To distract attention from the ‘Save Rapists Campaign’ (Balatkari Bachao Abhiyan) of the ruling BJP in the Kathua, Unnao and Uttar Pradesh, the Central Government has passed an ordinance introducing death penalty for rapists of children.
The victim in the Kathua case and the complainant in the Unnao case are both minors. It was not a weakness in available punishments under the law that allowed BJP Ministers in Kathua to march to shield the accused from arrest, charge-sheet and trial; that allowed the UP Government to refuse to arrest the rape-accused BJP MLA Sengar and instead arrest the complainant’s father and kill him in custody. The existing rape law already provides for death penalty in a case like the Kathua case – but that did not deter the perpetrators.
The ordinance is ridiculous and dangerous. Women’s groups have pointed out that rapes of children are mostly committed by close and trusted members of the family and community as well as neighbours, friends, teachers and so on. These perpetrators take advantage of the patriarchal power structures within the family, community and society. Not only girls but boys are also vulnerable to such sexual abuse. We need to address the lack of democracy in our societies and families which enable and facilitate such crimes. Death penalty is likely to lead to more cases of murder to suppress discovery of the crime. It is also likely to further deter families from reporting such crimes, because they will find it harder to face the psychological and social trauma of exposing their own relatives to the possibility of the death penalty.
‘Death penalty’ is a tired, old distraction tactic to divert public anger away from the real problems. The real problem is the impunity provided by Governments to powerful men accused of rape. The real problem is the refusal of Governments (including the AAP Government in Delhi which is playing tango with the Central Government on its cry for death penalty for rapists of girl children under the age of 12) to spend public money on increasing the number of judges and courts to ensure speedy trials, more and up-to-date forensic laboratories, government-funded shelters and experienced counsellors for victims of child sexual abuse, crèches for children in slum clusters, sustained campaigns to help all children recognize and feel empowered to speak out against sexual abuse.
As long as the Balatkari Bachao Abhiyan was going well, and not generating outrage in national and international media and the Indian streets and political circles, the Prime Minister maintained a studious silence.
He finally broke the silence and made a few vague, anodyne assurances that daughters would surely be protected, only when it seemed that the Balatkari Bachao Abhiyan might be costing him politically. But what he didn’t say still resounds louder than what he said.
He said 'what has been discussed in the last two days is shameful and does not befit a civilised society.' So – the Prime Minister reacted only to the discussion – i.e the protests and the media coverage – and not to the events. The Unnao teenager accused BJP MLA Sengar of rape a year ago. Her father wrote to the UP CM and the PM about it. But he was arrested and beaten to death in custody – three days before Modi spoke. Modi said not a word about the conduct of the UP police on this matter. He said nothing, not a word, about the fact that Adityanath ordered a rape case accusing former Union Minister ‘Swami’ Chinmayanand of raping her in his ashram. He said nothing about the Allahabad High Court’s observations, while ordering the arrest of Sengar, that “law and order appear to have collapsed in UP.” If Modi while seeking votes in UP promised ‘Beti Bachao’ and instead his party’s Government is defending rapists and letting law and order “collapse”, surely he owes the people of the country an answer?
The Kathua rape and murder happened in January 2018. The much-maligned JNU students (whom Modi bhakt anchors like Arnab Goswami love to accuse of ‘silence’ as though they were the Government) raised their voice then – and were rewarded by violence by the Modi Government’s police. On February 23 again AIPWA, AIPF and others raised our voices on Kathua in Delhi at the Indian Women’s Press Corps. The media ignored the event.
Meanwhile, between January and April, BJP Ministers Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga led Hindu Ekta Manch rallies against the arrest of the accused. Remember, according to the chargesheet in the Kathua case, the incident is a planned conspiracy to “spread terror” in the nomadic Bakerwal Gujjar community, a vulnerable scheduled tribe. The BJP Ministers’ speeches not only defended the accused in the gruesome rape-murder of a child; they contributed to the climate of terror. At a Hindu Ekta Manch rally for the accused on March 1, 2018, attended by no less than seven BJP MLAs, Chaudhary Lal Singh, then the Forest Minister, said "One girl was killed here. They don’t understand that many women have gone missing since 1947. No one is asking about them...” These words in Dogri were taken by Jammu-based reporters to be a sinister reference to the massacre of Muslim Gujjars in Partition violence in 1947. This reading of the BJP leader’s words is borne out by the fact that on 18 May, 2016, at his official residence, he had told Muslim Gujjars who had gone to raise the issue of their eviction from forest land, ““O Gujron, 1947 pulligaya hai tuse ge? (Gujjars, have you forgotten 1947. Why have you come here?)”
