In what has perhaps turned out to be the most outrageous rape cases since the brutal 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape, both Unnao and Kathua cases have invited widespread protests across the nation. Tensions from the killing of the father of a 17-year-old rape victim in Unnao were still fuming, when the charge-sheet of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir revealed horrifying details of the incident. Together, the two cases have shaken the nation in a delayed response, and word of the blatant communal polarisation over them has seeped out of the country’s borders.
“Child’s rape, killing in India mired in religious politics,” reads an Associated Press headline as it details the protests in favour of the men accused of rape, led by right-wing outfit ‘Hindu Ekta Manch’. “Thousands of members of a radical Hindu group with links to the ruling party have marched to demand the release of the six men accused in the repeated rape and killing of the girl inside a Hindu temple,” the report stated, further detailing the ever-widening religious divide between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power.
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Reporting the tense environment in Jammu over the settlements of the Bakarwals, the Muslim nomadic tribe that the victim belonged to, South Asia correspondent for The Guardian, Michael Safi, writes, “(Sanji) Ram had been a staunch opponent of the settlement of the Muslim tribe, known as the Bakarwals, in the area, and saw Bano as a soft target in a plot to frighten the group into leaving.” Safi also brings up “staunch Hindu nationalist” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reluctance to acknowledge the incident.
The protests led by Hindu outfits in Kathua were followed by Hindu lawyers opposing the filing of a charge-sheet against the eight accused. The protests and the silence or delayed reactions only furthered the communal outrage; everyone blatantly ignoring the fact that the innocent girl was gang-raped, drugged, strangled and stoned to death. Her body tossed in the forest after the nightmare she didn’t survive in that prayer hall in Kathua.
Perhaps no one would have even heard her name. Perhaps she would have just been another missing girl, who never went back to the distraught parents at her home in Rasana village. Nobody would dare question the mystery of that one eight-year-old, who vanished on January 10 while grazing her horses. After all, “there are so many occurrences in the state,” like J&K Minister Chandra Prakash Ganga said. But while people were busy giving a communal colour to her rape and murder, another girl was struggling to find justice in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh.
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The 17-year-old girl had accused BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar of raping her in June last year. Demanding justice, the girl and her family attempted suicide outside the Chief Minister’s residence. The victim’s father was arrested following a scuffle with the accused’s brother and died in judicial custody on Monday. Speaking on reports of police colluding with the rape accused, Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover told AlJazeera, “Today law and justice are a mirage that we are offering the women of this country.” She added, “Systems are manipulated from the investigation stage onwards, the processes of law are subverted by those in power.”
On Thursday, Sengar was (finally) booked for rape and was taken to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters in Hazratganj, Lucknow. However, irrespective of how uncomfortable it may be, the discourse over how even subjects of sexual assault can so easily be led away by political influence or religious overtones needs to happen.
In an Asia Times report, Atiya Anis says that the Kathua and the Unnao cases “are two sides of the same coin.” The report states, “These are attempts to endorse the power of the so-called privileged, either in terms of political clout or religious supremacy. It is even more heartbreaking to see men and women rallying in support of the culprits with pride.”
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The Washington Post
Writing for The Washington Post, Barkha Dutt also paralleled the cases, calling them “moments of acute national shame.” She says, “They have proved how the powerful conspire to enable and protect sexual abusers. Worse, they have exposed the ugliest underbelly of India.”
Given the coverage of recent events by international media, it is evident that India’s colours no longer accommodate green and white, making room for a splash of red instead.
In a country where leaders are so obsessed with being camera-ready for photo-ops, perhaps what actress Richa Chadha said was right. Perhaps, this bad PR will be the agent of change.