The demand for a change in the rape law did not originate in the street demonstrations in 2012. The first such demands were made three decades earlier, when there was no electronic or social media. As in 2012, women came out on the streets articulating an almost identical demand—strengthen the rape laws.

Their concern arose from the custodial rape of an Adivasi woman, Mathura, who had gone to the Desaiganj Police Station in Chandrapur, Maharashtra, to register a complaint on 26 March 1972. Instead of taking down her complaint, two policemen raped this sixteen-year-old within the premises of the police station, and that too late at night. In the lower court, the judge who dismissed the case said that as Mathura could not establish that she had resisted the assault, he concluded that she was ‘habituated to sex’ and this was not rape. In the Bombay High Court, Mathura won her case and the two policemen were suspended. But when the State went in appeal to the Supreme Court, the judgment of the apex court came as a shock.

In September 1979, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court set aside the ruling of the Bombay High Court. It used the same argument as the lower court saying that as there were no injuries or indication that Mathura had resisted, what happened to her was not rape.

It was extraordinary that the final court of appeal could come up with such a ruling. As expected, there was considerable outrage, especially amongst women’s groups. Four prominent law professors—Upendra Baxi, Raghunath Kelkar, Lotika Sarkar, and Vasudha Dhagamwar—wrote an open letter to the Chief Justice of India asking for the case to be reopened.

They argued forcefully that this was a case that violated the basic human rights of the individual and did not take into account the age of the victim, which was between fourteen and sixteen years, or her economic circumstances. By asking her to stay back at the police station after 10.30 p.m., the policemen had violated a law that the apex court had only recently reiterated in another case involving a prominent woman politician, Nandini Satpathy, that no woman can be called to a police station at night.

This excerpt from their letter sums up their essential argument:

“The Court gives no consideration whatsoever to the socioeconomic status, the lack of knowledge of legal rights, the age of victim, lack of access to legal services, and the fear complex which haunts the poor and the exploited in Indian police stations. May we respectfully suggest that yourself and your distinguished colleagues visit incognito, wearing the visage of poverty, some police stations in villages adjoining Delhi?”

The open letter also galvanised women’s groups in many parts of India who vociferously articulated their demand for changes in the rape laws.

They conducted a coordinated campaign through petitions, street demonstrations, street plays and more. What was different about the street demonstrations in the 1980s and the outburst in 2012 was that the former was the culmination of many different groups coming together. These groups included fairly conservative middle-class women’s groups, who had not participated in demonstrations in the past, workers’ unions that had been raising the issue of rights of women workers, women’s groups who had mobilised people on the question of price rise, as well as women affiliated to political parties. There were also new groups that emerged, such as the Forum Against Rape in Mumbai and others in Delhi who mobilised specifically on the issue of rape and sexual violence.

This also happened to be the period following the Emergency of 1975 (that ended in March 1977 when Indira Gandhi lost the election she had called), when civil society came alive demanding human rights, exposing social crimes and raising the banner of women’s rights.Amongst those elected to parliament in 1977 were several women politicians who had identified with the women’s movement. They included Mrinal Gore and Pramila Dandavate of the Janata Party and Ahilya Rangnekar of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). All three had supported women’s groups demanding changes in the rape law.

The pressure by women’s groups and by women in politics who supported their demand eventually led to the passing of the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983.

In addition, Section 114A of the Indian Evidence Act was amended which laid down that if the survivor stated she had not consented to sexual intercourse, then her word had to be accepted. Section 376 was also amended making custodial rape punishable with not less than seven years’ imprisonment. Furthermore, the burden of proof was shifted from the survivor to the offender in such cases. Revealing the identity of the survivor was forbidden and the law required that all rape trials be held in camera.

These were important changes given the way the law had been framed earlier when the sexual life of the survivor was often used as a reason to doubt her testimony. But as we will see, even this did not suffice in either acting as a deterrent to rapists, or ensuring that the criminal justice system gave survivors a chance at justice.

Mathura was a tribal girl. The open letter from the four academics drew attention to the helplessness of millions of women like her who are unaware of the law and their rights and face constant discrimination and injustice when and if they do turn to the law. What the campaign then, and even the more recent demands for change, did not fully acknowledge, was how caste plays out in this theatre of violence.

Priyanka Bhotmange was a bright seventeen-year-old Dalit girl from the village of Khairlanji in Bhandara District, Maharashtra. She was a topper in her school. If she had lived, who knows what she would have achieved. In 2006, she was the target of a heinous hate crime because she was a Dalit. Yet, it failed to stir people’s consciences the way the rape in Delhi did in 2012, or even the support that Mathura got in the 1970s.

