It took us two years to start talking about the rape of a teenager in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao nationally. It took a suicide attempt for us to even notice the case. But it finally took a horrific, suspicious fatal road accident that killed members of a family for the ruling BJP to expel rape accused MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar. And for the Supreme Court to step in.
It shouldn’t have come to this. Nirbhaya, Kathua or #MeToo have taught us nothing.
A sordid tale of a young woman being gang raped by powerful men can enrage anyone. But the Unnao rape case is a little more than just another tale about our collective apathy. It is really about how systems of power and social infrastructure operate to embolden toxic Indian masculinity. It is about a young teenager’s lonely fight for justice – with almost everybody standing on the other side of the line.
What jolts the public
On 4 June 2017, a 17-year-old teenager is taken to a powerful man’s house in Unnao to arrange a job for her. BJP’s Bangarmau MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar is that powerful man, who allegedly rapes the minor. A week later, she goes missing — her mother alleged she was kidnapped by two men from outside their house — and is found by the police almost ten days later in Auraiya district. The teenager files a complaint, says she was raped again on 11 June, this time by three men, but is unable to get an FIR registered against the BJP MLA. The police register only one FIR against Shubham Singh, Awdhesh Tiwari, Brijesh Yadav, and other “unknown” assailants. The family writes to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath detailing the ordeal, even meets him two months later, but nothing moves.
Nearly 10 months pass by. On 8 April 2018, the teenager, and her case, make headlines.
She tried to immolate herself near the residence of CM Adityanath in Lucknow, five days after her father who had to come back to Unnao for a hearing in his daughter’s case, was beaten up by MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar’s brother, Atul Singh. Cross FIRs were filed but it’s the teenager’s father whom Makhi police station SHO Ashok Singh Bhadoria and sub-inspector Kamta Prasad Singh arrested— for illegal possession of fire arms —and locked up in jail, where he was allegedly again beaten up. He succumbed to his injuries on 9 April. Two doctors — D.K. Dwivedi and Prashant Upadhyay — were eventually suspended, while disciplinary action was ordered against three others, Dr Manoj Kumar, Dr G.P. Sachan, and Dr Gaurav Agrawal for not giving the victim medical assistance. The two police officers were also arrested for the murder of the victims’ father.
Notice something in all of this?
There’s a woman, completely violated, surrounded by men, known and unknown, connected or unconnected to the case, who directly or indirectly kept chipping away at the possibility of justice she could get.
Toxic masculinity at the root
This isn’t an article on feminism. This isn’t an article to bash men.
But every possible remedial step this woman took was hindered and further complicated by men who somehow kept making her, her complaint, and her pursuit of justice irrelevant. For example, the medical officer declined to examine the teenager. Even procedure for taking down the FIR was not followed wherein the complaint had to be reduced to writing by a female police personnel and video-graphed.
Toxic masculinity is not just about domestic abuse or sexual harassment or dowry or triple talaq. It also manifests itself in the culture of rampant impunity and the unwritten social sanction.
The feudal mindset in India has raised its ugly head in the Unnao case to show us all how it still thrives in the hinterland of India. Employment in the 21st century is still sought by going to the houses of powerful male politicians instead of employment bureaus and government offices. “Sifarish” (nepotism) is still the way to not just get ahead in India, but also get a break. This entails that you try hard not to “upset” those in power. This is done by constantly helping them get rid of “factors” that may tarnish their image or hamper the power they wield.
All young women fight the same fight
What’s also curious is how the Unnao teenager had to constantly keep asking for help from men who themselves aren’t the perfect picture of justice.
She wrote to Chief Justice of India (CJI) claiming a threat to her and her family’s life two weeks before a truck with a blackened number plate rammed into the car she, her relatives and her lawyer were travelling in, killing her two aunts and injuring her and her lawyer critically. Only, the CJI himself has been accused of sexual harassment – but notice the manner in which the matter got disposed.
Yes, laws are misused. False cases are filed. False accusations do ruin the lives of men and tarnish the respect one tries to build all through life. However, for every case of misuse, thousands of women seek justice by putting their self-respect, emotional, and sexual health on the line. Women are also putting their own careers on the line while they are punished by the system that’s rather tardy in handing out justice. She must prove to everyone that she isn’t lying or she didn’t ask for it.
The cost of speaking out and seeking justice is hardly ever factored in. A young teenager in a small town would in most likelihood be told to stay silent or be hurriedly married off or sent off to a distant relative far away. In fact, the teenage woman is the most vulnerable being in India.
Young women have to choose whether or not to go to school because they face daily harassment on the way or are too scared since the school has no toilets and relieving themselves out in the open is a daily risk they can’t afford to take. This is a reality. Which is why five students in Manesar, in the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ state of Haryana, approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court to ensure their safety on their way to school because they had to cross a public park full of drunk men. This, in a state with Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao as its official slogan.
Unnao teenager left all alone
The Unnao rape case is a classic example of the entrenched feudal and patriarchal structure in Indian society and the political system.
The victims’ family and BJP MLA Sengar’s family had known each other for years. The teenager’s father was apparently Sengar’s ‘sidekick’ and things soured between them after Sengar fielded his wife Sangeeta and not the victim’s mother for the post of zila panchayat chairman. To imagine that Indian politics still operates in a ‘durbari’ fashion, where people at the top simply choose which candidate to field, one can hardly believe that India is a democratic country.
The #MeToo movement barely scratched the surface on how women are hired and promoted in urban India. One shudders to think what a #MeToo movement in rural India will expose – with no media, no women journalists, no Twitter, no hashtag, and a culture that valorises toxic masculinity and female submission. On top of that, revenge through violating a woman’s body is another classic example of testosterone-driven patriarchy.
In all of this, the family’s quest for justice has successfully been quashed. The Unnao rape survivor has no family left. One of her aunts, who died in the bizarre accident, had no one to perform her last rites with her husband jailed for an attempt to murder case that dates back to 2010. The police only granted him a ‘short term bail’ to perform his wife’s last rites once pressure mounted on them due to the victim’s relatives sitting on a dharna.
That is how alone the Unnao teenager is in this feudal country.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.