How rape and violence returned India to the headlines

Andrew North
South Asia correspondent
@NorthAndrewon Twitter


"We're doing all we can," protested the police officer, pinching his nose uncomfortably as he leaned closer to the crowd.

But sitting back with their arms folded, his audience of men and women from the village of Rajpur Milakh in Uttar Pradesh didn't seem convinced.

That morning, the teenage daughter of one of the families listening had been found hanging from a tree, and her brother claimed she had been raped.

It's the latest in a string of similar incidents that have provoked both outrage and renewed soul-searching over the prevalence of violence against women in India.

A problem with violence?

First came the gruesome news of two teenage girls being found hanging from a mango tree, after allegedly being gang raped.

Then a woman in her 40s was found hanging elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh. Several other alleged gang rapes have been reported in the state in the same period.

India is again being battered by negative headlines, just 18 months after nationwide protests over the gang rape and murder of a Delhi student, which badly dented its international image and had a knock-on effect on tourist numbers.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe recent hangings have outraged India

The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is promising a "zero tolerance" approach to crimes against women - but many Indians are asking whether their country has a particular problem with violence against women.

India hardly looks unique though, at a time when campaigners have launched a global campaign against rape as a weapon of war.

And some say the current media focus on crimes against women here gives a distorted picture.

That's been the defensive line of the authorities in Uttar Pradesh, who have been accused of allowing law and order to collapse.

The state's beleaguered chief minister Akhilesh Yadav attracted ridicule though when he hit back at female journalists by saying: "You're safe aren't you."

Critics of the media have also seized on questions that have emerged over some recent horror stories.

But there's no escaping the basic fact that several women have been found hanged - and the alternative explanations look just as bad.

Strong caste hierarchies

image copyrightAFP
image captionVillagers held a silent protest at the tree where the teenage girls were found after being gang raped

In the most recent case in Rajpur Mikhal, police are investigating the possibility that it was an "honour killing", and not a rape as her brother initially claimed.

He is now a potential suspect, according to the Indian media.

Fellow villagers gave the BBC a similar account, saying she had been punished for transgressing social codes by allegedly being seen with a man from another caste.

Despite being outlawed long ago, honour killings are still common - especially in deprived states like Uttar Pradesh, where caste hierarchies remain strong.

And caste is often a factor in sexual violence, argues human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, with higher-caste men targeting women from lower castes.

"People don't want to talk about it because caste is supposed to be receding as an issue," she says.

Part of the answer, she adds, is better enforcement of the law, to end what she calls a "culture of impunity" - but also for politicians to take a tougher line on sexual violence.

But instead, they often present a far more discordant message.

There is almost a script now to each new horrific revelation. First come the details, then the outrage from campaigners - and then a pushback from some political figures, which in effect minimise the crime.

"Boys will be boys, they make mistakes" said Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh and the father of the chief minister, in an election speech criticising tougher penalties on rape.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPeople in Rajpur Mikhal said they were surprised about the police making the effort to talk to them

Others have blamed women for sexual attacks, criticising them for wearing allegedly provocative clothing.

'Systematic' problem?

At the moment, it is the vast state of Uttar Pradesh - home to some 200 million people - that is feeling the pressure most.

People in Rajpur Mikhal said they were surprised to see the police making the effort to talk to them, even if they were unconvinced by their message.

But the incidence of rape and other sexual crimes is actually higher in other states, according to government figures.

"Violence against women is rampant across India," says Ms Grover.

A recent UN inquiry echoed that, saying the problem was "systematic". The government angrily dismissed the report as "simplistic" .

Indian officials often express frustration that rape has come to dominate the country's international image, arguing that other countries' record is just as bad, if not worse.

But if more women are found hanged, the pressure will only grow.

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