Public anger is mounting by the day over two recent horrific cases of rape in India: that of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the Jammu and Kashmir state and that of a teenager in Uttar Pradesh. Street protests and candle-light rallies were held in several Indian cities and towns with the participation of people from all walks of life and age groups—they came out with placards demanding justice for the victims through bringing the perpetrators of the heinous crimes to book. For many in India, the two incidents and the subsequent protests were a grim throw-back to a similar nation-wide outcry sparked by the rape of a young student on a bus as it was driven around in Delhi in December 2012.
The body of the eight-year-old girl from the nomadic Bakerwal tribe was found in Kathua of Jammu and Kashmir on January 17 this year. A four-month police investigation found that she was kidnapped, starved, drugged, and raped repeatedly. The police say the attack was premeditated and carried out to try and drive the Bakerwal community out of the area.
Last year in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh state, a teenage girl was allegedly raped by Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a legislator belonging to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The case came to light when the victim tried to immolate herself earlier this month. Her trauma was compounded by the fact that when she filed a police case her father was allegedly beaten up by Sengar's brother, then taken away by the police for questioning for alleged possession of an unlicensed weapon. The father died in police custody.
In both cases, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP which is facing the brunt of the outrage. The incident in Kathua led to the resignation of two senior BJP ministers—Lal Singh and Chander Parkash Ganga—in Jammu and Kashmir, where the saffron party is a junior partner in a coalition government led by the People's Democratic Party headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. The two ministers were seen taking part in a rally organised by a Hindu outfit Hindu Ekta Manch protesting police action against the accused in the rape of the eight-year-old girl.
BJP's critics allege that the party has tried to shield the suspects from prosecution in both Kathua and Unnao. The police in Uttar Pradesh, where BJP is in power, was seen dragging their feet to arrest the party's legislator for several days. The image of the BJP government took a hard knock. It needed a severe indictment of the state government's handling of the case by the Allahabad High Court to effect the arrest of the legislator. The High Court said “the disturbing feature of the [Unnao] case is that the law and order machinery and the [state] government officials were directly in league [with] and under the influence of Kuldeep Singh Sengar.” There could not have been a more severe reprimand of the Uttar Pradesh government. Media reports had it that the Uttar Pradesh government has decided to withdraw a rape and attempted murder case against another leader of BJP. Modi spoke on the incidents in Kathua and Unnao after his political rivals questioned his “silence” on the issue. He assured the people that “no culprit will be spared” and complete justice will be done for “our daughters.”
The Kathua rape case also brought to fore the communal fault line in Jammu and Kashmir as all eight of the men accused in the case are Hindu and a local radical Hindu group came out in their support. What both the Kathua and Unnao cases showed was how there were attempts to obstruct the due process of law, a basic and essential ingredient of a civilised democracy, by pressure from the powers that be in the two states. The delay in arresting Sengar and showing the doors to Lal Singh and Chander Parkash Ganga did not help the image of BJP. This was entirely unavoidable had the party's central leadership shown alacrity in responding to the two incidents and ensured that the law was allowed to take its course without interference.
It is vital for Prime Minister Modi to handle the two cases with care as BJP weighs the political costs in the run up to a series of upcoming state elections in the remaining months of this year, including in Karnataka in May, and a fresh parliamentary election next year. The credibility of Modi's assurance that justice will be done to the Kathua and Unnao rape victims hinges on follow-up actions against those who block the process of law. After all, it was Modi who had launched a social welfare scheme for girls called “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save your daughters, educate your daughters).
The Kathua and Unnao incidents underlined the need to address urgently two oft-repeated issues—freeing the police force from political influence, and weeding out politicians with dubious integrity and track records. According to 2017 study by the civil rights group Association for Democratic Rights, three parliamentarians and 48 legislators in states had cases against them relating to crimes against women. There is no dearth of examples where political parties chose candidates for elections despite there being criminal cases against them.
The two incidents once again revived the demand from some quarters, including the federal minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi, to reform the law and provide for the death penalty for raping minors. A similar demand was made after the December 2012 incident in Delhi. In fact, there were suggestions at that time that the Indian Penal Code be amended to make a juvenile face trial and undergo punishment because one of the convicts happened to be a juvenile.
While changes in law can always be debated, let it not take the focus away from the more pressing issues of the much-needed reforms in the police force and the decriminalisation of politics. Stringent laws are already in place for those guilty of crime against women. What is needed is to ensure those laws are enforced. If the course of investigation is obstructed, no number of legislation, however tough they are, can help.
The Kathua and Unnao incidents raise much larger questions: is India becoming increasingly unsafe for girls and women? What is wrong with the society? According to the 2016 report (the last available report) of the National Crime Record Bureau, 3.38 lakh cases of crimes against women were recorded in 2016 alone; of them 11.5 percent cases relate to rape. And the conviction rate? Only one out of four rape cases lead to conviction. The issue at stake is not merely of gender justice but of upholding the rule of law and a democratic set-up.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.