THE BLOG

Women Struggling Against Rape in India Find the Assange Case Hard to Digest

In India, rape victims routinely face police harassment and refusal to file rape charges. Then, if at all charges are filed, judicial insensitivity, delayed trials, and so on. Only today, I received a report from our activists (of the All India Progressive Women's Association) in Punjab, about the gang rape of a teenage dalit (oppressed caste) girl. This 17-year-old was lured by police personnel to the police station on the promise of a job, and was then imprisoned and raped by several prominent local citizens, including police officials and a local advocate. Our activists could get a police complaint filed with great difficulty and even now the girl and her family are being pressured to withdraw the case. In the same area of Punjab some years ago, a dalit singer, Bant Singh, had 3 of his limbs chopped off for supporting his daughter in securing a conviction of her rapists -- some powerful local people.

Rape in police custody is very common in India, and in such cases, inevitably there is a huge cover-up and rarely at all has any police or army official ever been brought to trial in such cases. The case of gang rape and murder of a young Manipuri woman Thangjam Manorama by Indian army personnel in 2004 is one instance. Last year, there was the case of rape and murder of two Kashmiri women -- Asiya and Nilofar -- in Shopian, Kashmir, in which the Central Bureau of Investigation (India's highest government investigative agency) helped in a shameful cover up, coming up with a report that claimed the two women 'drowned' in a stream six inches deep. The CBI's forensic team reported, laughably, that rape had not occurred since the body of one of the women (a teenager), exhumed after four months, showed that "the hymen was intact"! In the Shopian case, doctors and lawyers who had testified to evidence of rape and murder have been prosecuted while the accused paramilitary personnel (as well as the police personnel who assisted in destroying evidence) go free. On This month (December 14), to mark one year of the Shopian rape and murder, women's groups from all over India sent white sheets to the CBI office in Delhi -- "for their next cover up."

We could also recall the case was of gang rape of a rural women's health worker Bhanwari Bai in 1995, where a judge ruled that she could not have been raped since she was of a 'lower caste' than the four 'upper caste' men accused of raping her. The judge's offensive claim was that upper caste men would not deign to touch a lower caste woman, whereas rape is all too often deployed as a weapon to humiliate and suppress the oppressed castes in India. Another terrible recent rape case was the Khairlanji case where a dalit (oppressed caste) woman and her daughter were very brutally gang raped in full view of a village and then publicly massacred along with her two sons. There was a conviction in this case, (after all the usual delays and refusals by police to file a case) but the verdict was criticized by many activists because it convicted only for rape and refused to invoke India's law against caste discrimination/atrocities.

In India's forest areas, tribal women who have with great courage filed cases of rape against security personnel, have found that their rapists not only roam free, they freely abduct and threaten these women and their families that if the cases are pursued, they might be arrested or even killed after being branded as 'extremists' and 'insurgents.'

The national capital, Delhi has seen a series of rape cases in recent times. A high-profile former police officer K P S Gill, himself convicted for sexual harassment, famously commented on the rise in rape cases in Delhi, "I would blame the women who try to wear certain clothes just to keep in tune with the trend. They are the ones who provoke men." Likewise, in every single instance of rape it is routine to hear women being blamed for being out late at night or in the wrong company. The conviction rate for rape and sexual assault is extremely low. There have been many cases in India where judges have suggested that charges can be dropped if the rapist marries his victim. A former Chief Justice of India's Supreme Court recently said in a public speech that women's movement activists should not rule our marriage between rapists and their victims! A man convicted of rape recently had his sentence relaxed by a judge as a reward for clearing exams qualifying to be part of India's national bureaucratic services.

Certainly, from the perspective of all those women in India who find the most brutal of rapists going free, protected by the police and the state, and their most serious charges of rape trivialized or even suppressed by force, the idea of a man being hunted down by Interpol on charges which are as complex and ambiguous as those in the Assange case is disturbing. From what I hear, Sweden's rape laws are nothing to quarrel with, and are in fact quite enviable for us in India, where even marital rape is yet to be deemed illegal. But for the US to fire at Assange from the shoulders of the two Swedish women indeed is an insult to the women struggling in vain for justice the world over. It is possible that Assange's casual flings with female fans may not be very democratic; he may be guilty of insensitivity to the concerns and rights of women (for instance their right to be free from HIV). But if sexism is a crime worthy of Interpol's attention, then Interpol should immediately arrest Silvio Berlusconi and Bill Clinton, just for starters!

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