In a week marked by tragedies - the deaths of former Union minister S Jaipal Reddy and eminent economist Subir Gokarn and the alleged suicide by coffee king V G Siddhartha - nothing is more hurtful to public sentiment than the fresh calamity visited on the teenaged rape victim from Unnao in Uttar Pradesh.
In April last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised: “Our daughters will get justice”. He was referring to the Kathua (2018) and Unnao (2017) rape cases, both involving minors. Fourteen months later, the teenaged victim from Unnao is on a ventilator, after having suffered horrific injuries in a road 'accident' last Sunday. Her road to “justice” has been lined by hellish mishaps. The victim's lawyer has survived, but two of her aunts, one of whom was a witness in the rape case involving her niece, died in the crash. This brings the death toll in the case to four.
Suspicion has fallen on the rape-accused, BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar, which is only natural, given the trajectory of the case. The victim's family had named him as the first among her several assailants in a letter to UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath in July, 2017, allegedly because the police refused to record his name when she made her statement.
No action was taken at the time against Sengar, either by his party or by the police. Instead, the victim's father was arrested, after having been brutally assaulted by Sengar's brother. Needless to say, the police did not investigate the attack. It was only when the victim tried to immolate herself in front of the CM's residence and her father died (in custody) of “shock and septicaemia”, that an FIR was registered against Sengar and the case handed over to the CBI. Despite public outrage, Sengar was not arrested until five days later, on the orders of the High Court.
The CBI has filed chargesheets against the MLA in the rape case and his brother in the murder of the victim's father, who had allegedly been framed under the Arms Act. At least six policemen have been suspended. Why then, is there a distinct feeling that justice has not been served?
To begin with, 32-year-old Mohammad Yunus, a witness to the assault on the rape victim's father, was found dead in his home in August last year. To this day, the cause of death is unknown. Then the victim's uncle was jailed in a 19-year-old case. And just a fortnight before the car crash, the victim's family had written to the Chief Justice of India, alleging threats and intimidation. As for the accident, the rape victim's court-mandated security had unaccountably vanished and the truck which struck her car had blackened license plates.
Coincidence or conspiracy? Either way, the UP police – and by extension, the CM - has proved horribly negligent in protecting the Unnao rape victim, her family and key witnesses.
Doubtless Sengar is innocent until proven guilty, but had he not been an MLA, he would have been investigated, arrested and suspended from his job in 2017 itself. In a heinous criminal case, involving the rape of a minor, the law is unequivocal. In any event, he would not have been afforded an opportunity to tamper with witnesses or evidence and intimidate anyone.
If anything, public representatives must be held to higher standards of conduct than other citizens. The BJP, which now maintains that it suspended him in 2018 but has no evidence to back up the claim, should have done so on the very day the complaint came to light in 2017, with the assurance that he would be reinstated if acquitted.
The BJP MLAs and office-bearers who have from time to time spoken up in defence of Sengar must be asked to explain themselves. As public servants, they are free to maintain his innocence in private, but publicly, without hard evidence, they should have kept their opinions to themselves.
The Unnao rape case is an object lesson in the subversion of democracy by our feudal-minded public representatives. Their sense of entitlement, of being above the law and immune from accountability is nurtured by the politicization of our law-enforcement agencies.
The BJP is not alone in this. We have only to recall former UP CM Mulayam Singh Yadav's infamous “boys will be boys” response to the 2014 Badaun rape-murder case (which the CBI later concluded was suicide). Or TMC MP Tapas Pal's threat to political rivals: “I will let loose my boys in your homes and they will commit rape”.
PM Modi is quite capable of instituting a zero-tolerance approach to offensive deeds or speech by members of his own party. In his inaugural speech to the NDA, he exhorted public representatives to behave in an exemplary manner. It's time to enforce that proposition.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.