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Sexual Violence Grows in 10 Years of Modi Rule in India

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Sexual Violence Grows in 10 Years of Modi Rule in India

As disturbing as the assaults is the response of ministers and officials who accuse those that speak out against rape culture of defaming India.

Sexual Violence Grows in 10 Years of Modi Rule in India

People condemning a recent government decision to free from prison 11 convicts of a 2002 gang rape of a Muslim woman in Gujarat state, gather for a protest in Kolkata, India, Tuesday, Aug.23, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Bikas Das

On March 1, a Spanish vlogger and her Brazilian partner took to Instagram to recount her nightmare of being gangraped by seven men in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. The couple, who were on a biking trip across India, had halted for the night when they were brutally assaulted.

The couple’s video post went viral and sparked widespread outrage and condemnation. The woman being a foreign tourist, the news was promptly picked up by prominent international news outlets with questions being raised on how safe India is for women. Twitter and Instagram have been flooded with angry posts from women narrating their harrowing experiences of traveling alone in the country.

As shocking as the rape itself is the response of Rekha Sharma, chief of the National Commission of Women (NCW). In response to a post on X, formerly Twitter, where a person described incidents of witnessing women travelers being harassed, Sharma accused him of “defaming India.” “Writing only on social media and defaming whole country is not good choice,” she said. The NCW chief’s insensitive, tone-deaf reaction sparked further outrage in the country.

But Sharma’s response is not surprising. Insensitivity to gender violence has been the standard response of leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since it came to power in 2014.

Over the past ten years, the Narendra Modi government has loudly proclaimed that it supports “Nari Shakti” or women’s power, but has consistently turned a blind eye to atrocities against women. Ministers like Smriti Irani, who heads the Ministry for Women and Child Development, have often lashed out at victims who publicly speak out against sexual violence, and accused them of defaming the government.

Irani and Sharma are among dozens of BJP leaders who try to downplay rapes and the culture of sexual violence in the country, especially in incidents where the perpetrator is a BJP legislator or party worker.

When Olympic medal-winning women wrestlers Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat accused Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the Wrestling Federation of India chief and six-term BJP parliamentarian, of sexual harassment, the establishment did everything to deny the women wrestlers justice.

To date, Modi has chosen to be silent on the issue, while the women wrestlers continue to fight at great personal cost to bring Singh to justice. The fact that Singh is a political heavyweight, a strongman who could influence election outcomes in his home turf of Uttar Pradesh matters more to the ruling party than the plight of the sportswomen.

Meanwhile, several incidents of women being sexually assaulted in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali village have made national headlines. Women there have alleged they were sexually assaulted by Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman Shahjahan Sheikh, while also accusing him of extortion and land grabbing. For over 50 days Sheikh evaded arrest and the ruling TMC government in the state was allegedly shielding him. He was finally arrested by the police on February 29 on strict orders of the Calcutta High Court.

While atrocities against women have been a stark reality of the conservative and patriarchal Indian society for centuries, the impunity that rapists, molesters and serial offenders are enjoying under the BJP government is shocking.

No wonder then that opposition members and activists have been lambasting the Modi government for its hollow claims on women’s safety. “The Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme is now save your daughters from the clutches of the BJP,” they say. The scheme is one of the flagship programs of the Modi government aimed at boosting girl child survival and education.

A Hindu supremacist party, the BJP is entrenched in patriarchy and upholds Hindu upper-caste hegemony. Therefore, when a poor Dalit (outcaste) girl was brutally gangraped in Hathras in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh by rich upper-caste Thakur men, the police not only rejected the rape allegations against the Thakurs, but also burnt the victim’s body in the dead of the night to destroy evidence. Public outcry forced Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to act eventually, However, three of the accused have been let off and a fourth was convicted under lesser charges.

Particularly vulnerable to the BJP’s misogyny are Muslim women. In public speeches, Hindutva activists encourage Hindu men to impregnate Muslim women. They threaten to rape Muslim women as punishment for crimes committed by Muslim men. A couple of years ago, several Muslim women who were vocal on social media were horrified to find their profiles being auctioned online. Following the massive outrage it was found that radicalized tech-savvy Hindutva youth had created Bulli bai and Sulli deals apps to auction Muslim women.

The most brazen display of the authoritarian might of the state was witnessed recently in the Bilkis Bano case. Bilkis Bano, a pregnant Muslim woman was gangraped by 11 men during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in BJP ruled Gujarat. After a prolonged legal battle, the 11 rapists were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. In a shocking move in August 2022, the Gujarat government released the rapists on the grounds of “good behaviour.” The release order had been officially ratified by the Modi government’s home ministry. The released rapists were garlanded and lauded for being good “sanskaari (values and ideals) Brahmins.” The travesty of justice prompted prominent women activists to contest the court. In January this year, when the Supreme Court struck down the release, a relieved Bano thanked the court for herself and “for women everywhere …hope for equal justice for all.”

For the BJP and its fraternal organizations, women should remain in the confines of their home and nurture their families. Throughout their life, women are expected to be answerable to male figures be it the father, husband or son. Hindu right-wing organizations espouse brute displays of masculinity, weapon-wielding and jingoistic nationalism. In recent years, these groups are dictating what women should wear and eat, whom they should befriend and whom they should marry.

Hindutva activists operate with impunity thanks to the immunity they enjoy under the current regime. Police act only under public pressure or when the court orders them to do so.

Following the horrific gangrape of “Nirbhaya” on a moving bus in New Delhi, the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government enacted stringent laws on sexual violence, including the death penalty for extreme cases of savage assault.

But incidents of sexual violence have continued to grow, as evident from data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau.

The number of cases of sexual violence increased from 428,278 in 2021 to 445,858 in 2022. A dip in figures was seen only during the COVID-19 years.

In 2022, 31,516 cases of rape were reported, which is an average of 86 rape cases per day. It must be noted that these alarming figures reflect only reported cases. Due to the tremendous social stigma surrounding sexual assault, most cases go unreported.

The BJP often fends off allegations of being “anti-women” by highlighting its record number of women ministers in government. However, as their track record reveals, BJP women politicians are mouthpieces for defending patriarchy. Irani, for instance, has remained a mute spectator to the atrocities against women in BJP-ruled Manipur.

Modi himself has often made derogatory remarks against his female political opponents, be it West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or senior Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

If Hindutva foot-soldiers revel in misogyny, then it can be ascribed to the trickle-down effect of those at the top.