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A conspiracy of silence on rape

Church and state must 'wake up' to a grim reality

A conspiracy of silence on rape
John Dayal, Delhi

January 22, 2013

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On a recent visit to Orissa, I interviewed a 13-year old girl who had been gang raped on the Dussehara festival evening of October 13 in a forest in Kandhamal, not far from her home in a small township.

She was returning with her companions from a “mela” or fete organized to celebrate the victory of good, exemplified by the Lord Rama, over evil, represented in lore by the effigy of goddess Sita's abductor, King Ravana.

Torn and naked, barring a coat someone had given to hide her body, she made it to the town, and eventually to her extended family. After a long struggle and encounters with a foul-mouthed woman police inspector and a callous official of the Orissa government’s Women’s Commission, the family managed to get a First Information Report lodged with the police. The case is still not in court.

Another girl, also about 13 or 14 years old, was not so lucky. Coming home from another fete, she was captured by a goup of young men, stripped and gang raped. They then tied her to a tree and, in a frenzy, killed her. 

And now, a fact-finding team organized by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and others, which went to Kandhamal early in January, has discovered the rape of a third girl. All of them were either Dalits or tribal people. And two of them were Christian.

Away from the mass movement in New Delhi and other big towns, both spontaneous and organized, of the gang rape and murder of the “Braveheart Daughter of India” as media and politicians have called the 23-year-old medical student, there has been a stunning silence on rapes of Dalit and tribal women across the country, often enough by members of the police and security forces, and the absolute impunity that goes with it. 

Orissa especially has been an area of darkness. Some accounts have put the number of rapes in the Kandhamal region as high as 30 in 2012. 

This is the time to take a close look at the full picture in Orissa, which has a long history of rape and its political consequences. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's 13-year-long regime has witnessed a series of gory incidents. Civil rights groups quote official data that says three women are raped every day in the state.

Local activists say this winter has seen many spine chilling rape incidents. A dancer girl was raped by three persons in the state capital, while another girl was molested and pushed out of a running three-wheeler auto-rickshaw in the city. This was followed by a most pathetic incident where a minor girl was forcibly abducted and gang raped.

Crimes against women under three categories –namely rape, molestation and so-called “eve teasing” or aggressive flirtation – have increased in the state between 2009 and 2011.

“There has been a 20 percent rise in rape cases in the state last year. The increase in molestation and eve teasing cases have also recorded roughly the same percentage,” a senior official in the state Home Department has admitted. 

Christians have been particular targets. In the 2007-2008 attacks, women and girls were targeted for sexual violence, humiliation, brutal physical assaults and threats. The victims included a Catholic nun.

During the anti-Christian attacks “there are several other reports of sexual assault and molestation, and it is highly likely that many other such cases have gone unreported due to the shame attached,” warned the study Genocide in Kandhamal: Ethnic Cleansing of Christians by Hindu Rightwing Forces in Orissa by the Human Rights Law Network. 

According to a report by the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, five women reported that they and/or their female family members had been subjected to sexual assaults, and that 16 women said that young girls in their area had been raped, while 12 women reported that women had been raped in their villages when Hindu fanatics targeted Christians five years ago.

Though witness testimonies indicate that sexual violence was rampant during the attacks, there are very few reported cases, and an even smaller number that have been registered and are pending in the courts for prosecution.  

Patently, civil society – which includes the Church in the state and in India – must wake up to this grim reality before we seek to rouse the judiciary and the political system.

We must not be partners in the conspiracy of silence.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council

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