Backstory: How Do We Get Justice for a Raped Child?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

What sets the crime of rape apart from other crimes is a simple reality: that this is a crime perpetrated not in any particular location – it is the raped child’s (or person’s) body that is the crime scene. The implications of this go beyond forensics, impacting as they do the way we frame the story of such a crime in our minds, and the manner in which we report it.

In one of those mind-numbing coincidences that surface from the tangled skein of everyday developments, we have today been forced to confront two criminal violations perpetrated on female bodies, one in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, the other in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. While the two cases are dissimilar, there were common aspects: a time-lag in the media coverage crystallising the substantive aspects of the case.

Take the Unnao case, the survivor – believed to have been 16-years-old at the time – alleged that she had been raped by Kuldeep Sengar, a BJP MLA, in early June 2017. Unsurprisingly, the police refused to file an FIR in the case; unsurprisingly too, the local media, which take their cue from the khaki-clad, also did not go beyond stating the bare bones of the story.

If they had reported on this crime in a way that indicated the power relations at play, the serial catastrophes that visited the family of the survivor may not have taken place. The manner in which her father, in his quest for justice, was beaten black and blue in full public view almost a year later – provided a view of the dystopian machinations that mark chief minister Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh which wears its 1000-odd police encounters as a badge of honour. What’s important to note here is that even evidence of this violence was not provided by investigative journalists hungry for news exposés, but through leaks of video footage.

In the case of the Kathua savagery, the news made it to the local media in the state by January 17, by the next day it was figuring on the front pages of local dailies and slowly permeated national media. Jansatta was possibly the first among the national newspapers to cover it. Yet, most of the initial news was focused on the arrest of the young rapists and the anger in the local community. The case was quickly framed as another face-off between Hindu-majority Jammu and the Muslim-majority Valley.

In fact, the well-organised, politically influential, ruling party-patronised community in Kathua, in southern Jammu, draped nationalism over themselves like a flag, and their black-coated mentors from the Jammu Bar Association made it their business to direct the protests, and certainly the local media coverage. Incidentally, this is just one more instance of lawyers functioning as the gendarme of the ruling party. One need just recall the way in which journalists covering Kanhaiya Kumar’s appearance at the Patiala House Court Complex were physically attacked by lawyers who passed themselves off as bearers of “national interest” (not to speak of Kumar himself, whose life stood threatened at one point). To date, these black coats have not been punished for their black acts.

In Delhi, senior women MPs stoutly defended party colleagues who had joined in the protests in Kathua. As one writer in The Wire put it: “Ms Lekhi and Ms Gandhi display neither shame nor horror at this awful fact only underlines the cynical callousness of the BJP, who send women members out to defend the indefensible, their government’s inaction against alleged rapists because they are linked to the party” (‘The Disquieting Nature of BJP’s Response to Violence Against Women’, April 14. Also see a useful compilation of statements from BJP leaders, ‘From Callousness to Whataboutery – BJP’s Reactions to Unnao and Kathua’, April 13). It’s another matter that the prime minister decided to speak out his long-awaited words condemning the rapes shortly after their statements, leaving his party’s female praetorian guard with egg on its face.

In Jammu, the Kathua gangrape was consistently framed as a “conspiracy of the national media to show us (Jammu residents) in bad light”; that it was really a “trial by media” (‘BJP Sacrificed Two Jammu Ministers to Support Hegemony of Kashmir: Jammu Bar President’, April 17). In actual fact, it took almost three months for the country to turn its attention to the slip of a girl, all of eight years, who was abducted, drugged, gangraped and brutally murdered. I am not exonerating The Wire here. Most of its coverage came only at a time when media platforms, in general, had turned the spigot at full flow on this story. It was no thanks to the media that the Kathua story assumed the proportion it did. If the J&K Police had not filed a detailed chargesheet; if courageous lawyers, including the very inspiring Deepika Singh Rajawat – a Kashmiri Pandit herself, who has been associated with this case since February in the face of widespread intimidation – had not pressed on with their charges, this case would not have touched our collective consciousness in the way it later did.

As in the Unnao instance, here too there were powerful political forces close to the locus of power anxious to control media content. But while the Unnao case rose from feudal impunity, the sexual and social preying by the rapist on a family he publicly characterised as “nimn star ke log (low-status people)”, the Kathua case went far beyond personal dimensions. As the writer of ‘The ‘Bare Life’ of the Eight-Year-Old Girl from Kathua’ (April 17) pointed out, here was the coming together of “the brazen and public display of support for the perpetrators of the crime by the ruling party, and its appropriation as a nationalist act through an open mobilisation of the Hindu majority” with a “strategic and clinical” silence from the Modi government, until that silence became untenable and the void had to be filled by some ineffectual and delayed words of regret. The “little girl was thus not just the object of brutal gender and sexual violence, but also of the violence of the nation-state, of rape as a political tool.” A pre-planned assailment used for “state-making”. This was a rape used as a means of targeted ethnic cleansing of the Bakarwal community, as well for “pleasure and sport…” (‘The Little Girl of Kathua’, April 16). Amidst the enormous attention that this crime attracted were Facebook posts by young men, who projected themselves as proud Indians, exclaiming that such a rape must have been “fun” (maja).

