Recent events in Uttar Pradesh in India, and notably in the town of Hathras, located about a 100 kilometers from New Delhi have reminded us of the traits we share in common.
While the burning of a 19-yeaar old victim of gang-rape, allegedly committed by four upper class Hindus against the Dalit victim, has shocked the world as has the gang-rape and subsequent death of another young Dalit woman in the same province just days later, we need to also remember that the gang-rape of young mother on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway while her young children watched was no less cruel.
The Subcontinent appears to share a culture of cruelty. The vulnerable are chosen as hapless victims again and again. Small children are pushed away from cars at markets by drivers, simply because they are poor and unable to defend themselves. Women are subjected to crime regularly and the brutalization of our society can be seen in the fact that even animals locked in cages are not spared the barbarity of people who poke and prod them with sticks or other objects.
It is also true that similar incidents occur in other parts of the world. While rape is a growing problem in the Subcontinent, the higher figures could be due to more reporting of cases. It is interesting that, while the highest levels of rape according to most research occur in South Africa and other countries in the region, amongst the counties at the top of the list are the idyllic democracies of Sweden and New Zealand. This is most likely because the methods of policing and the handling of rape make it easier to report cases. There is also an understanding that it is not the victim who has in any way been disgraced.
This understanding has yet to develop even in other European nations and others around the world. Some of the best figures come from the tiny mountainous democracy of Andorra, located between France and Spain, and into the 1990s a predominantly socialist state, where figures for rape have stood at zero for some of the most recent years, notably since 2015 when a campaign was begun in schools to educate children about respect for themselves and for women as well as the notion of equal rights and the dangers of using violence.
We are of course a long, long way from such a standing. The same of course is true of India. On average, 87 rapes take place in that country each day while in our own country one rape occurs on average every four hours. We should question what right we have to call ourselves an Islamic Republic or say that we are endeavouring to become the State of Medina. The comments by the CCPO Lahore about the victim of the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway gang-rape only makes things worse as does the Pemra gag order on media reporting of the case. So far, the media has been reasonably decent in its handling of the matter and preventing coverage really serves no purpose at all.
It is also notable that while the nature of the gang-rapes in Uttar Pradesh were horrendous, they were followed by fairly widespread protests from opposition parties. The Congress and left-wing parties attempted a march to Hathras, led by Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, and finally succeeded in reaching the house of the family after being initially stopped by police. There were also protests in West Bengal and in some other states. These may have been merely symbolic. Perhaps Rahul and Priyanka’s walk was indeed intended as a photo opportunity as the BJP has alleged. But at least a point was made and Dalits offered some sense of support even if it does not translate into anything very substantial.
One of the key issues is the manner in which the police, in both countries, treat such incidents. A ruling by India’s Supreme Court holds that if a victim states she was raped her allegation is to be considered accurate unless proven otherwise. But it does not seem many members of the police force in Utter Pradesh or elsewhere have even heard of this ruling. Their decision to burn body of the 19-year old victim, perhaps to hide evidence of rape, was an act of incomprehensible cruelty. The family of the teenager was not even allowed to perform her last rites.
The same approach has been seen again and again in other places. Experts in the matter say failure to punish perpetrators of crime on a regular basis, rather than the harshness of the crime meted out is the chief reason for the rise in acts of atrocious crimes, including the multiple sexual assaults of small girls and boys about which we hear at regular intervals. There is no way to say how many cases go unreported.
All this is part of a wider problem. As was the case over 70 years ago under colonial rule, we continue to be ruled rather than governed. There has been no effort in either Pakistan or India to re-train the police as protectors of people rather than individuals in uniform who lord over citizens when they can. The essential process of police reforms has never been carried out. While there have been repeated political promises that this will happen, no government in either country has been able to put words into action.
People are still not participants in the democratic process with rights and an ability to make their voice heard but merely spectators who are ignored by those in authority. Even within the police force, lower rank members are frequently bullied and pressurized by their own superiors. The cruelty they suffer in turn encourages them to inflict it on others.
Solutions have to be found. Preventing the reporting of cases, or trying to prevent opposition leaders from talking to victims is obviously not the answer. Instead people need to be given confidence in the ability of the government to both represent and protect them. This is obviously not happening at the current time with sharp spikes in prices and repeated stories of mismanagement or brutality by those who hold power.
Change can come only if people know they can speak out against their problems and be heard and that they will not be punished for doing so. At the same time, in both countries, there is a desperate need to create a more equitable society which does not discriminate on the basis of gender, class, caste or race and recognizes that all citizens are participants in that difficult process of democracy which is intended to enhance their lives rather than make them worse.