Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Piyasree Dasgupta - Decoding Modi govt's defence of rape accused minister Nihalchand

"Narendra Modi is a good person. He shouldn't have ministers like Nihalchand Meghwal with him." The statement comes across as neither an accusation nor a fervent plea. It's made by the woman at the centre of a new BJP versus Congress tug-of-war. A maroon 
dupatta loosely wrapped around her head, the woman who has accused chemicals and fertilizers minister Nihalchand Meghwal of rape, speaks with quiet defiance - her low, unwavering voice a strange mix of wariness and resilience. "He [Meghwal] is coming to my village and telling the village elders that he will give me money and a government job," she tells the TV journalist. "Ask her to take my name off the case, he is saying. Agar innocent hote, yeh sab nahin karte." [If he was innocent, he wouldn't do all this.]

Nihalchand Meghwal, a Rajasthan MP, had been named in an FIR way back in 2011, along with 17 others. In it, he was accused of drugging her and letting 16 other men rape his wife while she was drugged. The incident took place in Jaipur. After a year, the Jaipur police closed the case, accused the complainant of fabricating the charges against the men. The police also requested the Jaipur court where the case was being heard to close the case. The woman has appealed repeatedly and the case resurfaced in public discourse recently when a Jaipur court decided that her plea deserved consideration. It has asked Meghwal and the other accused to explain to the court why the case should not be re-opened.

When the alleged victim says that Modi shouldn't work with Nihalchand, she is only stating convention. Traditionally, political parties have distanced themselves from members who are going through scandalous situations such as this one. While the police may have dismissed the charges, clearly the court has found some merit in her plea. In such a scenario, the government should ideally have let law take its course.

However, this government, it seems, doesn't need the legal system to settle such matters. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has allegedly issued an advisory to BJP leaders asking them to back the minister of state unconditionally. CNN IBN reports that Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who was employed by the Prime Minister to examine the case, is satisfied with Meghwal's explanation. BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi too jumped Meghwal's defence saying, "You can't falsely implicate someone. Nothing has been proven yet."

Lekhi, in her defence of Meghwal, epitomizes the primary problem with getting justice for rape victims in India. Although she says "nothing has been proven yet", she seems to have already reached the conclusion that Meghwal is being "falsely implicated", which means the complainant is to be blamed. Lekhi reminds us of the thumb rule by which most cases of sexual assault are investigated in India: placing the burden of proof upon the one who has been raped even though the law is clear that the accused have to prove their innocence. This social attitude combined with the imbalance of power between the aam aadmi  and the  powerful, political class creates a situation in which Meghwal stands protected and secure while the complainant must contend with disrespect and disbelief.

According to available reports, the woman who has been fighting this had repeatedly complained of how shoddily the initial investigation into the case was conducted. She also accused the police of being swayed by political influence. It is not too difficult to believe her. There are way too many precedents that suggest the Indian police is anything but immune to the arm-twisting done by the powerful.

Take for example the case of law student Priyadarshini Mattoo, who was raped and murdered in 1996. The accused was the son of an influential police officer in Delhi. It took ten years for the case to reach the point of sentencing. In between, in 1999, he was even acquitted by a trial court, based on the evidence provided by the investigators in the case. Eventually, in 2006, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Jessica Lal was shot and killed in front of several witnesses in 1999. The accused Manu Sharma, the son of a Haryana minister, was sentenced to life in 2006, seven years after Lal was murdered. He too was acquitted in between. Most recently, a police officer in Badaun was dismissed after it came to light that he had refused to lodge a complaint followed the twin rape-murder, because the accused were high caste, rich jats.

Meghwal and the other accused have not yet responded to the court's demand for an explanation. Meanwhile, the government has already formed a huddle to protect its minister. There are no official statements and the fact that Meghwal remains in office is a de facto show of support for the politician from his party. Statements by people like Lekhi, dismissed the charges, further establish the party's decision to stand by their man. In the BJP court, Meghwal has been proven innocent. Much like how the accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots were felicitated by the BJP because the party was convinced they had no role to play, actions in Meghwal's case speak louder than words.

The complainant in Meghwal's case has an uphill task ahead of her. There's no medical test that can be relied upon. Even when the rape trial is based on circumstantial and physical evidence, it subjects victims to a plethora of questions. All she has, essentially, are her claims of what happened and these will be pitted agains the claims that the police and lower courts have made about her accusations.

Accusing someone of rape is fraught with danger in India, regardless of the demographic to which the complainant belongs. In Uttar Pradesh, a girl was burnt alive in broad daylight because she dared to identify her rapist. In another incident, a rape victim's mother was thrashed by the accused's family for lodging a complaint. With reports like this coming in regularly, you'd think that the newly-formed government would take this opportunity to make a statement. Instead, it has chosen to mirror the practice of victim blaming by letting Meghwal continue in his ministerial position and issuing a gag order to others in the cabinet.

For all the campaigns that assured the Indian electorate that this government wouldn't make the mistakes of the previous Congress-led government, there's no clearly difference between the two in some aspects. Congress MP PJ Kurien has been implicated in the ongoing 
Suryanelli rape case. However, the Congress displayed complete faith in him and he was even allowed to continue as the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The Opposition then, too, didn't find it necessary to bring the issue up.

Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of this scramble to look after one's political herd is that it reaffirms the belief that if one has the right connections, they can get away with any crime. At a time when the world is looking at how India negotiates its dismal record of violence against women, it does nothing for the national reputation to have a man accused of facilitating rape -- of his own wife, no less -- in the government. Media gags are all very well to keep the facts out of circulation, but the way the party has handled this case shows a worrying legitimisation of victim-blaming.

Even if Meghwal is actually blameless, the government's stand on the Meghwal case lends a sense of righteousness to the existent social mechanisms of intimidating, silencing victims. It also displays an alarming contempt and lack of respect for the judicial process. The message this sends out to India (and Bharat is simple): rapists don't have to be afraid of consequences. After all, so far the only people who have faced the wrath of strict sentencing for committing violence against women are the rapists who belonged to the poorest, most dispossessed set.


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