The Hathras rape-murder shows the entire political establishment, both the ruling party and the opposition, in a poor light. The Congress's naked political opportunism on the one hand and the BJP government's failure to take prompt and by-the-book action on the other, highlights the need for a zero-tolerance approach to any and all gender crimes.
The selective manner in which politicians, civil society and the media take up cases of sexual assault is all too obvious. Mobilising protests over the Hathras tragedy, while ignoring countless others in which caste and community are not a factor, erodes their credibility and achieves nothing by way of dismantling the 'rape culture'.
Since the infamous Delhi bus rape of 2012, which resulted in a stringent law on sexual abuse, India has recorded some 250,000 cases of rape. Many of these incidents are distinguished by the sheer sadism of the assault; the victim is tortured to the point of lingering death or snuffed out during the act itself. The horror is multiplied when the victim is a minor - a terrified little girl, the most vulnerable member of society.
Yet, politicians are extremely selective about the gender crimes they deem worth their while and the degree of brutality is rarely a factor. A week before the Hathras incident, a three-year-old had been raped and strangled in Lakhimpur Kheri in northern UP. A fortnight before that, a 13-year-old Dalit girl in the border district had suffered the same fate. Not a peep from politicians, and just bare bones reportage in the media.
The Congress chose to take up the Hathras incident because it fits the paradigm of a caste-and-gender crime in a BJP-ruled state: a Dalit woman brutalised and murdered by upper caste perpetrators (who belong to the same caste as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath). The Kathua incident of 2018 attracted attention because the victim was from a minority community and the perpetrators were Hindus. Likewise, the Bhanwari Devi gangrape became a cause celebre in 1992 because her attackers were upper caste.
Civil society's role is just as dubious as that of politicians. While activists are rarely seen and heard when a minor is raped, they are all too vocal when it comes to condemning the death penalty for child sexual abuse. In Madhya Pradesh, 30 death sentences have been handed out by fast-track courts. Gujarat and Andhra, too, have displayed similar intolerance towards sexual predators, all to a chorus of protests by activists.
The Congress is seeking to leverage the Hathras case in much the same manner that the BJP did the Nirbhaya case eight years ago. The flaw is not that they took up Hathras, but that they did not take up hundreds of others. As for the BJP, for a party that prides itself on “strong” women leaders, it has a disappointing track record on gender crimes. Winning elections does not make leaders strong – speaking up in the cause of justice, if necessary against their own party – does.
Take the Unnao rape of 2017, involving a BJP MLA. It was a classic instance of how not to handle a complaint of sexual abuse. First, the police refused to record Kuldeep Singh Sengar's name when the victim made her statement. Then, when her family named him as the first among her several assailants in a letter to the UP CM, no action was taken. The victim's father was brutally assaulted by Sengar's brother and then arrested.
The matter may have rested there, if the victim had not attempted self-immolation in front of the CM's residence. To make matters worse, her father died in police custody, allegedly of “shock and septicaemia”. Finally, an FIR was registered against Sengar and the case handed over to the CBI. Even so, it took five whole days and a high court order to arrest Sengar, who has since been sentenced to life imprisonment.
In the Kathua case, the fact that two BJP ministers were present during protests against the arrest of the rape-accused, gave the incident a political and communal colour. They were sacked. Likewise, following the arrest of the Hathras accused, former BJP MLA Rajveer Singh Pehelwan came out in support. While an FIR has been filed against Pehelwan, the BJP has yet to explicitly condemn him.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a champion of women's rights, notably through the 'beti bachao' campaign. It is high time that the moral authority he undoubtedly enjoys, above and beyond his political mandate, was brought to bear on crimes that he once described as “shameful for any civilised society”. He should not wait for the Opposition to whip up public sentiment to do so.
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.