The political and law-enforcement establishment’s response to the rape cases in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh offered more grim corroboration of the deep-seated institutional indifference to crimes against women in India. In both tragedies, the crimes themselves, one of them of unsurpassed brutality, have been subordinated to political and communal agendas. The fact that both rapes allegedly involve members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is neither here nor there. Far deeper cause for concern has been the attempt to protect the accused and the complicity of the police in suppressing evidence.
Charges against the accused in Kathua took more than three months to file from the time the child’s mutilated body was discovered in a disused temple. Even more troubling is the lack of urgency shown by the BJP’s alliance partners in the state, the PDP, that too led by a woman, Mehbooba Mufti. It took a walkout by the Opposition in the J&K Assembly and state-wide protests for Ms Mufti to call for an accelerated investigation. It is hard to escape the conclusion that for Ms Mufti, the causes of justice and women’s safety were subordinated to the impulse to stay in power. India and the world have also been treated to the unedifying sight of collusion by right-wing Hindu organisations, including two BJP ministers in the state coalition and, incredibly, lawyers, to protest against the filing of charges against the accused, all of whom are Hindus.
It is a matter of great shame that it required an order from the Supreme Court for the Kathua case to progress without hindrance. The gang-rape and murder of a child from a nomadic Muslim tribe in J&K was designed to force Muslims to quit a Hindu-majority district. As with the partition violence of 1947 or the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and countless communal riots, Kathua remains a dispiriting reminder of the price that innocent women and girls in India pay when political agendas transcend the bounds of law and order. Even more troublesome is the complicity of the police. In Unnao, for instance, the police declined to file a first information report by the victim because the accused was a powerful MLA from the ruling party. Her protest in front of the chief minister’s residence last week drew no response; bizarrely, it was her father who was arrested and beaten to death in custody with the active cooperation of the MLA’s brother.
The tepid and delayed reaction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who once spoke so eloquently and courageously against rape at his first Independence Day speech in 2014 and launched the high-profile “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” campaign, is also troubling. His statement about the safety of “our daughters” came only after spontaneous India-wide protests. Handing over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation is scarcely a vote of confidence in the regular law and order apparatus in a state ruled by his own party. Neither Kathua, nor the Unnao cases are recent, and the fact that it has taken so long for them to garner attention only underlines how difficult the fight for justice still remains for rape victims even five years after passage of the Nirbhaya legislation.