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India Learns That the Smallest Coffins Are Often the Heaviest

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The Pulse

India Learns That the Smallest Coffins Are Often the Heaviest

What will it take for India to finally see its girls and women as human beings?

India Learns That the Smallest Coffins Are Often the Heaviest
Credit: AP Photo/Channi Anand

Whatever you say reverberates, whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.

So either way you’re talking politics.

Even when you take to the woods,

You’re taking political steps on political grounds.

— Wislawa Szymborska, excerpt from ‘Children of our Age’

The incident took place in January this year, in Jammu. The 8-year-old went missing for seven days. Her body was found in a forest. A charge sheet — which is a detailed report of investigation by the police that has to be produced in the court — was filed last week after DNA tests confirmed that she was held captive in a temple and raped before being strangled to death. That charge sheet is now a document that is testimony to the vagaries of the human mind, to its ability to inflict violence on a tiny body.

However, lawyers in Jammu protested against the arrest of seven people, including two policemen. As supporters of a Hindu right-wing group Hindu Ekta Manch, the lawyers suspected the police of bias and conspiracy against the Hindu community and hence demanded an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

If taking to streets is a marker of the democratic promise of freedom of speech, how then does one make sense of the protests by the lawyers? How does one make sense of the several rallies across India over the weekend, with proclamations of half-baked and inane ideas of a sense of justice, that are borne out of fatigue from a slow-moving justice system? Can a protest be truly apolitical when a woman’s existence in the face of patriarchy, caste, religion, and race is nothing but a political journey?

The girl’s walk through the woods — and the consequences that have shocked India — is nothing but political, a political land mine that bears the deadly mix of nationalism, fundamentalism, and occupation. The placards at the protests across the country are political too, even through the assertion that they are apolitical.

While lawyers protested on the streets of Kathua, the lawyer representing the girl has received threats from the Jammu Bar Association and fears for her life.

The lost horse that she had gone off-trail to look for had returned alone that January day. Her parents searched everywhere and they found her body in the forest. However, they were not allowed to later bury her body in the village and her family has since gone into hiding.

The man who wanted the Bakarwal community off the land is a retired government official. I think of this 60-year-old Sanji Ram and imagine him as someone who could’ve had a grandchild as young as the girl.

Police officer Deepak Khajuria was part of the plot too; he procured the sedatives. Per the charge sheet, he allegedly wanted to rape her one last time before she was killed.

Others involved were allegedly Ram’s nephew, a juvenile, and Ram’s son, who came all the way from another state, to “satisfy his lust,” per authorities. The nephew, who repeatedly fed her the sedatives on an empty stomach and raped her, was the first to be arrested.

Following the arrests, two ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in a coalition in Jammu and Kashmir and nationally at the center, resigned from their posts.

In Unnao, in Uttar Pradesh, a local politician of the ruling BJP there was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl last year. She had knocked on every door that she could fathom, to seek justice. Ten days ago, when she attempted to immolate herself in front of the chief minister’s residence, her father was arrested and, the next day, he was dead.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call of “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Protect Girls, Educate Girls) has since been rebuked on social media as “Balatkari Bachao” (protect rapists), owing to his deafening silence on the matter, given the proximity of Hindu right-wing groups to the BJP and these crimes.

But beyond the anger at the inaction of authorities and the shock at bearing witness to the audacity of politicians, I think of the ways in which only girls are taught to be brave, but their brothers are not taught to be respectful and sensitive. I think of the ways in which we raise feminist women, but the words of feminist men demanding castration and death penalty is far from justice in this case.

When a gang of men brutally raped Jyoti Pandey in December 2012 and left her to die, the protests on the streets galvanized the middle class; the Justice Verma Committee expanded the ambit of rape laws.

India is hoping for a similar fast-track to amend the law to protect children from sexual offenses — toward demanding death penalty for rape of children who are not yet 12.

In spite of a democratic system, the unofficial consensus is this: unless India incorporates harsh punishments, this won’t stop. And the numbers explain this consensus: in 2016 alone, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded 19,765 cases of child rape across the country.

But what about the litany of transgressions in everyday life that women endure — those which are not rape, but reflect a system wherein we condone that boys will be boys and nothing can change them?

What about a system where boys will be boys and will grow up to be men in positions of power who continue to spew misogynist words and misuse their position of power to further their position by riding on the backs of women who shoulder the burden of the patriarchy?

The $152 million fund from the central government, established after the December 2012 rape case, toward developing rape crisis centers, has largely remained unused. The funds for more CCTV camera coverage in cities only mean one thing: boys will be boys and the government will try to deliver justice, somehow, but conditions apply.

When we demand capital punishment, it speaks more of our resignation as a society where we are unable prevent crimes.

So, where does this lead us?

For the scores of cases that go unreported, for the scores of police files that lie in the dust, for the scores of years spent waiting for justice, for the scores of times women don’t fight back those who heckle or pinch them momentum like this is an opportunity that cannot be lost.

This momentum in India could overpower all that has been: wherein incidents are not merely statistics, but visceral enough to lead to noticeable and effective reforms. This momentum can show that the politics played on women’s bodies and on the basis of religion, caste, and region have no bearing over justice. But above all, the momentum can perhaps lead to a state of affairs where men truly begin to view women as equal humans.

(Even though the name of the girl was widely reported in news media in India, her name is not revealed here. The Indian Penal Code prohibits revealing the identity of a person who is raped, adult or otherwise, given the stigma associated with rape.)