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How Many More Nirbhayas Must We Mourn?

How Many More Nirbhayas Must We Mourn?

As a nation we were rejoicing at the outstanding achievements of our athletes in the just concluded Common Wealth Games in the Gold Coast. We had reason to cheer and hold our heads high as the Indian contingent, including many brave women and young girls from cities and small towns across India, did us proud with their outstanding performances.  India had raced ahead of other leading Commonwealth countries like Canada and New Zealand to emerge third in the medal tally with an outstanding winning spree. 

Then broke the story of an 8-year old girl who was raped and killed with such savagery and brutality that the very thought of what she went through sends shivers through our bones.  The conscience of millions of Indians is shaken with the unfolding of this unimaginable act of horror. As stories of rapes and brutal murders from various parts of the country get reported, each incident seems to be more heartrending than the other.  Kathua, Unnao, Jharkhand, Haryana, Delhi, Surat and now Goa- there seems to be no end to the number and savagery of crimes committed by perverted men. Understandably, there is palpable anger and outrage across the country.

We are familiar with the pronouncements of judges convicting criminals who commit the most inhuman crimes with the phrase ‘rarest of rare’. Such phrases now seem to have become mere cliche’. What used to be rarest is unfortunately becoming too hackneyed.  Think of the rape and murder of the little girl in Kathua. It is too shocking. There are no words to describe the savagery. Then comes the shameless act of a UP MLA, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who raped a teenager and allegedly conspired to murder her father.

A report in The Times of India points out that the cases of murder, abduction, rape, dowry death, and fatal accidents have seen a spike as compared to the last year. It adds that the country on an average is witnessing a death due to dowry every second day. The spike in crimes like rape is on the increase even as the country is debating on death penalty for the rapists. What we need is not mere severity of the punishment, but the certainty of nabbing each and every culprit and punishment rather than let them get away after their vile deeds.

Of all the recent incidents, the story that stole the heart of India is that of the eight-year old victim in Kathua. The deep penetrating looks of this innocent girl pleading for compassion continues to haunt millions across the country. Not to speak up for her too must be counted as a crime.  Much has been written about her- tributes, poems, letters, and paintings.  So many candles flutter in the wind, so many flowers, so much tears for her.

Here is a quick recap of her story: The daughter of a nomadic Muslim couple, she was grazing horses on January 10 in Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir, when a farmhand lured her away. She was confined in a small Hindu temple, drugged, raped for five days by a group of men and strangled and killed with a stone. Police allege the crime was intricately planned by Sanji Ram, the temple custodian, who they say agreed to pay local officers 500,000 rupees to create false evidence that would lead investigators away from him and his men.

Ram had been a staunch opponent of the settlement of the Muslim tribe, known as the Bakarawals, in the area, and saw the girl as a soft target in a plot to frighten the group into leaving, police said. The arrest of Ram, his men and several police officers quickly took on religious and political overtones. Ongoing efforts by rabid Hindu groups to disrupt the police investigation have sickened many Indians and deepened concerns about a growing sense of impunity among religious fundamentalists. When police went to court to lodge a charge sheet, they were confronted by dozens of lawyers determined to keep them out. The charges, which police managed to lodge, implicated eight men in the rape and murder. Ministers and senior officials from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and a large section of lawyers  joined hands and marched through Kathua demanding the release of one of the accused officers.

The Kathua victim is not just an eight-year old girl from Kashmir. She is the symbol of our collective failure to ensure safety and protection for the young and the innocent girl children and women.  The message is loud and clear: if you are a woman, if you belong to a minority community, if you are a Dalit, then you are not safe. You are vulnerable.

In UP’s Unnao district  powerful ruling party MLA  Kuldeep Singh Sengar,  accused of raping a 17-year-old girl and then conspiring with his brother to help kill the girl’s father came to limelight when the victim and her family tried to immolate herself outside Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence, alleging police inaction against the accused. The family alleged that the woman was raped by the MLA and his accomplices last year. The kin added that the family was thrashed after a complaint was filed with the police. “I was raped. I have been running from pillar to post for the last one year but no one is listening to me. I want to see all of them arrested, otherwise I will kill myself,” the victim said.

 

The case worsened when the victim’s father died in judicial custody. The MLA’s brother, Atul Singh Sengar, was arrested along with four others, by the UP Crime Branch, for allegedly thrashing the victim’s father. According to Unnao district jail superintendent A K Singh, the father was sent to jail on April 4 in connection with an Arms Act case, with some marks on his back, suggesting that he was beaten up by sticks. “On April 5, he complained of stomach ache and vomiting.  On April 8, he died in jail.”

