Joining with other protests organised across the country over the past 24 hours to demand official action against the men responsible for the alleged rapes of two minors in Unnao and Kathua, more than 300 Mumbai citizens participated in a protest rally at Azad Maidan on Friday afternoon.

The protesters were drawn from a range of different social organisations and Opposition political parties, and their outrage expressed two clear themes: that women’s rights are being appropriated for political interests, and that democracy is under threat from a government they characterised as extremist.

“I am here as a woman and an Indian,” said Jyoti Parmar, one of the many nuns protesting at the event. “Young girls are getting raped and killed, the accused have been roaming free and our leaders are silent and think they can do anything they want. This is goonda raj.”

Women protest in Mumbai, with posters condemning "the government that protects rapists". Photos: Aarefa Johari

In the Kathua case, an 8-year-old girl from the Muslim Bakarwal community in Jammu’s Rasana area was abducted in January. According to the police chargesheet in the case, she was confined in a temple for days, drugged and repeatedly raped before she was finally murdered and dumped in a forest. Her body was found on January 17. The chargesheet in the case names eight people, including a retired government employee and three police officers who allegedly tried to destroy forensic evidence by washing the girl’s clothes. The rape case caused outrage not just because of its brutality but the fact that in its aftermath, two Bharatiya Janata Party ministers in Jammu and Kashmir participated in protests defending the accused.

In the Unnao case in Uttar Pradesh, a teenaged girl accused Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar and some of his aides of raping her in June 2017. An FIR was lodged against only on Friday, five days after the teenager attempted suicide outside Chief Minister Adityanath’s house. The teenager’s father, who had been in judicial custody since April 4 after he got into a fight with the MLA’s brother Atul Sengar, died in on Monday, allegedly due to physical assault.

Protesters hold up signs in Mumbai.

‘Society is diseased’

At the rally at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, protesters expressed fury at the ruling party’s refusal to take decisive action in the two rape cases and BJP ministers’ defence of the accused in the Kathua case.

“There is no democracy when crimes like these are politically supported and the law is undermined,” said a student at the protest wished to remain anonymous because she “didn’t want to risk being removed from her university”.

She added: “The position of women in India is being undermined more and more, and it has increased under this government. We are not political pawns.”

Students at the Mumbai rally.

Chandra Srinivasan, a protester from the non-profit Mrinal Gore Dakshata Samiti, pointed out that the Kathua crime – allegedly an attempt by the accused to drive out the minority Muslim Bakherwal community from the town – is typical of the manner in which women and girls bear the brunt of political conflicts and riot situations. “A woman is a woman – it shouldn’t matter whether she is Hindu or Muslim,” said Srinivasan. “What is the point of ‘beti bachao’ [the government’s ‘save the girl child’ campaign] if investigations and inquiries in such cases are not done in a proper manner and evidence is allowed to be destroyed?”

Anwar Hasan, a banker who took a break from work to attend the protest in a suit and tie, described the environment in the country as “spine-chilling” and “scary”.

“I am scared for my 15-year-old daughter. I expected things to get better in India after all the protests for Nirbhaya [the name given to the 2012 Delhi rape victim], but our society has worsened instead,” said Hasan. “We don’t need answers from the government about what is happening – society is diseased and politics is just a reflection of that. We need to ask ourselves what we have come to.”

A protester in Mumbai.