A city known for its humour is now city of horror: Politics of rape in India

What now appears pretty loud and clear is that the tables have turned in the manner most foul, and the official guns are trained on the victim and her family instead of perpetrators of the monstrous crime, writes Sharat Pradhan for South Asia Monitor 

Sharat Pradhan Oct 10, 2020

India’s most famous Hindi satirist and humourist poet Kaka Hathrasi not only hailed from this town in Uttar Pradesh, but even his title came from the name of his hometown, Hathras. A quarter of a century after his demise, the town has earned the sobriquet of a horror spot, which is today identified with the alleged brutal gang-rape and the murder last month of a 19-year old poor Dalit girl reportedly by four upper caste Thakur men.

Gagged and thrashed until her spine was broken, the poor victim was carted from hospital to hospital and finally breathed her last at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, where she was taken rather late in the day, when all hope was already lost.

Uttar Pradesh tops list of crimes against women

As if getting brutalized at the hands of barbaric men was not enough, what she received after death at the hands of officials and the khaki-clad cops of the country’s most populous state was even more horrific. 

To top it all now, the whole government was out to malign her. The manner in which the official machinery of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had unleashed a smear campaign against the victim has surely added insult to injury. But that is what seems to have currently overtaken every other aspect of the gruesome end that the girl met like the umpteen other rape victims in this badland called UP. That this state was way ahead of other states where crimes against women in general and rapes, in particular, were concerned is borne out by the available data on National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which is an Indian government agency responsible for collecting and analysing crime data as defined by the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Special and Local Laws (SLL). The NCRB data clearly states that UP witnessed as many as 3,065 rapes in 2019.

The NCRB Crime in India 2019 report showed that one rape was committed every 16th minute in the country. And at least 11 percent of the rape victims happened to be a woman from the Dalit community. Dalits were also once known as untouchables or outcasts in India and this 'untouchability' still persists in many parts of India. 

While revealing a steep rise in crimes against women over the past three years, NCRB data points out that out of the total of 405,861 cases of crime against women registered across the country during 2019, as many as 59,445 cases were in UP alone. This was followed by Maharastra (35,497) and West Bengal (30,394), showing an increase of 7.3 percent over 2018.

It was a low conviction rate of barely 27 percent that was responsible for the unabated rise in the number of rapes.

And undoubtedly, this low conviction rate was clearly attributable to the mindset of the UP cops, who invariably find it convenient to first find fault with the victim, just as they were doing in the Hathras case now.

Callous cops

In fact, in Hathras, the attitude of the police has been worse, simply because they have apparently had the blessings of not only their superiors but even the political masters. Knowing the functioning of  UP Police, it is hard to digest that cops at the local level could have taken the decision to forcibly cremate the body of the victim at the dead of the night and yet call it “cremation in accordance with full Hindu rites.” Also, was it possible for any police officer to take the decision on their own to physically prevent her parents or other family members from getting one last glimpse of the girl or to attend her funeral? The police claimed that the cremation was done to avoid trigger large-scale caste violence in the area. The police also said that the post-mortem report has negated the gang-rape of the victim.

In order to refute the family’s allegations that the police locked them up so that they couldn’t attend the cremation, the cops, officials, and the ruling party spokespersons started claiming that “the grandfather of the girl” attended the funeral. The girl’s grandfather’s flat denial shown earlier on a few TV channels is now lost in the din created by a powerful lobby that is now running down the rape victim and her family. 

Smear campaign against rape victim

What was even worse this lobby led by the ruling party and with police and officials in toe was also building a new narrative about the girl being in a “relationship with the key rape accused.” This smear campaign against the victim is said to be initiated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Ranjeet Srivastava, who went to the extent of alleging that “the girl invited her boyfriend to the millet field,” where she was found dead. This lobby had left no stone unturned to unabashedly tarnish the character of the victim. 

“I think, in such situations, when girls are found in millet fields, they usually have an affair,” the BJP MLA went on to add in a video that has gone viral. Srivastava was also seen asserting to prove that it was not a case of rape at all.

Interestingly, this counter-charge of denying rape has been conveniently accepted and propagated by top cops and bigwigs in the Yogi Adiytyanath government too. The entire lobby is now busy raising the question, “if it was rape, why was not mentioned in the first report lodged with the local police on September 14?” when the girl was found badly mauled and in an unconscious state in the field.

However, what these lobbyists were deliberately ignoring was that in UP, complaints made by the poor and illiterate were usually entered in the police diary on the basis of oral statements made by the complainants. As such, more often than not, there was enough scope for the men in khaki to twist and manipulate the wordings in First Information Report (FIR). In this case, too, the girl’s mother and brother have been maintaining that they had told the cops that the victim was raped. But the police avoided putting that in black and while with the obvious intent of keeping an escape route open for the culprits.

Furthermore, the lobbyists were hell-bent on establishing that the girl’s statement, in which she alleged rape was an afterthought since it was recorded after a week when she gained consciousness.

With the government and the police all set to blame it all on the victim, they have also come out with an alibi to cover up the shoddy “cremation” at around 2.30 am on September 30, soon after the arrival of the body from the Delhi hospital. “We had intelligence inputs that the girl’s family was being instigated by political parties to create a ruckus in the morning; a demonstration by some 10,000 people was being planned,” claimed a senior police official, while justifying the late-night funeral. It was another matter that he had no substantive evidence to support his accusation.

Significantly, the government machinery has been involved in facilitating the jailed key accused Sandeep Singh to send a letter to the Hathras superintendent of police, pleading his innocence in the case. “I had a close relationship with the girl but her family was against it, so they beat her to death,” is the direct accusation he has made. This was extremely unusual, as a jailed accused can plead his case only before the trial court. Yet, his plea was widely publicized in the media and social media. This was done with the sole intent of distorting the whole picture and to crucify the deceased and her family.

Also, they have no explanation for allowing a large gathering of the upper-caste Thakur community, who staged a virtual rally close to the victim’s village. Belligerence writ large on the faces of the speakers, the gathering did not hesitate to issue blatant threats to the victim’s family and their Dalit fraternity.  Yet, the official machinery chose to blame it all on some “international conspiracy” to destabilize the Yogi Adityanath government, which they said are planning to engineer “caste and communal violence,” which has never happened in the state.

Will the courts come to the rescue?

Due to the intense media exposure and coverage of the incident, which triggered nationwide protests, it drew the attention of the Allahabad High Court, which took the suo moto cognizance of the Hathras horror. And because of their relentless coverage, the media has become the government’s persona non grata. The official machinery is also moving heaven and earth to circumvent the intervention of the High Court, whose division bench has already expressed its anguish as well as reprimand the authorities in its 11-page initial order itself. Such an attempt has become visible in the reference that was made about the case before the Supreme Court, which described the incident as “horrible” and “extraordinary.”

What now appears pretty loud and clear is that the tables have turned in the manner most foul, and the official guns are trained on the victim and her family instead of perpetrators of the monstrous crime. And the reason is not far to seek – the government’s obvious priority is to save its own skin rather than ensure the otherwise much-touted safety of women, who continue to remain at the receiving end.

All eyes are now focused on the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court where the matter is up for hearing on October 12. How it plays out before the court could not only have bearing on the future of Yogi Adityanath, but also on the political destiny of the ruling BJP.

(The writer is a veteran journalist who has been covering Uttar Pradesh for decades. The views expressed are personal)

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