In another gruesome incident a few days ago, the Surat police found the body of an 11-year-old, who had been raped, tortured and strangled to death. According to the autopsy report there were at least 86 injury marks on her body. There were severe injuries to the girl’s private parts caused by a blunt object. The cops believe she was confined, raped and brutally tortured before being killed. The police have announced a paltry sum of Rs. 20,000 for information leading to the arrest of the culprit.

On April 15, the police in Goa rescued eight girls who were confined to a flat in Vasco city. Police said the girls, in the age of six to 12 years, were allegedly tortured, including branding them with a hot knife. The police also arrested Venus Habib, a 65-year-old woman, who allegedly beat up the girls. She claims that the girls are adopted by her.  And there are more such stories.

Not much seem to have changed instead it has worsened since the assault of what is now called the Nirbhaya incident, the rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern on the night of 16 December 2012 in South Delhi. She was beaten, gang raped, and tortured in a private bus in which she was travelling. A few days later she succumbed to the assault. I was living then in the national capital and witnessed firsthand the huge outpouring of anger and public solidarity. Those who violated and killed her not only destroyed the dreams of a young woman and her poor parents but also brought shame on our nation.  Can we imagine the joy and happiness Nirbhaya would have brought to her family, were she alive today, as a young doctor?  But in that night of horror, all her dreams lay shattered. Whenever we see her brave mother on television to speak about the rights and dignity of girl children and women, behind those resolute voice one can see moistened eyes and the palpable pain of a mother. And there are so many more such mothers in our country.

Nirbhaya’s death was followed by nationwide outrage and campaign demanding the safety of women and girl children. New laws were made, funds were created and new slogans were coined. But there seems to be little improvement. Our hopes that India was emerging as a great nation, that gender equality is improving with education and greater female literacy have become myths. Data on crime against women, children, including rape and murder, seem to be on the increase. Incidents like the gruesome rape and murder of the Kathua girl or that of the yet to be indentified girl in Surat only dash our hopes to the ground.  Shocking stories continue to pour in. What is worse is that molestation, rape and murder are not only committed by deranged sexual perverts but by men who otherwise appear normal but are intoxicated with religious bigotry and hate. Besides appeasing their lust, they use rape and murder as a weapon to score points in caste wars, to settle communal and religious issues, to parade pseudo-nationalism, ‘to teach the poor’ a lesson, ‘to keep the Dalits and marginalised in their place’!

Think of the victims of Kathua, Unnao, Surat, thousands of young girls, innocent, gullible ones, unaware of the predators on their paths. Think of their mothers. Think of their anxiety every time their little daughters step out of their homes! They need to be afraid even within the very walls of their homes, that is, if their homes have walls at all.  They know that it is dangerous to be a woman, a girl, in India. A 2017 report by Global Peace Index claimed India to be the fourth most dangerous country for women travellers.

The gold and silver and bronze medals our brave athletes brought home suddenly seem to have lost their shine. The searing eyes of an innocent 8-year-old girl from India’s beautiful state of Jammu and Kashmir became the national symbol of shame, of our collective failure.  Our Prime Minister’s oft repeated ‘Beti Bachaao’ now sounds like empty, hollow slogan.  Our Prime Minister, the man of high decibel rhetoric, has not spoken or acted decisively. The citizen’s disappointment with the tardy response of the PM was aptly expressed  when a group of former civil servants on April 15 issued a strongly worded open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, holding him responsible "more than anyone else" for the "terrifying state of affairs" in the country. The letter asked Modi to check India's "free fall into anarchy" by taking tough action against the alleged perpetrators of the Kathua and Unnao rape cases and the perpetrators of other hate crimes across the country.

When men indulge in cruel acts we call them beasts, their deeds brutal. Yet no animal stoops so low and becomes so evil as a demented human being who rapes and kills. Not only is the comparison no match, it is also a discredit to the animals which seldom kill their prey except for its survival or self defence. Unlike the humans, animals hardly ever kill their own species. Shakespeare in Sonnet 94 described how the corruption of the good can become worst when he wrote these memorable lines:   “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” A human being, who has lost humanity, has become corrupt, has lost his moral compass, is extremely dangerous, and is capable of committing the vilest of crimes. But the moot question is, are we doing enough to end the scourge? How many more Nirbhayas must die, and for how many more such innocent ones must we mourn before we see the end of such heinous crimes?

(Published on 23th April 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 17)