Thousands of people from different religions hold a candlelight march through Bhopal on April 16 demanding justice for victims of rape in India. (Photo by Saji Thomas/ucanews.com)
Priests, nuns and lay Catholics were among thousands of people who joined a candlelight march in India to express solidarity with the nationwide outrage over gang rape and murders, especially of minor girls.
About 1,500 people including children and the elderly from various religions marched through Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, on April 16.
Protests and marches increased across India after media highlighted at least four brutal rape cases of minors in Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh states this month.
"We see no hope for women, girls and religious minorities. Dalits and indigenous people are also under attack in the current dispensation," a protester who gave his name as Brother Simon told ucanews.com.
Several Indian cities have witnessed protests in the last fortnight after the media discussed the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu's Kathua area.
Investigations showed the girl was abducted, locked up in a deserted temple and repeatedly raped before Hindu men killed her by smashing her head with a stone. The girl's body was found in woodlands on Jan. 17.
In another case, the brutalized body of an 11-year-old girl was found in bushes in Gujarat's Surat area on April 5. Investigations revealed the girl was tortured and sexually assaulted for more than a week. Her body bore 86 wounds.
In a shocking case, the Dalit father of a rape victim was beaten to death in police custody in Uttar Pradesh state. The 18-year-old victim attempted self-immolation at the residence of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on April 8.
She had complained that a legislator of the state's ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raped her but police were not acting to punish the culprit. On April 5, police arrested her father and four days later he died in a government hospital.
Social media showed the severely wounded body of the father, saying the politically powerful brother of the accused and a gang attacked him in the police station in the presence of police officials. The case is now under investigation.
As the protests continued, media reported another case from Haryana, where police in Rohtak city found the decomposed body of a minor girl in a drain on April 15. The girl, who had a hand missing, was stuffed inside a bag. Police suspect she must have died at least five days earlier.
"Hard-line Hindu groups are out in the open attacking and threatening minorities with impunity. There is no rule of law. There is no security for minorities of any nature," said Brother Simon.
Catholic nuns sit on a roadside in Bhopal after joining a protest march on April 16 against increasing cases of rape of minors. (Photo by Saji Thomas/ucanews.com)
Benedictine Sister Virginia, who was part of the Bhopal protest, told ucanews.com that elements opposed to religious minorities and Dalits have become stronger since the BJP came to power in New Delhi in 2014.
"We now live in a miserable situation. Some Hindu leaders openly say this is a Hindu country and others have no place here. It makes their people attack minorities. The police and administration have become just mute spectators," she said.
"You see an Uttar Pradesh elected representative accused of rape but no action is taken. In Jammu and Kashmir, a minor is gang-raped and killed. And some are openly demanding no action against the accused. How can we feel safe?
"If anyone kills a cow or a dog, there are laws to punish them. And people become emotionally charged to get punishment for the culprits. But we do not see the same passion to condemn the rape and murder of innocent humans."
At least 10 Muslim men have been lynched and many injured by vigilante cow protection groups, many of which seemed to operate with the support of the BJP, rights group Amnesty India said in a report early this year.
Many states have criminalized cow slaughter as orthodox Hindus consider the cow a revered animal. Even some Hindu groups associated with the BJP have proposed capital punishment for cow slaughter.
The federal report said India recorded 38,947 rape cases in 2016 and about 8,000 of the victims were children below the age of 12. Details show that 520 victims were children below the age of 6, while 1,596 were aged 6-12 and 6,091 were aged 12-16.
Crimes against Dalit people were also increasing. There were 40,801 such crimes in 2016, up from 38,670 in 2015, according to National Crime Record Bureau statistics in 2017.
Christian leaders say attacks against their people have been increasing. In 2017, there were 736 attacks against Christians, up from 348 in 2016.
The impunity with which hard-line Hindu activists operate "clearly indicates the mind of the government," said Uma Shankar Sharma, a Hindu scientist who joined the Bhopal protest.
"This is the reason for the attacks on minorities, Dalits and women are on the rise in the country. There is no fear of the law among such groups," he told ucanews.com.
His wife Uma Sharma, a social activist, said they "do not want see our country reduced to a land of beasts. Therefore, we have come to raise our voice against attacks on vulnerable groups."
Several Catholic groups in the archdioceses of Goa and Bombay also gathered over the weekend to demand justice for rape victims.