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The Big Story: P.O.V

Almost unexpectedly, for a country in which gruesome crimes against women are distressingly commonplace, a rape case has managed to dominate the national conversation over the last few days.

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to be waving to non-existent crowds while inaugurating a tunnel in Himachal Pradesh, Opposition leaders were being beaten up by the authorities in Uttar Pradesh as they sought to visit the family of the 19-year-old woman in the village of Hathras who was horrifically gangraped, left paralysed by the physical assault and eventually succumbed to her wounds on September 29.

The disturbing nature of the crime may partly explain why the case received more attention than others. But it was amplified by the response of the Uttar Pradesh authorities under the leadership of Chief Minister Adityanath, a Hindu nationalist leader who withdrew criminal cases against himself after coming to power and has since given the police a free hand to act well outside the bounds of law.

At first, the police sought to downplay and cast doubts about the details of the case. After the woman died, they forcibly cremated her body in the middle of the night allegedly without the family’s consent. They then proceeded to fortify the village with hundreds of security personnel to prevent any protests from breaking out.

The caste context is also important here: the victim was Dalit, and the alleged perpetrators were upper-caste Thakurs, from the same community as the chief minister.

Adityanath’s efforts to prevent the case from turning the spotlight on his government’s record on both issues of caste discrimination and crimes against women have failed. This prompted the chief minister to hand the case over to the national Central Bureau of Investigation even though he had set up a special team of Uttar Pradesh Police to look into it only days earlier.

But, as with any major news story in India, this one too is being read through many different lenses, some of which we have tried to identify here:

1. ‘Not a rape case’

From the very beginning, the police and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have sought to downplay the case itself. The victim’s brother said that when she was initially brought to the authorities groaning in pain, “the police kept saying, ‘just take her from here. She’s being dramatic and lying here. Do you want to trap us?’”

Meanwhile, the BJP has developed a strategy to insist that she had not been raped at all. Several leaders, including an Uttar Pradesh minister, as well as the police have pointed to a forensic science laboratory report that concluded there was no sperm in samples collected during an examination. They claimed that this is proof that there was no rape. BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malviya also tweeted a video of the woman – violating laws against revealing the identity of a sexual assault victim – and claimed that she had only spoken about strangulation.

The facts, however, belie these attempts to muddy the waters.

The registered police case itself cites sections of the law pertaining to gangrape. In the video tweeted by Malviya, the woman speaks of the men forcing themselves on her. The samples were collected 11 days after the incident, making the absence of sperm meaningless. Meanwhile, several reports have confirmed forced penetration.

Indian law does not require ejaculation for a case to be considered rape. Besides, the woman made a dying declaration to a magistrate in which she alleged rape. Under Indian law, the woman’s word alone can form the basis of a rape investigation and conviction.

The BJP, however, seeks to raise questions about the case in the minds of those paying attention and has provided fodder for even more convoluted conspiracy theories online. As it this wasn’t enough, the police still want to conduct a suspect “narco test”, using a drug that Indian authorities believe acts as a “truth serum”, on the family of the victim to see if they are lying.

2. ‘Just a rape case’

As news of the Hathras incident went national, a number of prominent personalities spoke up about the evils of rape – but in the sort of language that does nothing to acknowledge the context of a rape case with caste connotations or ones in which the authorities fail to deal in a humane manner with the victim and her family.

The standard approach here is to condemn rape and insist that the answer is strict laws and stricter punishments – ideally the death penalty. However, there is little data to suggest that such an approach will act as a deterrent, in lieu of engaging with the underlying factors that are responsible: caste, patriarchy and a police force that bends the law at will.

3. ‘Negative’ politics

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s line has been simple: anyone asking questions about the crime are trying to stir up caste tensions in the village and should be kept out.

This is why he stationed more than 300 personnel to lock down the village and prevent the media and Opposition politicians from visiting the grieving family. Security personnel were also posted 200 km away from Hathras, on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border to keep away high-profile visitors from the capital.

Meanwhile, phones were clearly being tapped by authorities, who at one point leaked a conversation between a journalist and a member of the woman’s family to pro-government media in the hope that this would raise bias in the manner in which the case is being reported.

Eventually Adityanath withdrew the forces. But this was not after clear visuals of the Uttar Pradesh police being violent with Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi and the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Jayant Chaudhary. Gandhi, and her brother Rahul – the former president of the party – eventually met with the family of the victim on Saturday, offering images that contrasted heavily with Modi’s from the tunnel inauguration on the same day.

