Gang rapes and murders prompt wave of anger and revulsion in India
Government under pressure to tackle culture of sexual violence against women
Women activists hold banners and participate in a protest demanding justice in the case of a veterinarian who was gang-raped and murdered last week, in New Delhi, India. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP
Her family called her Twinkle. In the dry desert brush of Rajasthan where her body was found, blood spattering her tiny legs and brown school uniform and a belt fastened around her neck, she lay among scattered toffee wrappers.
Her family could barely utter the words to describe what happened to the six-year-old. “If you saw her body, you will never sleep again,” said her grandfather Mahvir Meena.
Over the past week, a wave of anger and repulsion has enveloped India in response to the gang rape and murder of a 27-year-old vet in Hyderabad as she made her way home from work last Wednesday. The four men who allegedly carried out the attack purposefully deflated her scooter tyres, it is reported, and then waited.
After offering her help, they allegedly dragged her to isolated scrubland by the side of the road, gang raped her, asphyxiated her and then dumped her body in a motorway underpass, before dousing it with kerosene and setting it alight. The four suspects were shot dead by police in controversial circumstances on Friday.
Yet while the horrific crime has prompted hundreds to take to the streets, and calls for lynching and hanging in parliament, it was far from an isolated incident. According to statistics, a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes.
India is the most dangerous place to be a woman, according to a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year, and the stark reality of this was brought to the fore this week. As well as the Hyderabad case, there was the abduction, gang rape and murder of a young lawyer in Jharkhand; the rape and murder of a 55-year-old cloth seller in Delhi’s Gulabi Bagh neighbourhood; and a teenager in the state of Bihar who was gang raped and killed, before her body was set on fire on Tuesday.
And last Saturday, in the small rural Rajasthan village of Kherli, Twinkle became one of the youngest recent victims of India’s sexual violence pandemic.
Her alleged attacker was a neighbour whom she would often visit on the way back from school. Mahendra Meena, a truck driver with two daughters of his own, a two-year-old and an 18-year-old, would give sweets and hugs to the boyishly faced six-year-old with cropped hair whenever she stopped by. So when he was seen on Saturday cuddling her and handing her some toffees, no one thought it strange.
But that afternoon, as she left through the bright orange school gates, Meena allegedly took her to the forest behind the school. In an abandoned concrete hut with a single window he is accused of raping her, and then, to hide evidence of his crimes, putting his belt around her neck and strangling her, discarding her body in the parched scrubland. He later told police he had been drinking. It was here, still in her school uniform, that she was found by a neighbour at dawn the next morning.
Remnants of her possessions were still scattered all over the village where she lived with her grandparents when her family spoke about the crime. A small pair of pink trousers hung from a nail. One of her jelly sandals lay on the roof where she had flung them. Her mother, Bintosh Meena, sat on the floor, her face wrapped in blankets, rocking back and forth in grief and howling out her daughter’s name. “Wherever you are my little quail, come back to me, come back to me,” she repeated.
The senior police officer overseeing the investigation was so haunted by the case he had not eaten or slept for two days
She was called Twinkle because she was like a tiny little star, said her grandmother, Kiskinda Meena, wiping away tears. She and her younger brother were always seen laughing and playing together in the fields that surround the village, but every morning her grandmother would dress her in her brown skirt, blouse and striped tie, and at 10.30am she would walk the few hundred metres down the dusty path to her school.
“She was friendly with everyone, she was a very quiet child and never a nuisance,” said her teacher, Vinod Kumar. She had loved school, carrying her school books everywhere. But on the day she was killed, she had run out of the gates in such a rush to get home, she had left her schoolbag behind.
Ram Krishnan, the senior police officer overseeing the investigation, said he was so haunted by the case he had not eaten or slept for two days. Villagers, meanwhile, expressed disbelief that this savage sexual crime had come to their doorstep. Many said their daughters were now too afraid to go back to school.
“You hear about this in other places in India, in the cities, but such a thing has never happened here. And to my girl who is still such a baby. We should be protected here from this,” said her grandmother. “The government says you should educate the girls to help them against attacks but there is nothing to save them when this happens. Until the government takes a strong stance then this will not stop.”
Society here devalues women systematically and makes them subhuman, and rape is the worst symptom of that
It was seven years ago, after the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh, a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012 – who was christened “Nirbhaya”, meaning fearless by the media – that India’s systemic problem with sexual violence was first pushed into the spotlight. Thousands took to the streets to demand action, and new legislation doubled prison terms for rapists to 20 years.
But seven years on, the consensus among activists and women is that the problem is getting worse. The key social issues behind the crisis remain unaddressed and the culture of impunity for sexual crimes remains firmly embedded.
In the courts there are 133,000 pending rape cases. In May, a panel of judges dismissed allegations of sexual harassment against the chief justice of India, made by a former court employee, as of “no substance”, in a ruling that triggered anger and protests. He denied the claims.
“Unless this becomes a problem of nationalism and national pride, I don’t see anything changing,” said Deepa Narayan, a social activist and the author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women. “Society here devalues women systematically and makes them subhuman, and rape is the worst symptom of that. It does feel like the levels of depravity and cruelty in these crimes are increasing.”
State governments have not even touched the Nirbhaya fund, for which the government put aside 10 billion rupees (about €125 million) for initiatives to help women’s safety. As of today, 91 per cent of the fund remains unspent. Delhi, which bears the unwelcome title of “rape capital of the world”, has spent 5 per cent of its allocation.
In the Indian parliament this week, the response by several politicians to the Hyderabad rape case was simply to call for the accused to be lynched and hanged. But Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said this was only making the problem worse.
We’ve gone several steps back. We have a government which is actively invested in rape culture
“The cry for the death penalty is nothing but a red herring,” she said. “It’s the easy option because it avoids any institutional accountability and doesn’t cost a thing, it’s just lawmakers reassuring themselves that all it will take to solve this problem is to eliminate one or two of these devils. We are still not having the conversation which needs to happen, so nothing changes.”
She added: “All the talk of the death penalty for rape just means we may be seeing more women murdered so they can’t remain alive as a witness.”
Krishnan said that far from things improving since 2012, under prime minister Narendra Modi “we’ve gone several steps back. We have a government which is actively invested in rape culture, in protecting powerful rape-accused persons and communalising every incident of rape.”
Ranjana Kumari, the director of India’s Centre for Social Research, said she ultimately held the government responsible for the problem. “They are failing in law enforcement, they are failing in dispensation of justice, they are failing in implementing safe environments for women,” said Kumari. “There is no political will to address this problem, so how is it ever going to get better?” – Guardian