A few days ago, a midst nationwide grief and anger over the rising child rape cases, the Union Cabinet said it has begun the process to amend law to introduce death penalty for rape of minors below 12 year of age. In a letter, submitted to the Supreme Court last Friday, the Government stated that it has started the process to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act to introduce death penalty for rape of minors until twelve years of age. The Supreme Court was expected to hear the matter on April 27, but it has apparently been deferred.
In the last few weeks, the country has witnessed one of the most sordid chapters in her history. Rapes and murders were unravelled - in Unnao, Kathua, Assam, Surat and elsewhere. The horrendous dimension of these rapes are that the victims were mostly minors, the perpetrators of these heinous acts were all powerful men- either members of or connected with the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), the families of the victims have desperately to run from pillar to post seeking justice and above all, the law and order mechanism which should have acted with a sense of urgency and expediency have done all they can to deny justice to the families of the victims and to try to sweep these unacceptable crimes under the carpet.
There has been a groundswell of outrage against these despicable acts. Hundreds of protest rallies and candlelight vigils have taken place all over the country. Social media is filled with condemnations and comments about what is happening. Thousands have changed their personal profile and/or their DPs to the face of the little innocent girl who was brutally gang-raped and murdered. Large numbers supported the hashtag #justice_4_Asifa. Because of the pressure from social media, some of the so-called ‘mainstream media’ in the country have had no choice but to cover these stories. Leading international newspapers had incisive editorials on these terrible incidents. Narendra Modi who was on a visit to the United Kingdom and other countries had to face plenty of public protests (these were very conveniently blacked out by most Indian media).
The New York Times, in an unprecedented editorial by its Editorial Board on April 16 said, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India tweets frequently and considers himself a talented orator. Yet he loses his voice when it comes to speaking out about the dangers faced by women and minorities who are frequent targets of the nationalist and communal forces that are part of the base of his Bharatiya Janata Party.….Mr. Modi said that these cases had brought shame on the country and that “our daughters will definitely get justice.” But his remarks ring hollow because he waited so long to talk about the cases and spoke in broad generalities — describing the crimes as “incidents being discussed since past two days.” He has taken a similar approach in the past when addressing cases in which vigilante groups affiliated with his political movement have attacked and killed Muslims and Dalits — members of India’s lowest caste — who they falsely accused of killing cows, which are sacred to Hindus”.
It was indeed an editorial with a scathing attack on Modi. What the editorial fails to mention was that in 2002 Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat presided over the Gujarat Carnage, one of the bloodiest Chapters of post independent India. More than two thousand Muslims were killed during that carnage besides several women were brutally raped. Raping women and children has often been a weapon of fascist forces. Ever since right wing majoritarianism has begun ruling India the ‘culture of rape’ is on the ascendancy. There is no doubt about that.
A group of activists from Gujarat in an open letter to the President of India wrote, “The present cases of rape – Kathua, Unnao, Surat, Assam, and many many more are indeed an indictment of our governments, our law and order machinery and us as a people. We recognize that these are not the first nor will they be the last, alas! While we condemn all and every such incident, we feel constrained to single out the two incidents of Unnao and Kathua. The perpetrators of the crime are political persons with political affiliations. Unnao and Kathua rape incidents are political, no more no less”.
On 25 April, Asaram Bapu, a ‘godman’ from Gujarat was sentenced to life imprisonment for raping a 16-year old girl in 2013. Asaram Bapu has powerful political connections, which include the Prime Minister and other bigwigs of the BJP. The grapevine says that there will be an appeal in a Higher Court; since there are so many pliable Judges everywhere (as we have seen in so many of the high-profile cases recently) Asaram Bapu will certainly be “set free” sometime.
It is not without reason that in a much-publicized letter to the Prime Minister, a group of about fifty retired bureaucrats wrote, “We had hoped that as someone sworn to upholding the Constitution, the Government that you head and the party to which you belong would wake up to this alarming decline, take the lead in stemming the rot and reassure everyone, especially the minorities and vulnerable sections of society that they need not fear for their life and liberty. This hope has been destroyed. Instead, the unspeakable horror of the Kathua and the Unnao incidents shows that the Government has failed in performing the most basic of the responsibilities given to it by the people,…We write to you not just to express our collective sense of shame and not just to give voice to our anguish or lament and mourn the death of our civilisational values - but to express our rage. Rage over the agenda of division and hate your party and its innumerable, often untraceable offshoots that spring up from time to time, have insidiously introduced into the grammar of our politics, our social and cultural life and even our daily discourse. It is that which provides the social sanction and legitimacy for the incidents in Kathua and Unnao.”
Death penalty is no deterrent! It has been empirically proved world over, that where the ‘Death Penalty’ exists, the crime rate is higher. The Government’s ‘death penalty’ ordinance is a pitiable ploy! If the Government is serious about tackling the ‘culture of rape’ in the country- it should first change the minds and the attitudes of those who subscribe to their ideology- and to ensure stringent and exemplary punitive measures for those who desecrate the dignity of women, specially of the girl child.
The Gujarat group of social activists in the above-mentioned ‘open letter’ also state, “You have given consent to the recent Ordinance of commuting death sentence to sexual offender those guilty of raping children under the age of 12. It will make no difference because our conviction rate is just 3% in crimes under POCSO Act. If 97% of rapists are getting away scot-free, it makes no difference if the maximum punishment is the death penalty. To reiterate According to data gathered by the National Criminal Research Bureau (NCRB), the conviction rate of those accused of sexual crimes against girls in 2015 was only 34%. Of the 5361 trials completed in 2015, 1843 ended in conviction, while 3518 led to the acquittal or discharge of the accused. People are not afraid of laws because they think legal action can be influenced and has loophole. The trial of rape cases be held in Fast Track Courts. What is necessary is the police and judicial reforms to increase the conviction rate. Otherwise, the Ordinance may become an eyewash, a refuge of the Government in Death penalty for child rape. What is more disturbing and ironical is that there are many in Government who are defending the rapists. And so, we, the undersigned citizens, would like to urge upon you to ponder deeply into these points and direct the government and its administration to function in a manner that creates a conducive atmosphere for the delivery of Justice and in the long run, for the establishment of society which is free from rapes, where dignity of women is ensured”.
What is sadly lacking is the political will to deal with this ‘serious sickness’ which seems to have become endemic. The ‘culture of rape and murder’, seems to have become an integral part of this Government’s way of proceeding. One of the cartoons, which has gone viral on social media, is on the ‘beti bachao’ campaign of the BJP – very cleverly, the cartoonist has aptly written “save our daughters from the BJP!” The national outrage is certainly justified, but perhaps the only way to halt this culture of death and bring about change, is to ensure that this party of rapists and murderers, do not succeed in the forthcoming elections.
(The writer works with the Jesuit Refugee Service on Advocacy and Communications, in the Middle East. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )
(Published on 30th April 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 18)