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Minister’s comment adds fuel to rape controversy in India



Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which will face national elections within a year, has been under fire in recent weeks. There has been a national outcry in recent weeks stemming from two unrelated rape cases

NEW DELHI: Even as India introduced the death penalty for those who rape children, a federal minister said that while such incidents were unfortunate, one “should not make a big deal out of (them).” His comment raised doubts about the government’s commitment to stop such crimes.

According to reports in local media, Santosh Gangwar, junior minister of finance, said: “In such a huge country, if one or two such cases are reported, one should not make a big deal out of it…. Such incidents are really unfortunate, but sometimes it is difficult to control these cases.”

There has been a national outcry in recent weeks stemming from two unrelated rape cases — the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua in the northern state of Kashmir as well as the rape of a teenager in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

In the first case, according to media reports, an eight-year-old Kashmiri Muslim girl was kidnapped, sedated and raped by Hindu men in a temple where she was held captive for several days before being bashed to death. Indian law prohibits the media from naming the victims; however, the accused include four policemen and a retired government official.

In the second case, again according to media reports, a BJP lawmaker was accused of raping a teenager who tried to kill herself in front of the state chief minister’s home because the police refused to register her complaint. Her father reportedly clashed with the lawmaker’s supporters and later died of injuries resulting from the clash.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which will face national elections within a year, has been under fire for the past several weeks for not doing enough to prevent sexual violence against women and children.

Residents in several cities have held marches to protest the rapes, and groups of bureaucrats and academicians have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to express their concern at the “decline in secular, democratic, and liberal values.”

Comments such as those made by Gangwar are among the latest to stoke anger among those demanding justice for the victims.

On Monday, residents of Unnao, the constituency of Kuldeep Singh Sengar, the BJP lawmaker accused of raping the teenager, staged a rally in favor of the accused, dismissing the charges as a political conspiracy, local media reported.

The Unnao rally had echoes of an earlier one in Kashmir when members of a Hindu group led a demonstration to protest the charges against the accused Hindu men.
Two BJP lawmakers also participated in that rally and several Hindu lawyers tried to prevent the police from filing charges in court.

Over the weekend, the government finally acted, pushing through an amendment to the country’s penal code to allow the death penalty for those who rape children under the age of 12. The decision was termed by activists as a “knee-jerk reaction” and one that could threaten the judicial process.

Komal Ganotra, functional director of policy and advocacy at the nonprofit organization Child Rights and You in India, said that since in the majority of cases, the victims know the perpetrators, the chance of a death penalty would deter the family from filing charges.

“The death penalty is not the only way to serve justice. It may seem that the state has taken a big step here, but do not expect it to deter rapes,” she added.

Audrey D’Mello, program director at Majlis, a nonprofit group that has worked with more than a thousand rape survivors since 2011, said what was needed were resources to help survivors find jobs and then settle into regular life.

“The focus is always on conviction, but nobody is thinking about the victim who has been raped and faces a great deal of marginalization,” she said.

“The (Kathua) case was not just about gender violence but about religion and communal violence and that needs to be dealt with severely,” she said. “But 99 percent of the cases are not like that and the death penalty is not the answer.”

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