For days public discontent in India was simmering over the mishandling of two child rape cases. Over the weekend, anger boiled over and thousands took to the streets in several cities across the country to protest perceived inaction by the Indian authorities. Celebrities, writers, academicians, rights activists, lawyers and other professionals rubbed shoulders with the hoi-polloi.
People were angry but only a few shouted slogans. Most walked silently holding placards which did the talking. “Time has come now to make India rape free” was scrawled across one. “Not proud to be an Indian today” was written on another.
The outrage over the two rapes reached as far as the UN. On Friday, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described it as a “horrific case” and called on the Indian authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The statement probably did not please the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has sought endorsement from the international community to shed his image of a Hindu fundamentalist and to campaign for enhancing India’s image globally.
The two rapes were perpetrated in two different states – the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh (UP) – but the outrage over them converged, to Modi’s disadvantage. Eight-year-old Asifa went missing in the new year in Kathua district in Jammu region after her family of Muslim nomadic shepherds moved to the lowlands to tide over winter months. Her brutalised corpse was found a week later near a Hindu temple and investigators later named several Hindus, including a local police officer, as accused of raping and killing the girl.
Investigators claimed the abduction, rape and killing of the girl was part of a plan to evict the Muslim minority nomadic community. Initially, local lawyers blocked the legal process, while local BJP leaders – including two state ministers – joined protests in support of the accused.
They did so because the party draws strength in Jammu and Kashmir from Hindu prejudice towards Muslims. In 2015, for the first time, BJP became a partner of the coalition government after sweeping the state’s Hindu majority seats.
The other incident involves a 16-year-old girl who was allegedly raped last year by a BJP legislator of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where the party is currently in power. Little was known about the case till April 8 when the victim attempted to immolate herself near the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence to protest inaction by the police. The following day, her father, allegedly beaten at the legislator’s behest, died in a government hospital. Police finally registered her case on April 12.
Adityanath displayed little urgency in having the legislator and his accomplices arrested. At the same time, several party colleagues, active campaigners on women’s issues when the Congress Party was in power, made no comment.
Modi, who is usually proactive on social media intervening on various issues and deliver speeches almost every other day, was silent on these two cases until Friday, when he declared that there will be justice for the two rape victims.
In the past, he has been accused of choosing silence whenever there was need to criticise violence against members of religious minorities or other underprivileged groups and when his party functionaries have been involved in crimes.
With general elections due in thirteen months, it is evident that BJP’s response to the two child rape incidents reflects its political considerations. Hindu support is essential for BJP in the Jammu region and the alleged rapist in UP belongs to a powerful caste which backs the party.
These are worrying signs that the party is increasingly relying on majoritarianism and hyper-nationalism to get re-elected.
After Modi’s statement promising justice on the two cases, the two ministers in Jammu and Kashmir resigned but only after declaring they acted at the behest of party leaders. In UP, although the legislator has been arrested, he remains a member of the party. Meanwhile, BJP functionaries have claimed that criticism over the two incidents is part of “a pattern” of opposition efforts to undermine the government.
Sunday’s protests show that Modi’s promises of bringing “change”, “new thinking, new hope” and better protection to women and girls are coming under increasing public scrutiny.
Safety and security for women came to the fore as a political issue especially after the rape and death of a young woman in New Delhi in December 2012 which triggered widespread protests and changes in criminal law. In 2015, Modi launched the government’s flagship programme Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (“Save the daughter, educate the daughter”).
But following the two child rape cases and the initial reactions of BJP members, some in India called into question the government’s true commitment to protecting girls. After all, this was also not the first time BJP members mismanage sexual violence cases.
In August 2017, several BJP leaders backed the son of Subhash Barala, BJP president in Haryana state, after he stalked and attempted to kidnap a radio DJ. After the victim alleged that she had been pressured against filing a case, a local BJP functionary stood by Barala and one even declared that she “should not have gone out at 12 in the night.”
Ironically, during his first Independence Day speech as a prime minister delivered in 2014, Modi pointedly emphasised that parents should ask their son “where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are. After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son”. Modi recently reminded people of this speech to stress he remains committed to preventing violence against women. But it seems he still has not applied this idea of control on the sons of his own party.
Duplicity of this nature is ingrained in BJP’s political philosophy which espouses Hindu nationalism. More disturbingly, one of the Hindutva ideologues, Indian nationalist activist Veer Savarkar, who inspired the formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP’s parent organisation, has written about rape as a tool for asserting political hegemony. In his book “Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History”, he suggested that had Hindu men raped and forced Muslim women to convert, the Muslim population of India would have dwindled.
Modi, who every year pays tribute to Savarkar on the anniversary of his birthday, might have a hard time now convincing the liberal middle class that he is indeed a reformer and a women’s and girls’ rights proponent. And that might hurt his electoral success in the future.