In about a fortnight, two cases concerning abuse of women have rattled India, raising questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s women empowerment rhetoric.
A member of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Seema Patra, was taken into custody by police on Wednesday for brutally torturing her 29-year-old house help in Ranchi, the capital city of the eastern state of Jharkhand.
Sunita, the house help, was rescued on the night of August 22 after Patra’s son, Ayushman, reported her mother to the police through a friend, Vivek Basky, who happens to be a government officer.
The in-charge of Argora police station, Vinod Kumar, said Sunita was brought in an “indescribable condition”, with severe wounds, burn marks visible all over her body and missing teeth.
Ironically, Patra was at the forefront in leading the BJP’s ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’ (save the daughter, educate the daughter) campaign—aimed at raising social awareness in a country where hundreds of unborn girls are killed in the womb annually. Though pre-natal sex determination is banned in India, clinics continue to operate illegally.
The party has since suspended the Patra’s membership and formed an internal committee to probe the incident.
A week before Sunita was rescued, India celebrated its 75 years of independence, where PM Modi, speaking from New Delhi’s Red Fort, gave a speech about how ‘nari shakti’ (women empowerment) would ensure the progress of India and there could not possibly be any progress in the absence of it.
The same evening, the state government of Gujarat—where Modi was the elected head for several years—released 11 men convicted of rape and murder during the 2002 communal violence that took place in the state. The released men were honoured and garlanded by supporters of the BJP, with one party official calling them “men of good values”.
“It dented the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From Red Fort he spoke about women empowerment, and on that very evening rape convicts were released,” Priyanka Chaturvedi, deputy leader of Shiv Sena and member of India’s Rajya Sabha—the upper house of the parliament—tells TRT World.
As the release of the rapists attracted increasing protests and condemnations, a video of Sunita narrating her ordeal of torture at the hands of the BJP leader Patra went viral. This raised the question of whether the prime minister is joined by the party’s rank and file on women’s rights and empowerment.
“On one hand, a BJP leader who had been active with the PM’s ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’ campaign is indulged in torturing her house help, and on the other, most of BJP’s top leadership have been silent on this brutality. It does raise credibility issues when their words do not match their actions,” says Chaturvedi.
Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman, was one of the victims who survived the men’s assault and fought the case in the courts for six years from 2002 until 2008, when justice was finally delivered. At the news of the release of the rapists, she pleaded with judicial authorities to restore her “right to live without fear and in peace”.
Deepal Trivedi, founder of Vibes of India— a multilingual multimedia news outlet— thinks the release of the rapists is “absolutely inhumane, gross and a big insult to the dignity of women”.
“These were not some accused. These were rapists convicted by higher courts. They were proven to be rapists after years of investigation. To release them is also to undermine our judiciary,” she says.
Trivedi says when PM Modi spoke about women’s safety and empowerment, she was elated. “But then, after a few hours when these rapists were released, millions of women were disillusioned about India’s promise of safety and empowerment,” she says.
The 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index— measuring the well-being of women across the world— ranks India at 148 out of 170 countries.
Question of identity
In December 2012, a rape and murder in New Delhi, known as the Nirbhaya case, shook India.
“We had not seen her picture, we did not know her real name but India rose in unison to give justice to this young woman,” says Trivedi.
“Here we have a woman (Bilkis Bano) who has been gangraped as an act of political revenge. Here we have a woman who has seen her mother being raped in front of her eyes, who has seen 14 of her immediate and extended family members being butchered, and who sees her three-year-old daughter being smashed to the ground and killed.
“Her trauma is as much as Nirbhaya’s. I would never compare two rapes. But I would definitely say that Nirbhaya and Bilkis’ rapists deserve the same punishment.”
The four men convicted by the Indian courts in the Nirbhaya case were executed in March 2020, while Bano’s rapists walked out free, begging the question: why is there not a similar country-wide reaction?
Trivedi says she cannot comment whether the release of Bano’s rapists is a politically-triggered event.
“But the constitution of the committee who certified these rapists as good citizens and the assurance given that these rapists are no threat to a civil society definitely smack of a political bias. That most of the members of this committee were from BJP cannot be a coincidence,” she says.
“Nirbhaya’s rapists, except a minor guy who was also jailed, were hanged until death. In this case, Bano’s rapists are moving free. They were felicitated with garlands. They are being treated as heroes. This bothers me. Why is Bano being meted out this treatment? Just because of her religion as an answer gives me shivers.”
The rapists were freed as part of a special gesture on India’s 75 years of independence, on a policy based on restorative and rehabilitative justice.
Priyanka Chaturvedi, the Shiv Sena deputy leader, however, does not think every narrative has to be seen from the “religion has a role to play” angle.
“I look at it as a gender issue and not a religious one, of course there is intersectionality in the case of Bano and the crime committed against her was when Gujarat saw communal riots. It is the gender that is suffering,” she adds.
Chaturvedi cites the example of Ankita Singh, a 19-year-old teen who was allegedly burned alive by her stalker, a man named Shahrukh, and later succumbed to her injuries on Sunday.
Khushboo Sundar, national executive committee member of the ruling BJP, blames the opposition for giving the issue a religious colour. “This is not a religious issue. What happened to Bano was wrong, and if it had happened to a Hindu it would have been equally wrong,” she tells TRT World.
“The opposition takes a very sadistic pleasure in highlighting cases that show BJP in bad light. BJP is a very straightforward, non-hypocritical party, which belongs to all of India and not any particular religious group.”
Sundar does not think the release of the rapists or the involvement of a BJP leader in torturing her maid is a blow to women empowerment in India. “It is a process. The case came to the fore and the party took action,” she says.
“In the case of the release of Bano’s rapists, it is pointless to blame the PM. We need to bring changes to the laws. We still have very aristocratic laws. I think this needs to change or these things will keep on happening.”
Deepal Trivedi, however, does consider the release of Bano’s rapists as “a big blow to the entire trajectory of the women’s rights movement in India”.
“It nullifies all good work done for women empowerment done by the current and past governments. As a woman, I feel very insecure with this judgment,” she says.