Needless to say, Modi said not a word about the Hindu Ekta Manch or about the hatespeech by his leaders. He said nothing about the fact that though the two BJP Ministers submitted resignations from their Cabinet posts, they and the other MLAs who (send by the BJP leadership) attended the Hindu Ekta Manch pro-rape and pro-hate rallies, continue to be members and leaders of the party. He said nothing about the fact that today, Talib Hussain, the lawyer and activist from the Bakerwal community who has been raising the issue right from the start was beaten up by BJP men in Udhampur.
Above all, Modi refused to acknowledge that people’s outrage that had forced him to break his silence, was not just at the fact of gruesome rapes. It was at the visual images – never seen before in this country in such a naked and shameless manner – of ruling party leaders marching to defend the accused of the rape and murder of a child, waving the national flag and speaking of ‘Hindu Unity’; of lawyers in black coats physically preventing the chargesheet from being filed against the accused in Kathua. He refused to acknowledge that BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi’s whataboutery (she raised the issue of the brutal rape of a child in Nagaon, Assam where the accused are Muslim youth as a counter to Kathua and Unnao) is the cause of people’s anger, because no ‘Muslim Ekta Manch’ is holding pro-rape rallies waving the tricolour in Nagaon, no lawyers are blocking arrests and chargesheets, and the rape was not part of a conspiracy to terrorise Hindus. Instead, it was AIPWA that led the protests in Nagaon. In the Muslim-dominated village of Nagaon, it was Muslim women above all who rallied to ensure the speedy arrest of the juvenile accused (also a Muslim) who is a son of a local strongman; the father also has a history of crimes against women. So the BJP’s attempts to ask ‘What about Nagaon’ to silence the protests on Kathua backfire on it badly.
It has now become unacceptable and embarrassing to defend the Kathua rape-accused openly – and so many hate-mongers are making a token gesture saying they want ‘justice for the victim’. But let’s acknowledge the toxic climate of hatred (towards Muslims, towards Bakerwals, towards Rohingyas, towards Kashmiris) created by BJP and RSS, by influential sections of the media, and in Jammu, even by Congress leaders, that made it possible for the Kathua atrocity to happen and be ignored for four months. The hate campaign against the nomadic Bakerwals has been building for a long while now, alongside the anti-Rohingya rhetoric. You have the Jammu Bar Association President (a Congress man) who called the flop Jammu Bandh in defence of the Kathua rape accused, threatening genocide against the Rohingya refugees. You have Congress spokesperson Ravinder Sharma writing that he supported the issues of ‘encroachment’ by Bakerwals and the ‘Rohingya issue’ raised by the Jammu Bandh while holding an unspecified ‘different view’ from the BJP on the ‘Kathua rape and murder’. Really? Congress in Jammu joins BJP in its hate campaign against the Bakerwals and Rohingya refugees but equivocates on the Kathua rape and murder which was a part and parcel of the hate campaign? Fascism can’t be fought or defeated by feeding such hate, that can’t be dispelled by the light of midnight candles.
Yes. I believe that we are at a unique and unprecedented moment in our history. At no previous time – no, not even in 2012 December – have we seen so brazen a Balatkari Bachao Abhiyan by a ruling party. But, even as we acknowledge this, we have to recognise how we as a country got to this place. What callused our consciences and allowed things to reach such a pass?
I ask: when the media lionised Adityanath and told of his pets’ names and his daily diet, did it not know full well that he authored a piece peddling the Manusmiriti line that women must always be kept under the control of father, husband or son? Did it not know that in his presence, a leader of his Hindu Yuva Vahini (soul-sister of Hindu Ekta Manch) called for dead Muslim women to be dug up from graves and raped? When such a man was made UP CM and BJP star campaigner, could the cruelties of Unnao, Chinmayanand and Kathua not be foreseen? When he boasted of that his police killed 38 men, declaring them ‘criminal’ without a trial, could we not foresee that the same police would and could declare Adityanath and his own men ‘innocent’ without trial; and that they would be emboldened to arrest and murder the rape complainant’s father?
When former Mumbai Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh was made a Minister, did the media and Modi not know that when he was Police Commissioner, he blamed “promiscuous” women and sex education for rape? If the media failed in its duty to hold Modi accountable for choosing such as man for his Cabinet, is it any surprise now that Singh suggests that the Unnao complaint could be a liar and Sengar need not be arrested?
