ON APRIL 25th a court in the city of Jodhpur sentenced a 77-year-old religious leader known as Asaram Bapu to life imprisonment for the rape of a 16-year-old girl. That, after a five-year trial, a judge should uphold the word of a poor, provincial woman against a bearded Hindu holy man who is not only venerated by millions, but cultivated by powerful politicians, including at one time Narendra Modi, the prime minister, seems to suggest that in India justice can, after all, prevail.
Yet the public mood remains grim, and for good reason. In recent weeks the country has been battered by a particularly ugly sequence of crimes, as well as by what appear to be glaring cases of miscarried justice. The most shocking involves the kidnap, gang rape and brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl from a community of nomadic herders who migrate seasonally from the highlands of Kashmir to the plains of Jammu. As disturbing as the crime itself was its motive—an apparent attempt to humiliate and terrorise the Muslim tribesmen into leaving the district. Disturbing, too, was the initially successful effort of the rapists to rally local Hindus, including politicians and police, in defence of their claims of innocence. Hindu extremist groups, local lawyers and politicians from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) joined public protests against the arrest of the alleged culprits.
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Many in the district still insist it is all a Muslim plot, despite police claims to have obtained both clear forensic proof and detailed confessions, including from policemen who said the offenders had attempted to bribe them to suppress evidence. On social media some have suggested that the girl deserved her fate; for several days her name (which a court belatedly ruled should not be made public) trended as the most popular search term on porn sites.
On April 23rd villagers in Unnao, a small town in the state of Uttar Pradesh, similarly rallied in defence of a local politician who also stands accused of rape. His 17-year-old accuser claims the incident took place last summer when she went to his house seeking employment, but that police refused her family’s attempts to file charges. The politician’s henchmen allegedly continued to intimidate her family into silence, and earlier this month badly beat her father. When, instead of arresting the attackers, police detained her injured father, the victim travelled to the state capital, Lucknow, sat down in front of the chief minister’s official residence and tried to set herself on fire. She was rescued, but her father died soon after in hospital. Only after the ensuing outcry did police accept charges and arrest the alleged rapist.
In this case there was no sectarian element to the story. The accused politician, who also belongs to the BJP, has variously claimed that he is being framed due to a land dispute or is the victim of a plot by political opponents. But provincial India abounds with strongmen who believe that they are powerful enough to get away with crimes against lowlier locals, and often do.
Critics of Mr Modi blame the prime minister for being slow to respond, and even then with bland statements about the need to protect women and teach youth to respect them. Chastened, his government hastily issued an ordinance that allows capital punishment for the rape of girls under the age of 12. Lawmakers and social workers point out that laws regarding rape are already stringent. They were tightened five years ago, by the previous government, in response to a similar wave of outrage provoked by the fatal gang rape of woman on a bus in the capital, Delhi. They have also failed to work. An estimated 99% of sexual assaults still go unreported, largely because most occur within families.
Worse, fear of the death penalty may simply encourage rapists to murder the victims so they can never tell. Writing in the Indian Express P. Chidambaram, a former minister, suggested that the deeper underlying problem is not one of laws, but of a society that in many ways encourages the powerful to believe they can act without fear of punishment. “The duty of this generation,” he concluded, “is to stop the drift towards the Republic of Impunity.”