Two teenage girls — gang-raped and murdered — gently swinging from the tree should by now have brought the nation to its feet. But for that to happen we would perhaps need a nation with a different political and gender consciousness. Depressing though it is, those at the helm of affairs — in the past and today — have chosen to remain preoccupied with other ‘priority’ matters; more often than not, too busy to turn their full attention to gender violence; too indifferent to tackle the issue on war footing. It needs no reiteration that the narrative of gender violence — regardless of its tenacious persistence — has never been an integral part of India’s mainstream narrative. Within this ignoble national framework it may seem less outrageous that the issue of gender violence has not managed to find a mention in the 10 priority areas of governance listed by the newly elected Narendra Modi government.
Officers in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh — the site of the crime — have said that the two Dalit girls, aged 14 and 15, were raped by five men who murdered them and then hung their bodies from mango trees. The haunting images showed villagers sitting beneath the bodies, protesting and refusing to leave. The victims’ families alleged that the police shielded the rapists and refused to investigate their complaints of the two missing girls. It appears that the two girls were attacked when they had gone to the open fields in the morning like more than half of Indian households, who don’t have toilets at home, do. According to reports, 300 million women and girls in India are forced to defecate in the open, rendering them vulnerable — even more so in the case of lower caste women — to sexual harassment and assault.
Disconcertingly enough, the depressing narrative of gender assault, in this case further exacerbated by the lower caste status of the victims, is underlined by continued political and social indifference. Rewind to September 29, 2006 and the Khairlanji massacre case in Maharashtra, where four members of a Dalit family were brutally murdered by upper caste men. Two of the women victims were paraded naked in public before being murdered. Even then there were allegations of the local police shielding the culprits.
The news of horrific violence against two young girls comes in the midst of euphoria about the new government taking charge, the business community holding its breath in anticipation of further opening up of the economy. Similar euphoria had accompanied Akhilesh Yadav’s election to power in UP. But over time the promises he was elected with have been cruelly betrayed by the Samajwadi Party’s repeated reactions to incidents of violence — on women and otherwise. The political class either offers habitual patriarchal declarations of ‘protecting women’, or, like Mulayam Singh Yadav, excuses rape with a ‘boys will be boys’ logic. The same insouciant political and social approach marks our dealings with the weaker sections, particularly Dalits. For Dalit women, its double oppression — gender as well as caste. Despite the setting up of multiple commissions and institutions of law, the police still get away not lodging FIRs. Politicians still get away mouthing inane promises and disbursing compensation money to victims’ families.
We must remember that the true measure of a civilised nation and its government emanates from its handling of women and the disadvantaged sections of population. As the latest crimes in Badaun shows, India is far from achieving that status of distinction.