The piece entitled, ‘From Kathua and Unnao to Chintagufa, the Law Won’t Act Against Powerful Men’ (April 16) ends with the line: “…these are all young daughters of our country. This country will survive only if they do.” The J&K Police’s unvarnished chargesheet spares no details and in its pedantic officialese creates feelings akin to a flailing despair. Somewhere, the broken body of an eight-year-old seemed to bring on the anxiety that perhaps “this country”, the one we are familiar with, with a constitution illustrated by Nandalal Bose and Republic Day tableaux that celebrate “unity in diversity”, has already receded into the space of legend and folklore. “India is in the midst of a crisis”, say the writers of ‘The Canary in the Coal Mine’ (April 15). A group of 49 civil servants write in, “This is a moment of existential crisis, a turning point – the way the government responds now will determine whether we as a nation and as a republic have the capacity to overcome the crisis of constitutional values, of governance and the ethical order within which we function” (‘Modi’s Handling of Kathua, Unnao Rape Cases an ‘Existential Crisis’, say Former Civil Servants’, April 26).

There is a desperate search for new language to express the horror, whether it is through public installations of broken dolls or the reading of poetry. ‘The little girl did not know the difference/
Between lure and love, trust and betrayal…/She did not know, invisible lines are drawn/
To harm people who live without walls” (‘The Nomad’s Daughter’, April 15).

The question is what happens once the words cease, and the darkness settles around us once again, as it had settled around the inert body of an eight-year-old in a freezing season? As a lawyer, Rajawat is not sure. She expresses an anxiety over the media gaze shifting away once again: “…right now, the national media is following this case. But, how long will that last? What after that?” (‘Modi Should Rein in His Party Men, Says Lawyer for Kathua Girl’s Family’, April 16). Can anyone in the media answer her questions?


Serious questions about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Judge Loya’s death were flagged in a video interview The Wire did with the political editor of The Caravan magazine, which had broken the story. The interview (‘Watch: Hartosh Singh Bal and M.K. Venu Discuss Dismissal of Judge Loya Case’, April 19) was particularly well-timed, coming as it did a few hours after the Supreme Court chose to dismiss a petition seeking a probe into this mysterious death. The Caravan has been criticised for “scurrilous journalism” for this investigation, drawing a sharp rejoinder from Bal, that this was shooting the messenger rather than engaging with the message.


Nihal Singh, who passed away recently, was an editor who stood tall, keeping a keen and critical eye on the national and international scene. Rejecting benign retirement, he used the time left to him to call out tyrants and interpret contemporary realities. There was ink in his veins all right, as the title of his autobiography, Ink in My Veins, indicated. Singh was one of those few editors who never hesitated to offer his resignation in the face of management intransigence and control. Half a decade ago, Singh’s older contemporary – Pran Chopra – was fired from The Statesman for refusing to conform to the management’s position on the government in power. Singh resigned after confrontations with the management on no less than three occasions. This legacy of defiance is important to remember at a time when editors carry government “to-do” lists, rather than resignation letters, in their pockets/handbags.

Resignation letters signified a belief, old-fashioned though it may sound, that journalistic standards trumped personal interest. Perhaps there is a parallel here between those resignation letters of yesterday and determination to fight defamation suits today (‘Jay Shah Story in Public Interest, What Settlement Can There Be, Asks The Wire’s Lawyer’, April 18).


A medical opinion on the torture of the Unnao rape survivor’s father (‘Unnao Rape Case: CBI Arrests Woman Who Lured Victim to BJP MLA’, April 15) has come in from Dr V.G. Sharad, a reader of The Wire: “A perforation cannot be missed. There is nothing called a “small” perforation. It can be detected through a physical examination of the abdomen. An X-ray of the abdomen would also reveal it. Importantly, if the perforation is due to trauma, the patient usually dies of hypovolemic shock. For septicemia to establish itself, the perforation must be at least 48 hours old and must remain untreated. The facts of the present case would suggest that this is a custodial death or a murderous attack on the patient.”


Two of readers of The Wire, Karthigeyan Radhakrishan and Mrs N.J. Thomas, would like to donate but wonder why they have to provide their phone numbers and PAN card details in order to do so. This is the response I received from the management of the Foundation for Independent Journalism (FIJ) which runs The Wire: “FIJ is registered with the Registrar of Companies as a 12AA certified company under  Section 8 of Company Act 2013 (‘a not-for-profit company’). In addition, it has 80G certification, which means donors can avail of tax exemptions for donations made to FIJ. Being a ‘not for profit company’, it is required to record the receipts received in its books of accounts, which is why a PAN card number is required (purely for accounting purposes). To issue receipts for the donations received, there is need for the address and phone number of the donor. These are statutory audit requirements.”


I get mail occasionally from readers, especially from readers in southern India, asking that video content in Hindi be made available in English, either through sub-titles or through dubbing. This time a reader wants the interview that Karan Thapar did with Husain Haqqani on ‘Reimagining Pakistan’ (April 11) to be made available in Hindi. “This will ensure that larger sections of society can realise the importance of promoting a culture of liberalism, discussion and debate for the benefit of the country,” the mail went.

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