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India should be ashamed of how nun's rape case was handled

Delays and smear campaign against victim added insult to injury

India should be ashamed of how nun's rape case was handled
John Dayal, New Delhi

March 18, 2014

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Those following the case of the gang rape of a Catholic nun in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008 would by now have received the news that only three of her 10 tormentors have been sentenced to prison terms; news that should be greeted with sadness for justice partially done and inordinately delayed.

In the process, the traumatized sister suffered embarrassment and humiliation in public and has had to challenge malfeasance by the state police and even by a judicial officer. 

A court in Cuttack last week finally sentenced the main accused, Mitu alias Santosh Patnaik, to 11 years in prison for the rape of the nun.  Two others, Gajendra Digal and Saroj Bahdei, were convicted of the lesser crime of outraging the modesty of the nun and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Six others were acquitted due to lack of evidence. One person is still evading arrest, five and a half years after the crime was committed during the genocidal anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district in 2008 following the assassination of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) vice-president Laksmananada Saraswati by a Maoist terror squad.

That there has been a conviction at all speaks of the bravery and tenacity of the nun, and of a small band of supporters who have carried on an unceasing campaign for justice. From the beginning, the state itself seemed disinterested in pursuing the rapists and bringing them to justice.

Two months after the crime, the victim came before the international media in New Delhi to narrate her pain at police inaction. She spoke of how she was gang raped in the office of the NGO she worked for in Kandhamal. In fact, a group of rioting men who had caught her, wanted to burn her alive. Then, one by one, they raped her. Not satisfied with that, the group paraded her naked, together with a priest who had also been captured by them.

The police, when they reached her, were of no help. Twice they allowed other groups of marauders to re-capture her. Later they advised her not to press charges, saying there could be “consequences” for her. They ordered her not to write about her travail in detail in her official complaint. Eventually, instead of escorting her to a safe haven, they left her to take a public bus to the state capital, where finally she found refuge in her religious community.

It was after outraged Christian activists made a noise in the national capital, New Delhi, that arrests were made. That six persons have been acquitted for want of evidence itself speaks of the shoddy investigations that were carried out.  Much later, when finally she was asked to confront and identify the accused persons, the magistrate on duty sought to falsify her statement that she had identified the men.

The case was moved to the jurisdiction of Cuttack district, but the court would not accept her allegations. The nun then came to the Supreme Court, which was aghast at the treatment meted to her by the subordinate judiciary. The Supreme Court judges set a deadline for the case to be tried by the Odisha court and judgment given.

This was not the only case of rape in the Kandhamal violence; two others have been reported. There were many other cases of gender-based violence that never came to trial because the police were bent on minimizing the extent of violence against women, as indeed they had failed to register many other cases of arson, and some of murder.

What has been particularly galling has been the failure of civil society in Odisha to stand by the nun. In fact, both government officials and local citizen and political groups first sought to deny there had been a gang rape at all. The nun was then subjected to a vilification campaign in which the local media joined in, rather enthusiastically, with a slew of insinuations.

State and national women’s commissions, meant to safeguard the interest of the common people and charged with overseeing that justice was done in cases of gender violence, kept almost entirely silent. So did the National Human Rights Commission and the government bodies who otherwise are known to speak out when other such crimes are committed.

The investigations and trial have taken more than five years, and one person is still to be traced and arrested. It is inexplicable that this lackadaisical process has taken place when there is a national mood of zero tolerance of rape and gender crimes following the gang rape and murder of a medical student in New Delhi in December 2012.

That horrendous crime led to the setting up of a commission headed by the retired Chief Justice of India J S Verma, whose momentous report has set the norms and guidelines to curb violence against women. In fact, the government accepted the report immediately and soon legislated a harsher law against rape, mandating the death penalty for those found guilty. Several people have been sentenced to death since 2012.

If only the norms stipulated by Justice Verma had been followed in the case of the nun. But traumatized though she may have been by her experience in Kandhamal and then in the court rooms, she has not accepted defeat. She has refused to be broken, is understood to be pursuing higher studies and hopes to become a lawyer one day.  I know her personally and am moved beyond words by her courage and the strength of her spirit, and of her faith.

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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