The 23-year-old girl from Unnao died last night. When, after a frantic call from her brother, we reached the Delhi hospital where she had been airlifted, we found her family huddled closely together on the floor outside the ICU. Surrounded by hospital guards and two UP policemen, all strangers to them, they symbolized the loneliness of grief. No comfort, no privacy, nowhere to cry and express their anger. All day they had hoped for a miracle believing that her will to live was strong enough to enable her assaulted and burnt body to heal. Earlier in the afternoon, her brother had told us that the only words she said in the ICU were "I want to live to ensure punishment to those who did this to me."
She was killed twice over - once by those who had gangraped her and then burnt her and the second time by those who allowed this to happen, the UP government and the police. Today, the UP Chief Minister said he will send the case to a fast track court. Will that absolve him and his government of the responsibility for her death? When she was gangraped over a year ago, why did the UP police not file an FIR? When she went to the court for its intervention and single-handedly got an arrest order, why did the police arrest only one of the two accused? When she fought to prevent the accused from getting bail, why did the government counsel allow it to happen? When the accused got bail, why was she not given protection? And then, after airlifting her to a Delhi hospital, why did the UP government not send a single official to the hospital? A visit may have brought some confidence to the family, they could have been given some help - stranded without any funds in Delhi, they had not eaten all day. This is the way a rape victim and her family are treated.
The responsibility and accountability of governments in ensuring social and physical infrastructures to prevent crimes against women has got lost in the outrage to hang the accused. The judicial system is notorious for its delays and huge backlogs in cases of crimes against women. According to the NCRB report, in 2017, there were as many as 1.17 lakh cases of rape pending trial. In that year, there were an additional 28,750 cases sent for trial. But at the end of the year, there were only 5,822 convictions, under 4 per cent of all cases on trial. In so many other cases, just as in the Unnao case, the rape-accused are out on bail. The system with its long delays acts as a protector to rape-accused. It is this dismal picture that fuels public demands for instant justice. A video doing the rounds in Kerala shows a young girl singing a song in which she wants to kiss the gun that killed the rapists even though it may be wrong to kill them in this way.
This public anger, created by a rotten system, is manipulated by guilty governments to conceal their own failure to prevent the crime in the first place. The encounter killings in Telangana is a classic case. The young woman vet may have been alive today had the TRS government strictly implemented the comprehensive measures suggested by the Verma Committee six years ago. For example, it is reported that the area where the rape and killing took place has seen many other such incidents in the past. If there had been mapping and increased police patrolling and street lighting of crime-prone areas, as suggested by the Verma committee, the crime may have been prevented. The government and their police are responsible by criminal omission for the incident. But after the encounter killings, the very police force that tortured a worried family, sending them from one police station to another while the vet was missing, a Chief Minister who did not care to meet the family, are being hailed as saviours for what is clearly a fake encounter.
It is reported that the centre has issued another advisory to states. Here is what the Verma Committee report says on this count: "Eight advisories were sent to the State Governments...what is even more shocking is the incapability of the Government of India and of the various State Governments to implement even the most basic safety measures with any amount of efficacy...despite numerous recommendations, deliberations, consultations, studies, directions from the courts....The State continues to fall woefully short of ensuring the safety of women in this country." Instead of another advisory, let the political leadership of the ruling party take strong action against a Chief Minister and his government who are serial offenders in always standing with the accused against a rape victim, whether earlier in Unnao, in Shahjahanpur, or now, once again tragically in Unnao. Instead of fake encounters, let the government take the required steps to ensure India is a country safe for its women and children.
In Unnao, another key factor in the horrific crime against the young woman was that she belonged to a poor agricultural worker family and to an oppressed caste while the perpetrators of the violence belonged to a powerful upper caste with all the right connections among the police and administration. Her sister said they were the only such family on their side of the village which is dominated by the upper castes. The family land has been sought to be captured by the upper caste family living across the lane from them. The case has been in the court for several years and as a result, they have been unable to cultivate the land. In a family of five sisters and two brothers, the rape victim was the youngest. Her siblings tried to protect her from the cruelties of the embedded exploitation in the class and caste hierarchies that they faced. Her sister, just a year older, says she always tried to be with her younger sibling, "my most beautiful sister, the heart of our family, our hopes all bound up in her existence." The two sisters went together to school and college and the older always protected and looked out for the younger. In the hospital, her frail, grieving mother asked "Is this why we educated her, to meet such a death?"
The brother is a manual worker, now doing waged labour in Gujarat. He was away when the incident happened and with aged and frail parents, it was this sister who was her greatest support. Poverty and so-called lower caste status, in a state like Uttar Pradesh, are the greatest barriers in the fight for justice. The upper caste men who raped her were using their caste and class-based power to fulfill what they consider their sexual entitlement. The caste and class power over a much poorer family also gave them a sense of impunity. When she challenged them, through sheer courage and a strong sense of dignity and justice, they responded by burning her alive. How could a lower caste woman dare to challenge them, dare to claim to be anything but an object for sexual gratification?
Ideologies also play a strong role in creating an environment in which crime against women is seen as their own fault. Prevailing dominant cultures, promoted and strengthened by those in power, consistently hold the victim as responsible for whatever happens to her. In a sense, therefore, the fight for justice is equally a fight against those ideologies and policies that give sanction to such violence.
The Unnao victim wanted to live. With her death, will her struggle for justice also die?