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Are Political And Religious Forces In India Teaming Up To Silence Victims’ Voices?

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in the five part series analysing why the rich, powerful men – from politicians to spiritual leaders – across the world are victimising themselves upon being accused of sexual harassment.

One of the most recent examples of the confluence of political and religious forces is the gang-rape of a 17-year-old woman in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh (UP).

In June 2017, the victim was seeking employment in the house of Kuldeep Singh Sengar, an MLA from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when she says that the MLA and some of his aides raped her. A few days later, the same person who introduced her to Sengar introduced her to another group who gang-raped her before selling her. Police tracked her down, set her free, and took her statement, but initially refused to allow her to name Sengar as an attacker.

In April 2018, after the family spent nearly a year attempting to file charges against Sengar, police finally arrested not the politician but rather the victim’s father. He was beaten in jail. Days later, the victim unsuccessfully attempted to burn herself alive in front of the residence of Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who currently serves as the state’s Chief Minister. The next day, her father died in police custody.

“I was raped,” the victim told media afterwards. “I have been running pillar to post for the last one year but no one is listening to me. I want to see all of them arrested, otherwise I will kill myself.” After her attempted suicide shone an international spotlight on her case, Sengar and others were finally arrested. But the drama didn’t end there. After the arrests, the family lived in fear of retaliation from their fellow villagers. “No one in the village will dare support us,” said the victim’s mother. “No one will raise voice against the MLA and his family. They hold all administrative posts in the village.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of residents of Unnao and the surrounding area staged a rally in defense of Sengar. The head of the city council, Anu Kumar Dixit, led the rally. “It is a political conspiracy to defame our MLA,” said Dixit. “He is innocent and being framed in false charges.” His political party also backed him up, with a spokesperson stating, “Sengar had told senior BJP leaders that the rape charges were concocted.”

Adityanath, who simultaneously serves as the head priest of Gorakhnath monastery and the Chief Minister of UP, represents the religious angle in the case. The monk, who ignored the Unnao rape case for months, finally spoke about it after the victim’s attempted self-immolation. “We will firmly deal with criminals, however influential they might be,” he promised. Nevertheless, the delay in his comments and the position of his party sheds some doubt on the veracity of his statement, while his public position on women’s rights fully validate those doubts.

After Adityanath was elected, Amnesty International took the exceptional step of issuing a statement directly targeting a democratically elected leader. Noting that he is “given to hateful rhetoric,” Amnesty pointed out that “he faces criminal charges in multiple cases, including attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, rioting, promoting enmity between different groups, and defiling a place of worship.” Among the rhetoric highlighted was a speech in which the monk declared that, if Muslims “take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls.” On another occasion, he was filmed listening to a supporter call on people to dig up the graves of Muslim women and rape their dead bodies.

Furthermore, in an article hosted on his personal website, he articulated his perspective on women. Roughly summarized, he insisted that women should remain eternally subjugated to men and bound by their authority from birth to death. He argued, “Energy left unchecked can go to waste. A woman doesn’t need independence, but needs to be protected.” Expanding his views on the nature of gender, he claimed that men who acquire “female traits” are “more godly,” but that “if women become masculine, they turn into demons.”

Reactions to the Unnao rape case mirrored those to an even more savage gang-rape incident in northwestern India which, in this case, was committed not only by a spiritual leader but at a religious site.

In January 2018, an eight-year-old girl from a nomadic Muslim community took her family’s horses out to pasture in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. Hours later, the horses returned without her. A week later, her body was discovered in a field. She had been drugged, gang-raped, and strangled to death with her own scarf.

As the investigation unfolded, police discovered that the child was taken to a family-owned temple — which was closed to the public — and secretly abused there for several days. The temple’s priest and owner, Sanji Ram, was accused of concocting a conspiracy to scare off the nomadic community. Ram’s son, his nephew, and four police officers were all accused as co-conspirators. One of the accused police officers, Deepak Khajuria, reportedly oversaw the actual murder. Before killing the child, he insisted on raping her one last time.