The Uttar Pradesh police later expressed “regret” for the incident with Priyanka Gandhi. But Adityanath continued to double down on the argument that people were trying to create caste tensions in the area. However, he offered no comment about the way the police treated the family involved, beyond suspending a few officials.

4. ‘Necessary’ politics

While there may be Opposition politicians who are cynically looking at the case as an opportunity to press the point against the BJP and Adityanath, the line by the authorities that this was not even a rape case indicates why support from politicians and media scrutiny could be effective in pursuing justice in the case.

As if to buttress this, after pulling out the batons and using violence against Opposition leaders, the Uttar Pradesh Police stood by as members of the upper-caste groups held a meeting to demand justice for the accused rapists. They also openly threatened those who were questioning the government. Among those who attended this meeting and other rallies in support of the accused were a BJP leader and other members of outfits connected to the Hindu nationalist movement.

Driving home the seriousness of the issue, Chandrashekhar Azad, the Dalit leader of the Bhim Army, an organisation that seeks to defend Dalit rights among others, met the family. Azad called for them to be given security, citing the obvious danger of retribution from the upper-caste families that dominate the village.

Meanwhile, sanitation workers – many of whom come from the same Dalit community as the victim – went on strike in several states around the country to protest the treatment meted out to the family last week. As a result, one media outlet chose to focus on the fact that garbage was piling up in front of the Taj Mahal.

5. Personal politics

As the case got national attention, some argued that it was a turning point in the political careers of the Gandhi siblings. Others saw it as a conspiracy to drive a wedge between Thakurs and the sub-section of Dalits, both of whom have broadly supported the BJP over the last few years. Most of all, it is important to remember that there is a grieving family at the centre of it all.

Details of their lives offer a glimpse into how caste discrimination is still a harsh reality around the country and how it plays out for Dalit women in particular.

This excerpt, from Akanksha Kumar and Nidhi Suresh’s long report in Newslaundry from Hathras speaks volumes:

“Stepping out of her house, Asha’s mother pointed to a naked brick house across from hers. ‘That is their house,’ she said. ‘Their sons did this to our daughter.’

Turning to a mound of cow dung near a narrow drain that separates her home from that of the Thakurs, she added, ‘They dump all their garbage and dirt on our side because we are Dalit.’

Relations between the neighbours have long been strained. Nearly 20 years ago, the Thakur family had attacked Asha’s grandfather. ‘They came into our field to graze their buffalos and my grandfather requested them to take the animals elsewhere as our crops would get damaged. Angered that a Dalit could tell them this, they attacked him with a knife-like object. When my grandfather tried to protect his neck, the knife cut away his fingers,’ Asha’s brother said.

Asha’s brother-in-law, who works in Delhi and rushed to the village after hearing about the incident, said, ‘People here still practise untouchability. Going past our households lowers their dignity. Our grandparents still stand up if one of them passes by. You will never find a Thakur or Brahmin entering our houses and if they need to tell us something, they send a messenger. Our ancestors used to clean their houses everyday in exchange for some bread. Today, the Thakurs are angry because we do not clean their houses or give them the respect they think they deserve.’”

Read also the follow-up report by Kumar and Suresh, and this posthumous profile of the 19-year-old by Jignasa Sinha and Somya Lakhani.

Flotsam and Jetsam

In Bihar, where elections will begin later this month, both the major alliances have concluded their seat-sharing discussions.

On the Opposition side, the Rashtriya Janata Dal handed over more seats to the Congress and the Left, in return for projecting Tejashwi Yadav as the chief ministerial candidate, amid a number of defections of smaller parties and leaders.

The National Democratic Alliance has an even more curious arrangement. The BJP will contest with the Janata Dal (United), under Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s leadership, with a 50-50 seat-sharing deal. But BJP national ally, the Lok Janshakti Party, will contest all seats against the JD(U) while supporting Modi, with many seeing this as a blatant attempt to allow the BJP to ditch Nitish Kumar if they have sufficient numbers.

The Congress has continued its protests against the three farm bills, with former party president Rahul Gandhi leading rallies in Punjab. He also plans to enter Haryana – where the government doesn’t want to let him in – even as Congress-led states plan to pass laws nullifying the Central acts.

The Goods and Services Tax Council meeting on Monday is expected to be fiery for an institution that usually works by consensus, with non-BJP states likely to oppose the Centre’s attempts to not have to pay for the compensation it promised in 2017.

India said it had “no objections to formalising the Quad dialogue with the US, Japan and Australia”, as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar headed to Tokyo to discuss security – and China – with those three countries.

That’s all for the Political Fix for today. We’ll be back on Friday with a Q&A. Send in suggestions and funny GIFs to rohan@scroll.