At rallies in Delhi in 2013, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, reminded his audiences why they should vote for his party – remember the gangrape of December 16, 2012, which happened under the Congress’s watch, he said, remember the “rape capital” tag that was now attached to the city, remember the water cannons used on protests against the rape.
Cut to 2019 and Modi has been in power for over five years. Another rape, this time in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, another woman brutalised as she approached the courts for justice, another round of protests in Delhi. The Delhi Police, controlled by the Centre, are still using water cannons to break up protests.
In between lies a story of political failure.
In 2012, as public protests broke out over the gangrape of a young medical student, the United Progressive Alliance government appeared unprepared and inadequate to deal with popular rage. A new law, which broadened the definition of rape and prescribed more stringent punishement, was not enough to stem the tide. It eventually swelled into rage against the government itself. The BJP capitalised on this, repeatedly invoking “Nirbhaya”, the name given to the woman who was savaged on a moving bus in Delhi, in its campaign rallies. It promised a new era of accountability for such crimes, to break the status quo in which they had been routinised and accepted.
But the recent death of a 23-year-old woman from Unnao shows that the impunity which had maintained the old status quo is going nowhere. The woman, who alleged she had been raped by two men, died after being set alight. She had been on her way to court when five men attacked her and doused her with kerosene. She reportedly ran for a kilometre afterwards and told the police her story. Her attackers were none other than the rape accused who were out on bail.
Chief Minister Adityanath’s government in Uttar Pradesh has failed in Unnao before. In August 2019, the BJP expelled its legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar, two years after he had been accused of raping a minor, and one and a half years after the girl’s family tried to immolate themselves outside Adityanath’s residence, only to be rounded up by the police. Only after two members of the girl’s family were killed and she was left battling for life in an accident widely believed to be engineered by the accused, did the party act against Sengar. While the police arrested Sengar on charges of rape and criminal conspiracy, the murder charges against him were dropped.
Even more shockingly, in September, the Uttar Pradesh police went on to arrest a law student for extortion after she filed a complaint against BJP leader Chinmayanand, alleging he had raped her for a year.
The list goes on. In Arunachal Pradesh, a woman filed a rape charges against a local BJP legislator. In Jammu’s Kathua district, BJP leaders helped organise support for men accused of raping and killing an eight-year-old girl in January 2018.
In case after case, it is the same story: accusers facing the brunt of police action rather than the accused, a failure to protect vulnerable complainants, cases slow to be heard. Political will to ensure accountability is especially weak when the accused are embedded in structures of power, either because they belong to the ruling party or because of their position in entrenched caste and class hierarchies.
Since 2014, the BJP has made no visible effort to ensure the existing laws against rape were implemented. It was only in 2018 that money from the Nirbhaya fund was allocated for measures to improve women’s safety and set up fast track courts for rape cases. But utilisation rates remain dismal.
When four men accused of raping and burning alive a young veterinarian from Hyderabad were killed in an extra-judicial police encounter, crowds celebrated. It spoke of a chilling public bloodlust but it was also a grim reflection of just how broken the system remains. Seven years after the December 16 gangrape, nobody expects the regular processes of justice – of complaint, investigation, trial and conviction – to work.
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