Ever since the Kathua and Unnao rape incidents involving two minor girls evoked public outrage, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons have been accusing the Opposition and the media of politicising the issue. It has been repeatedly pointed out that though thousands of women and children are abused and violated each year, the press rarely goes beyond reporting these crimes. Why then is there suddenly such a hue and cry about Kathua and Unnao? Is it because they took place in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir ‒ states where the BJP is either in power or is part of the coalition running the government?
Vociferous Saffron spokespersons, in an effort to dilute the issue, even listed out specific cases ‒ a Christian priest in Kerala who raped several children; a minor who was brutalised inside a Madrassa in Assam; cases of brutal sexual assault in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu…. In all these incidents, it was pointed out, there was neither public outrage nor candlelight vigils for the victims. The general drift of the argument was this: the public anger that we now witness on the streets is not spontaneous – it has been manufactured by the Opposition and fuelled by a motivated media.
This is far from the truth. Kathua and Unnao has shocked the nation for reasons which go beyond politics and media-orchestrated drama. Not only were both the crimes brutal and horrific in nature, but it is not often that we see the perpetrators being openly defended by those in power or blatant efforts being made to scuttle the cases against them. When such arrogant display of power and contempt for the law comes to light, it provokes widespread indignation as it rightfully should.
Consider what happened at Kathua. An eight-year-old Muslim girl was kept captive by a group of men for a week and repeatedly raped before she was killed. If the crime, committed inside a prayer hall of a temple was not shocking enough, the protests in support of the accused persons by the Hindu Ekta Manch, a Saffron outfit, were even more disturbing. So too was the presence of two BJP ministers of the State cabinet at the agitations. It sent out the message that those who committed the crime had the backing and endorsement of those in power.
In Unnao, a 17-year-old had failed for a year to get a case filed against BJP legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar, his brother and their aides who, she alleged, had been raping her. When her pleas went unheard by the police, she finally attempted suicide earlier this month outside Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence in Lucknow. Her father was arrested after the incident and subsequently died in police custody. The custodial death came to light on the same day that the chargesheets were filed in the Kathua case.
What perhaps fuelled public anger was the initial silence from the top BJP leadership as well as the arrogant and insensitive posturing from those who chose to speak. Sengar was caught on camera blaming the case against him as a “conspiracy by low class people.” The Kathua case was similarly a “plot hatched against the Hindus of Jammu” which needed to be reinvestigated by the CBI. When BJP national spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi finally came out with a statement she could not resist blaming the Opposition: “You see their (Opposition’s) plan, first shout `minority, minority’ then `Dalit, Dalit,’ and now `women, women’ and then try to somehow fix blame of state issues on the Centre.”
But can the government shrug away responsibility? If one were to look at the two cases objectively, then both would have grabbed the headlines irrespective of whether they happened in a BJP or an Opposition-ruled state. In fact, had the crimes been committed in a Congress governed state, then it would be safe to assume that the Saffron party and its friends would have been the first to make political capital. Remember how the BJP targeted the UPA on the Nirbhaya rape case in the 2014 elections. In fact, one of the party’s slogans tapped into people’s anger over the incident and promised to end atyachaar (atrocities) on women.
This was when no one from the ruling dispensation was either directly or indirectly linked to the crime in which Nirbhaya, a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern was gang-raped in a moving bus in December 2012. And yet, the BJP felt no qualms in exploiting the issue electorally. With elections due in 2019, it would be wishful thinking on its part to expect the Opposition to sit quietly and sermonise about how Kathua and Unnao are manifestations of a larger social evil that afflicts our society!
Contrary to the BJP spin, the media was not overstepping the line when it gave Kathua and Unnao the deserved prominence. Such crimes where the politically powerful are involved need to be exposed and condemned. It is also crucial that the media engages with people on an issue that has invoked such widespread anger. The press would be failing in its duties if it ignores or suppresses public concerns.
As for crimes against women, we don’t need any education from the BJP on this. The latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that cases of rape went up from 34, 651 in 2015 to 38, 947 in 2016. Madhya Pradesh topped the list with the highest incidence of rape (4,882) followed by Uttar Pradesh (4,816) and Maharashtra (4,189). It certainly is a grave issue that needs to be addressed. But so too is the disturbing trend of people in power committing heinous crimes or defending those guilty of it.
On Sunday, April 15, there was a protest meeting on Parliament Street reflective of the prevailing mood. The composition of the protesters was a mix of the young and old – college students, teachers, lawyers, professionals, activists and the average citizenry. Their presence was voluntary and without prodding from any political party. They had marked their presence because of genuine concern and wanting their voices to be heard.