Are we really surprised that Vishnu Nandakumar, (RSS cadre and the son of E.N.Nandakumar, a senior RSS functionary in Kerala, who in turn is the brother of Kerala state BJP general secretary, A.N.Radhakrishnan) posted on Facebook that it was a 'good thing' that the eight year old girl in Kathua has been killed, because 'better that she was killed early, otherwise she would have grown up to be a bomb to the nation in future'? Many of us have been seeing such posts and tweets celebrating atrocities against Muslims and against anyone of us speaking up for minority rights, everyday, including by handles followed by the Prime Minister and employees of slavishly pro-Modi channels.
Did you let ourselves be part of the backlash that says women file false complaints of rape; that the rape law is draconian? Did you celebrate the Supreme Court upholding that a woman’s ‘feeble no is a yes’? All that contributed to normalizing rape culture that isolated complainants of whom the Unnao complainant is just one.
Finally, let’s ask what emboldens the Kathua accused to claim support in the name of ‘Hindu Unity’ – is it not because that tactic has worked in the case of those accused of rape during communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, Gujarat, and Kandhamal?
And what emboldens the Kathua accused to cloak themselves in the national flag and demand impunity? We need to remember that the accused in Kathua include an SPO - a member of the ‘Special Police’ force, supposedly a counter-insurgency force. Well, it isn’t the first time by far that a counter-insurgency force has raped and killed children and women.
Meena Khalkho of Chhattisgarh was a teenage schoolgirl raped and killed by so called counter-insurgency cops in 2011. BJP Ministers of Chhattisgarh then said, to deny her rape and justify her murder, that she was 'habituated to sex' and slept with truck drivers and was a Naxal. A judicial enquiry ordered 25 cops booked for the crime in 2015. But since then, not a single person has been arrested or charged with rape.
A child Asiya and a young woman Nilofer were raped and killed in Shopian, Kashmir in 2009. The CBI insulted reason by declaring they drowned in an ankle-deep stream, accused the doctor who did the post-mortem and found evidence of rape of lying, and said that Asiya’s hymen was found intact when he body was exhumed four months after she was buried! A report at the time said that “forensic and scientific experts that since the hymen is a thin membrane, a soft tissue, it cannot be found intact upon exhumation 4 months after the burial of the body.”
Manorama was raped and killed by Assam Rifles men in 2004. A judicial enquiry found they 'mercilessly tortured' her before they killed her. The accused are neither arrested nor brought to trial because AFSPA has allowed them to evade justice. The women of Manipur protested nude against this atrocity in 2004 saying ‘Indian Army Rape Us.’
What about the rapes of entire villages full of women on one night in 1991 in Kunan Poshpora, by armed forces conducting a raid? In 2014 the J&K High Court acknowledged a 2012 SHRC report confirming the crime and ordered the state government to pay compensation in three weeks. But the Omar Abdullah Government decided to appeal the High Court verdict, and its successor the PDP Government took the case to the Supreme Court which has not heard the case for the past three years. Are you angry at children and women raped, do you fantasise about death penalty and castration? The 27-year-old festering anger at such impunity fuels, in part, the stones pelted by Kashmiri school girls on Srinagar streets. Remember that.
Whenever I or anyone else in India mentions Kunan Poshpora, we have the likes of Sambit Patra on TV (encouraged by anchors) branding us anti-national for daring to say that 'counter-insurgency' forces can rape. This silencing and stigmatizing of feminist and human rights voices helped the Kathua accused to garner support and hide behind the tricolor for four months – after all, it was only ‘anti-nationals’ speaking for the victim then.
Our flaming TV screens each night teach us that Muslims, Kashmiris, Rohingyas are basically evil and 'fair game' for 'nationalist' genocides and murders. That climate of hate was what birthed the atrocity against the Kathua child.
If what happened at Kathua has finally shamed us, jolted us, and woken us up, let us have the shame and courage to look at the precedents that our media, our people, and even ‘secular’ parties have ignored or rationalized. Let's ask that the saner TV anchors in our midst do shows about all these precedents, help people connect the dots between Kunan Poshpora, Manorama, Meena Khalkho and Kathua. Let’s never ever stop protesting – and in our protests instead of wasting time supporting the red herring of ‘death penalty’, let us challenge the rape culture of ‘feeble no’ verdicts; let us read the pages of the Justice Verma Committee report that recommend measures on sexual violence in conflict areas and in communal violence. Had those recommendations been taken seriously, perhaps the Kathua victim might have been safer.