Globally, the subjection of women to abuse of any kind is treated primarily as a crime against humanity and decried by all despite varying political and ideological orientations. Not in India. Here, violence against women becomes a source of endless political opportunism for both pro-government and anti-government forces.
There were three major incidents of atrocities against minor girls in the country after it was saffronized in 2014. The responses of the larger public, especially prominent voices in the left- and right-wing ecosystems, to these crimes have left no doubt about the political motives underlying their clamoring for justice.
Two years before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascension to national power, a harrowing crime raised the hackles of the country when in December 2012, a young female physiotherapy student was brutally gang-raped in a bus in South Delhi by six men, including a minor. The weeks following the gory incident and the subsequent death of the victim witnessed the country pouring out on to the streets in protest and mourning her loss in unison. “Nirbhaya” (Fearless), as the case and the victim were referred to by the media and in common parlance, became symbolic of the government’s neglect toward women’s safety and the high prevalence of sexual assault against women in the country.
The massive scale of public outrage and the protesters’ undying demand for a change in the country’s rape law ultimately led to the passage of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. which enforced more stringent punishments for rape, brought oral sex as well as penetration with a foreign object under the definition of rape, and got rid of orthodox methods to verify the occurrence of sexual assault such as the two-finger test, among a host of other changes.
A few years later, the Modi government implemented the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015 under which juveniles aged 16-18 could be tried as adults contingent upon their involvement in “heinous” offenses. This change in the juvenile-delinquency law was brought into effect after politicians and the public directed the government’s attention to the barbaric conduct of the juvenile involved in the Delhi gang-rape.
In January 2018, a case of gang-rape and murder near the town of Kathua in Jammu made the headlines, with the victim being an eight-year-old nomadic Muslim girl. However, this time, the aftermath of the crime took a completely different turn from that in 2012. After a brief phase of grieving the victim’s death as well as expressing shock and anger at the diabolical nature of the crime, political ambitions of civilians and activists began to surface.
While people rightly trained their criticism on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the actions of two of their ministers who took part in a rally organized by a right-wing group to support the accused, the crime from that point onward was completely politicized. Modi’s ardent critics jumped at the opportunity to attack the BJP viciously rather than speaking out against sexual assault and demanding constructive action from the government.
Obscene art denigrating Hindu religious symbols and deities popped up across social media, gaining rapid traction. This led the public to engage in misdirected outrage; they resorted to unfairly targeting and vilifying Hinduism and its adherents instead of condemning sexual violence against children
Members of the left brought in a communal angle and demonized the entire Hindu community, pointing to the religion of the perpetrators. Obscene art denigrating Hindu religious symbols and deities popped up across social media, gaining rapid traction. This led the public to engage in misdirected outrage; they resorted to unfairly targeting and vilifying Hinduism and its adherents instead of condemning sexual violence against children.
In the midst of this ruckus over “Hindu majoritarianism” and the “BJP’s anti-minority stance,” the poor victim and the heart-wrenching ordeal she had gone through faded into the background. The ruling government and its Hindu support base were portrayed as the main villains of the story, rather than the ones who had actually carried out the despicable act.
Nearly a year prior to the Kathua case, a 17-year-old in Uttar Pradesh was gang-raped allegedly by BJP state lawmaker Kuldeep Sengar and his brother, among others. The incident came into sudden limelight in April 2018 when the victim tried to immolate herself in the vicinity of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence.
It is pertinent to note that the BJP deserves criticism for waiting for two whole years before expelling Sengar; the legislator was finally thrown out of the party this month, after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) named him as a suspect in a truck-car collision that left the victim critically injured and killed two of her family members.
However, left-leaning forces again resorted to milking the crime with the objective of branding the BJP as a party of criminals and rape apologists. The injustice and long-drawn suffering faced by the victim became an asset for them to turn people against the BJP. They cared more about ruining the image of the incumbent government than ensuring justice for the rape survivor.
For all the right-wing’s indignation at the left’s political opportunism, they too were inclined toward exploiting the recent abduction and murder of a two-year-old in Uttar Pradesh to bolster their ideological and political views. The victim in this case was Hindu, while her murderers belonged to the Muslim community. Rightists pounced on this chance to spread anti-Muslim narratives, with some even claiming that the girl had been raped, though investigations had not found any evidence to back this claim.
They immediately took to social media and got trending on Twitter and Facebook, while repeatedly accentuating the fact that the perpetrators of the crime were Muslim and sneering at those on the left who had kept mum about this crime while having been very vocal about the Kathua case.
While calling out the hypocrisy of certain leftist figures was perfectly acceptable, treating the crime as an opportunity to take digs at one’s political adversaries and to present an entire religious community in a negative light did nothing but disrespect the victim.
An absolutely perverse trend of countering one rape or sexual assault with another has emerged; if a leftist makes a statement about a rape case in a BJP-governed state, a rightist will usually respond maliciously by making references to a similar crime in a state not governed by the saffron party. A majority of leftists, on the other hand, choose to maintain silence on those crimes that do not suit their narratives while aggressively politicizing those that do.
This does not imply that the politics of violence against women should be ignored. History stands witness to the use of sexual violence as a weapon to subjugate and break the morale of a social, religious or ethnic group.
However, at the end of the day, rape is first and foremost a crime against humanity. The victim is a human being whose body and mind have been put through horrifying abuse. Focusing only on the politics of the crime takes this human aspect away and diverts attention from the brutality of the act. The victim is reduced to an object, a piece of evidence to support an argument or a medium to spread hatred. Ultimately, this cruel battle of ideologies culminates in nothing.
If violence against women is a heinous crime, so is exploiting it to attain political or ideological objectives.