Four members of a Dalit family living in Khairlanji were murdered on 29 September 2006. This was not just another killing, as some people tried to portray it.

The family represented a handful of Dalits in a village with about 200 households. Unlike other Dalits, the Bhotmanges consisting of the father Bhaiyalal, the mother Surekha, the sons Roshan (twenty-one) and Sudhir (nineteen) and the daughter Priyanka (seventeen), owned a small plot of land.The children were educated.The family tried to live their lives with dignity.

On that day, nothing mattered but that they belonged to a marginalised caste, and that the women, Surekha and Priyanka had testified against members of the powerful and dominant caste in the village in a dispute. The Bhotmanges’ house was surrounded by a murderous mob consisting of members of the Kunbi–Maratha castes who dominated the village.The two women were stripped naked, paraded, beaten up, raped and then killed. The two boys were lynched and killed. All four bodies were dumped near a canal. The father escaped because he was not at home at the time. But he saw what happened from a distance.

News of this killing did not reach the media until the bodies were found the next day, on 30 September. There was outrage, but primarily by Dalits who protested in many parts of Maharashtra.

Reading reports of that time, it is interesting to note the government’s response. The home minister of Maharashtra was RR Patil of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). He suggested that the Dalit outburst had been instigated by “Naxals” or people who followed the Maoist ideology.

In 2018, the Maharashtra government, this time ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Shiv Sena, made a similar charge when thousands of Dalits gathered at Bhima Koregaon (a memorial near Pune that marks a battle against the Peshwas, upper-caste rulers, by an army comprising the lower castes). All governments, regardless of political affiliation, prefer to blame outside elements rather than acknowledge that marginalized groups are capable of mobilizing and mounting protests when caste atrocities occur.

Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, the father and the sole survivor of this atrocity, was asked about the killings. This is how he described what he saw:

“I saw the attack from a distance. I saw my wife, daughter and two sons being beaten while being abused: ‘You mahars, dheds, you have chadhle [things have gone to your head]’! They were stripped naked and carried to the village square.

A dead body was brought to the Mohadi hospital. ‘You identify the dead body.’ I identified the dead body. She was my own daughter. [He sobs heavily. Milind Pakhale wipes Bhaiyalal’s tears and Rajendra Gajbhiye consoles him. Bhaiyalal continues, sobbing.] There was not a single piece of cloth on the body.There were wounds on the body. It was a bad assault. I was not able to see it. Similarly, Sudhir, Roshan and Surekha also had marks of severe beating on their bodies. Roshan was completely naked. He did not have a single piece of cloth on his body. He had been similarly beaten. Sudhir also had been horribly beaten up. But he had some cloth on his body. Surekha’s blouse was torn. Her petticoat was also torn. She had also been severely beaten. Even her skull was broken. Her brain had spilled out from it. She had even lost one eye.”

The political pressure resulting from mobilisation of Dalits across Maharashtra led to the case being placed before a fast track court in the Bhandara Sessions Court. The verdict on 15 September 2008 held eight men guilty. Six were given the death sentence and two were awarded life sentences.Three men were acquitted. In July 2010, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court commuted the death sentences of the eight to life.

At the time of writing, the appeal against this judgment was still pending in the Supreme Court. Bhaiyalal was waiting for it. But he died of a heart attack in 2017. Yet, as Dalit activists have emphasised, the justice system failed the Bhotmange family by refusing to accept that this was a caste-related atrocity, and that it was also a sexual crime against the two women. It was treated only as a murder.

There have been thousands of rapes of Dalit women and innumerable other atrocities against Dalits in India.

The NCRB data shows a dramatic rise in crimes against Dalits, from 27,070 in 2006 to 40,801 in 2016.And these are crimes that are recognised as caste-related. Many more, such as the murder of the Bhotmange family, are not even recognised as such.

The Khairlanji atrocity stands out because it illustrates, yet again, the special form of brutality that is saved for women who speak up, especially if they belong to a caste that is expected to remain subdued. It is a gruesome reality that cannot be evaded in any discussion on sexual violence against women in India.

The mainstream media’s response in this case also tells its own story of the way it selects which crimes to amplify and which to ignore. Proximity and “selling” to its “market” are now the prime determinants of whether a story is investigated or ignored.

 The Silence And The Storm

Excerpted with permission from The Silence And The Storm: Narratives Of Violence Against Women In India, Kalpana Sharma, Aleph Book Company.