National Column: Rape case drives India into maelstrom

by Rosie DiManno

WARNING Graphic content

Men in dress shirts thrashing men in dress shirts. A high-pitched shrieking as the targets of all those blows and kicks scrunch their bodies on the floor in a vain attempt to protect themselves.

The melee spills out into a stairwell.

This appalling scene was captured on Tuesday, in an Indian courthouse, where 17 males were brought for a first appearance on charges of gang-raping and otherwise sexually molesting a 12-year-old girl with a hearing disorder over a seven-month period.

Those inflicting the wallops are lawyers.

Those receiving them are supposed to be their clients.

Except the Chennai High Court Advocate Association has declared none of their attorneys will take the case to represent any of the defendants.

Two of the accused are police officers.

The community’s anger is understandable, expressed in furious and incendiary postings on the comment section of Indian newspapers: Shoot them! Hang them! Burn them!

On the opposite end of the rage spectrum, following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in a separate incident earlier this year, a government minister who attended a protest rally in support of the accused was anonymously quoted in the New York Times as saying, “So what if a girl died? Many girls die every day.”

There is a sectarian subtext to the rhetoric, with Hindus blaming Muslims, Muslims blaming Hindus, opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – several of its members have publicly defended the accused – slamming Prime Minister Narendra Modi for unacceptable silence in the face of high-profile sexual assaults against young girls across the country, and intellectuals tying the can to the long-gone East India Company imposing western culture on India, as if the sexually diabolical were a cascading outcome of laws that abolished suttee and legalized the remarriage of widows.

I don’t know what any of that has to do with vile crimes against children, but there’s no dispute that India, the most populous democratic country in the world, has been plunged into an existential maelstrom, with many incidents of sexual assault against minors deepening religious, political and ethical divides, as accounts of unspeakable violence grips the public. Vigilante mobs, infused by a lust for vengeance and apparently corralled via rumours on social apps about child kidnappings and assaults, have been responsible for 20 lynching or beating deaths in the past two months, according to Indian media reports.

While a horrified citizenry recoils, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll released in June named India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, ahead of such war-torn nations as Afghanistan and Syria – a rape occurring at least every 20 minutes, as per data from the National Crimes Records Bureau. Yet India, in recent years, had also been characterized as one of the countries with the lowest per capita rates of rape, according to a UN comparative study.

It’s difficult to reconcile these two counterclaims.

But there’s little doubt that something sinister happened in Chennai, a coastal city in the southeast, and, in January, in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. In the latter event, the eight-year-old from a seminomadic Muslim community, was abducted, imprisoned for a week in a temple – so says the police charge sheet – drugged, starved, repeatedly raped before she was slain and her body thrown into the forest. One of the accused was also a police officer, and, claims the prosecution, asked his co-conspirators to hold off killing the child so that he could rape her a last time. Sex crimes against children are hardly exclusive to any country on the planet or any ethnicity. Toronto has sadly seen its share of them.

There’s an extra dimension of savagery, however, in the “Chennai Horror,” as it’s being called, which provoked the chaotic courthouse brawl on Tuesday. Police say the men allegedly took turns raping the child, feeding her drinks laced with drugs, and videotaping the assaults – in them they are brandishing knives – threatening to make the contents public if the girl told her family.

The girl lives with her mother in an upscale gated community apartment complex, with a jungle gym and a pool, home to some 350 families in multiple blocks. The child’s businessman father resides in another city with an older daughter. It was the sister who, on a visit home last week, concerned about the younger’s girl fatigue and depression, first raised suspicions. When the 11-year-old finally revealed her harrowing experience, the family filed a complaint with the local all-women police department. (India has about 200 all-female police substations, formed specifically to investigate and help curb gender crimes.)

All of the defendants worked in the complex, in security, as elevator operators, handymen and housekeeping staff.

Police say the first sexual assault was by an elevator operator who subsequently encouraged others, including colleagues, to join the episodes of sexual wretchedness, most of it taking place in isolated niches of the complex and vacant units, in the evening, when her mother believed her to be playing with other kids.

“They threatened the child at knife-point,” said the captain of the all-woman police station, after arresting the men. “This is the worst crime this world has seen yet, as far as I’m concerned. Few of them raped her; some have fondled her during this act. Some others have sexually harassed her, while others have watched the assault video. They are all guilty, because not one of them tried to stop this brutality. They will all be punished.”

Three of the accused are in their 60s, four in their 50s, three in their 40s, the rest in their 30s and 20s. They have been variously charged with aggravated penetrative sexual assault, sexual assault, harassment upon a child, attempted murder and criminal intimidation. Since the news exploded, women who live at the complex have taken it upon themselves to guard the community, also preventing both journalists from entering and citizens from the wider city whoíve been demonstrating for swift, lethal justice against the defendants.

“If left to us, we will murder them with our bare hands,” one woman told the Times of India. “How can they do this to a small child?'”

Victim assistance groups have also been barred, despite arguing that every child in the complex must be questioned about sexual abuse, because they do not believe that there was just one victim.

The alleged crimes are sickening. But sexual terrors inflicted on children are apparently hardly unknown across India, especially in rural towns and villages where local justice is malleable and many such crimes go unreported, with families fearful of reprisals, or vengeance is exacted directly.

The mob has no patience with jurisprudence, with reports of men attacked, even killed, for simply offering candy to children or striking up conversations. The atmosphere has become that tense and fraught with menace. India is no different, in the promulgation of fake news, circa 2018 – claims of child kidnappings, harvesting of children’s organs, gang rape – with appeals to baser human instincts, in a nation of more than 200 million social media users. The real, the allegedly real, is bad enough.

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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