In February, the situation grew even uglier when a group called Hindu Ekta Manch staged a rally in defense of the accused. Vijay Sharma, who heads the Manch, also serves as the BJP’s State Secretary. Speaking at the rally, Sharma argued that charges against the rapists were intended to “destroy us.” Portraying the whole affair as an attack on Hindus, he declared, “They have hatched a conspiracy against us.” Referring to the police officer, Khajuria, Sharma claimed, “He has been falsely implicated.”

“More than 5,000 people participated in the rally,” said Sharma. Among them were two state ministers from the BJP, Choudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga. In the following weeks, after their presence became international news, the resulting outrage forced their resignation. As he resigned, though, Ganga explained, “We went there on the party’s instruction.”

Even asking for justice for the child was a perilous pursuit. In April, the attorney for the victim’s family reported receiving constant rape and death threats. “I don’t know till when I will be alive,” said Deepika Rajawat. “I might be raped, my modesty may be outraged, I may be killed.” She said her fellow attorneys were pressuring her to drop the case. Not only did they pressurize Rajawat, but when police went to the magistrate’s office to file charges against the accused, a mob of attorneys attempted to block their entry.

Time will tell what happens to the priest in Kathua, the politician in Unnao, or the bishop in Kerala. Yet these three events from the past year — in the south, center, and north of India — demonstrate at least three things about the treatment of women in India. First, religion and politics are dual elements in many cases of sexual exploitation. Second, achieving justice can be an Herculean task. Third, this holds true all across the country.

Getting justice for Indian women exploited by spiritual leaders is not always, however, an impossibility. In September, “godman” Ashu Bhai and his son were arrested for raping a woman and her underage daughter. In July, “godman” Amarpuri was arrested for raping approximately 120 women who had come to him for treatment. In June, “godman” Daati Maharaj and several of his associates were charged with raping one of his disciples. Meanwhile, more politically-connected figures who are have been arrested and convicted include Asaram and Ram Rahim.

Asaram, who cornered the market on the swami business when he registered ashram.org as his official website, has hundreds of ashrams all across the world. For decades, he has wielded tremendous political influence. He got his start in Gujarat. Throughout the 1990s, he solidified his base in Gujarat when state governments from both major political parties — Indian National Congress (INC) as well as the BJP — allotted him tracts of land to expand his ashrams.

Since then, politicians from both parties have repeatedly visited Asaram to seek his blessing. Some of the biggest names from the BJP include Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, current Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, current Cabinet Minister Uma Bharti, and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those from the INC include former Cabinet Minister Kamal Nath, current MP Digvijay Singh, and current MP Motilal Vora.

Asaram’s political supporters have never been shy in publicly showering him with praise. For instance, while Modi was serving as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he spoke at one of the swami’s Gujarati ashrams. “I pray on Bapu’s blessed steps. I bow to him,” he said. “Sacred Bapu’s love, his blessings, his best wishes will give me new strength. With that belief, I got the chance to come here. I consider myself lucky for it. I prostate myself before blessed Bapu.”

The swami, who is perhaps India’s most powerful spiritual leader, holds views on women’s rights which are arguably even more shocking than those of Yogi Adityanath. His views were best expressed in his response to the infamous December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi. Speaking to disciples in January 2013, he said, “The victim is as guilty as her rapists.” Rather than fighting her rapists, he insisted, “She should have called the culprits ‘brothers’ and begged before them to stop.” That, he declared, “could have saved her dignity and her life.” In separate remarks, he argued that “had even one” of the attackers been initiated into his teachings, “the crime would not have occurred.” Moreover, he warned, “After the Delhi gang-rape incident, an anti-men campaign appears to be on.”

Perhaps the swami’s warning about an “anti-men campaign” was an attempt to direct attention away from his own crimes. In August 2013, a 16-year-old disciple accused him of raping her at his ashram in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. In December 2013, two sisters accused him and his son, Narayan Sai, of confining and raping them at ashrams in Gujarat.

