The brutal rape and cold-blooded murder of an eight-year-old Muslim shepherd girl, allegedly to drive her nomadic tribe out an area of Jammu and Kashmir, and the rape of an 18-year-old girl, allegedly by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator, has Indians sick of the rising crimes against women.
The Kathua Rape
The eight-year-old was trapped as she was grazing the family’s horses in Kathua village in the country’s north on January 10. She was drugged and raped inside a Hindu temple for a week by eight men, including the caretaker of the temple, two policemen and a minor boy. She was eventually killed by strangulation and having her head smashed with a rock.
Her death became headline news only last week when police were confronted by a mob of lawyers who did not allow the formal charges against the accused to be presented in court. Two BJP ministers of Jammu and Kashmir state even participated in a Hindu rally seeking protection for the accused.
The 15-page police charge sheet reveals that the chilling rape and murder of the minor was a planned strategy to instill fear and drive out the nomads from the village in the Jammu plains. The trial begins April 16 and is expected to go smoothly after the Supreme Court took interest.
The Unnao Rape
The other case – referred to as the Unnao rape case – is of an 18-year-old, hailing from India’s most populous and politically important state – Uttar Pradesh. She was allegedly raped by a BJP legislator, his brother and accomplices in June 2017.
Her rape, too, would have gone unnoticed and unregistered, but for her attempt to commit suicide on April 8 in Lucknow in front of the chief minister’s residence after her father’s death in police custody.
What has angered India and, surely its women, is that the victim’s family went to the police following her rape in June, but officials refused to file a case. On April 3, there was a fight between the victim’s family and the legislator’s family, and both parties filed a police complaint, but the police acted only on one and sent the victim’s father to jail, where he was allegedly beaten up and he died.
Since then, video footage has emerged of the victim’s father being made fun of and mocked by officials at a police station. Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a four-time BJP lawmaker, and his brothers have been accused of raping the girl. Sengar was booked by Uttar Pradesh Police on April 12 following a national outcry. He is now in custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Many across the remember the rallies five years ago after the brutal gang rape of a young woman, known as Nirbhaya (the brave one), on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012. The case drew international attention and sparked calls for a national introspection.
The government at the time promised tougher anti-rape measures and to clean up the system which sometimes fault victims and shields the accussed.
Tougher anti-rape laws were put into place, awarding life term or death to rapists. However, statistics show that there has been no decline in the number of sexual assaults in India. The tedious legal process and a low conviction rate, mostly due to poor forensics and investigation, have diminished people’s faith in the judicial system.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau that collects annual data on crimes, in 2016, India recorded 106 rapes a day. A large number of those raped were girls in the age group of 0 to 12 years. In 94.6 per cent of cases, the offenders were known to the victims.
Of the 338,954 crimes against women registered in 2016, 38,947 were rapes and 2,167 gangrapes. Of the 260,304 cases of crimes against women sent for trial in courts in 2016, conviction was secured in only 23,094 cases.
The numbers unfortunately reflect only the registered cases in patriarchal and misogynist India where rape is seen as a woman’s shame.
A majority of crimes against women remain unregistered – as is seen in the Unnao rape victim’s travails, or because of the stigma attached to reporting rapes and sexual crimes. More often than not women are blamed for the rape – accused of dressing inappropriately and inviting the male gaze.
How ingrained this malaise is in Indian society can be gauged by the fact that politicians have gone on record dismissing rapes as boyish mistakes or suggesting the raped women be hanged.
The Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-profit watchdog for electoral reforms, in a 2017 report revealed that of the 4,852 election affidavits it studied, it found that three lawmakers and 48 legislators faced cases of crimes against women.
Not a day goes by when rape cases do not make headlines. Even as Indians are trying to deal with the chilling details of the Kathua rape case, another report of an 11-year-old’s rape and murder – she was found dead in Gujarat with 86 injuries – is making headlines.
However, knee-jerk reactions will not help. India needs better policing and sensitive yet strategic handling of such cases. The authorities need to ensure that victims from lower castes or poor backgrounds are heard and not denied justice, and victims need quick medical examinations without embarrassing them with unnecessary questioning. Authorities also need better techniques for fool-proof forensics, and there should be protection for witnesses, special cells to hear such cases in a humane manner, fast track courts for speedy justice, and finally, and most importantly, women need to be encouraged to speak up against sexual crimes and not see this as their shame.