwal, the MP from Sri Ganganagar, held a press conference denying that he was the one who was named in the FIR, but the rape survivor is certain that he was among those who assaulted her. All the accused named have revealed their association in some form with the husband of the rape survivor, including the Union Minister. He does not deny that he attended the marriage of the couple.

“We took her to the NCW [National Commission for Women] as well as the Rajasthan State Women’s Commission, but apart from a few statements, they didn’t take this up actively. Eighteen persons are involved in sexually abusing this girl. Is it a small matter?” asked Hetram Beniwal. Women’s organisations have demanded the resignation of Meghwal.

AIDWA’s letter

A statement issued by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) urged the Prime Minister to intervene urgently in the matter as the rape survivor was being “intimidated and threatened”. The letter said that it was because of her relentless efforts that a legal summons had been issued to Meghwal. “In this context, when such a serious accusation has been made and legal proceedings are under way, it is imperative that the Central Minister step down, pending investigation. This alone can facilitate a free and fair inquiry into the matter. The complainant and her family members must be provided full security, and all support required to fight the case must be extended to her,” the AIDWA statement says. The BJP continues to maintain that it is a conspiracy. Apparently, at the time of the sexual assault, the woman was a minor. Her date of birth was sought to be tampered with. The crime of sexual assault on a minor would attract harsher punishment under the amended laws.

While Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh gave a clean chit to the accused Minister and some within the BJP hinted at a conspiracy within the Rajasthan unit of the party, a television news channel famous for its regional feeds interviewed a lookalike of the woman, who claimed that the Minister was not involved. The truth was out when the actual rape survivor said that she had not been interviewed by this particular channel and denied making any such statement.

The girl breaks down whenever she is reminded of her harrowing experience. “This man did this to her along with others. We Bishnois support people who do good but do not forgive wrongdoers,” said Brijlal Bishnoi, grandfather of the rape survivor. “I am 86 years old. I was 14 when the country got Independence. All that we know is agriculture. Why should we be scared of the Minister? He should be worried. We won’t forget or forgive even if the law pardons him. These people did this to a girl from our family,” he said.

A senior Minister in the Congress government from Haryana had apparently sought to put pressure on the family through the sarpanch of Abubshahar by giving a clean chit to one of the accused, a Rajasthan Youth Congress president. Among the other prominent names listed are Radheyram Godara, former president of the Jat Mahasabha; Vivekanand Sharma, associated with the media cell in the BJP office in Rajasthan; Jogeshwar Garg, former MLA of the BJP from Jalore; Anil Rao, DSP, Sodala, Jaipur; and Pushpendra Bharadwaj, former Youth Congress president.

All the accused, including the Minister, have to appear in the district court on August 20. The girl’s family has been given no security whatsoever; she is in hiding and fears for her life and that of her sisters. Her courage in the face of all this remains exemplary. It is strange that the BJP leadership has sought to whitewash an offence as serious as gang rape and sexual assault claiming it to be a conspiracy.

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