Like Bishop Mulakkal, Asaram’s first move was to flatly deny the charges in the Rajasthan case. His spokesperson called it “an entirely false case,” saying “It is yet another attempt to tarnish Bapu’s image.” Speaking about the victim, Asaram said, “Her parents are my disciples; that makes her my grand-daughter.” Next, he cast himself as a martyr. Referring to INC leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, he claimed, “I am not against any political party, but people are telling me that ‘madam’ and her son are behind the conspiracy.” He further attempted, unsuccessfully, to gag the press from reporting on his case, claiming, “The media is convicting me prior to the trial, and I will not get a fair trial.”

The rape occurred on August 15, and was reported to police on August 20, but he was not arrested until September 1. Rita Banerji says that the reason he was not immediately arrested was “because he had the protection of politicians who hope to garner the votes of the millions of Indians who worship Asaram.” Indeed, he had no difficulty cashing in on his political influence. Just as MLA George and leaders in the Church rushed to Mulakkal’s defense, so also did Asaram’s closest political allies close ranks around him.

“Rape charge against Asaram Bapu is a well-planned Congress conspiracy,” declared BJP National Vice-President Prabhat Jha. “Saint Asaram Bapu is innocent,” asserted MP Uma Bharti. “False cases have been lodged against him in Congress-ruled states. I am with saint Bapu.” She additionally commented, “I have a feeling that there might be some political motive behind the issue.” Such remarks apparently gave the swami hope for impunity. After the BJP won December 2013 elections in Rajasthan, the state where his case was being tried, he remarked, “It is the victory of truth…. Everything will be fine with the passage of time.”

Not all was fine for witnesses against Asaram, however. In 2014, one was murdered. In 2015, two more were murdered. Another four suffered murder attempts. In 2016, when police arrested a suspect who had been a disciple of Asaram since 2000, he confessed that four other disciples from different ashrams were giving him financial backing and directions.

In the meantime, politicians even rushed to provide legal defense for the swami. BJP MP Subramanian Swamy stepped forward as an attorney. “Asaram Bapu is a victim of a massive conspiracy,” said Swamy in 2015. He added, “I am now moving to bring out of jail on bail Sri Asaram Bapu because the rape case is bogus.” Later, in 2017, he warned people not to “slander Asaram Bapu as rapist,” claiming, “His ashram & Christian missionary patrons are against him.”

As politicians leaped to his defense and disciples murdered witnesses, the swami’s followers also repeatedly took to the streets to riot for his release. In 2015, stone-pelters injured approximately 20 police officers during riots in Gujarat. In 2016, as thousands rioted in Delhi, stone-pelters injured seven officers. And in 2017, the swami, his daughter, and several disciples were charged with inciting rioters.

“I knew the power of this man,” said the victim’s father. “I knew people madly follow him.” A former disciple of Asaram, the father described how the swami “was my god.” Recognizing the struggle ahead, he admitted, “When I was his follower, I did not believe that any allegation against Baba was true.” He spent years as a follower, even donating land in UP and constructing an ashram. “I made a big mistake by blindly following Asaram, but I want my daughter to get justice,” he concluded. Eventually, his commitment to never giving up was rewarded.

The treacherous path towards justice finally reached one of its goals when, in April 2018, Asaram was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the Rajasthan rape. The trial in the Gujarat case is still ongoing. In light of the violence surrounding the pursuit of justice, however, one wonders how many other victims chose to remain silent.

There are almost certainly other victims. In 2013, Amrit Bhai, a doctor who worked for Asaram for 16 years, reported, “It was in 1999 that I first came to know about the exploitation of young girls. This happened in all his ashrams.” He added, “Their parents have no inkling what they are subjected to.” Silence in the face of violence is a routine response by the victims. “Some girls accept their fate and stay back,” said Bhai. “Others leave but don’t register a police complaint because of the shame or threats by Asaram’s men.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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