What happened in Unnao?
Latest reports from the Unnao town in the Uttar Pradesh state of India narrate a shocking story of gang rape of a minor girl and the subsequent horrific murder of her father who tried to get justice to his daughter through India’s public justice system. Though the case is under investigation and only the investigating agencies and the court could ascertain the facts of this case, the horrific sequence of events as described by the Indian media could be summarized as follows:
A 17 year old minor girl from a village in Uttar Pradesh went with her neighbor to meet a powerful politician, lawmaker and representative of her constituency in the legislative assembly (MLA) to ask support in getting a job. She was repeatedly gang raped by the powerful politician and his friends. The girl was untraceable for a week after the incident and her family filed a ‘missing person’ complaint in the police station. After some days, the police recovered her from a nearby village, produced her before a court and recorded her statement. However the police refused to record the name of the MLA in the First Information Report (FIR) and handed her over to the family after ten days.
Due to continuous police harassment, the girl left her hometown to live in hiding in nearby Delhi. Encouraged by support offered by some well-wishers she managed to send a complaint to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and demanded action against the rapist MLA. Her mother also approached the chief judicial magistrate to press the complaint against the MLA. But when the girl’s father came to attend the court hearing, he was abducted and assaulted by assailants led by the brother of the MLA and handed the girl’s father over to the police who in turn filed a false case against him for illegal possession of fire arms and put him in the prison.
The MLA refuted all charges and blamed the girl for her lose character and said that she belonged to “nichle istar ke log (low-level people)”. Dejected by the turn of events, the girl tried self-immolation at the residence of chief minister. The girl’s father died soon in a hospital while he was still in police custody. Though the postmortem report listed multiple injuries near the abdomen, buttocks, thighs, above and below knee joints and arms, indicative of physical assault, the cause of his death according to the post mortem report was “septicemia” and “perforation of colon”.
Though the MLA’s brother was arrested finally, thanks to the media crying foul, no one in Unnao is hopeful about a positive outcome of this case in the coming days. People are not optimistic about the outcome of this case especially because the Chief Minister, without citing any reason had simultaneously ordered withdrawal of another similar gang rape case filed against his former junior home minister cum priest who repeatedly raped a minor girl in his Ashram for several days.
Unprotected Poor and Dysfunctional Public Justice System in India
These incidents are not isolated incidents. Such frequent occurrences of everyday violence devastate the poor in India, as they live in a state of utter lawlessness as they are unprotected by the country’s justice system. Similar violent incidents of rape and violence routinely take place in the length and breadth of India, despite several progressive provisions in India’s constitution and penal codes.
Article 14 of the Constitution of India states: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law and equal protection of laws within the territory of India.” Article 21 reads as: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” Despite such brilliant provisions in the constitution and laws, with elaborate arrangements in courtrooms, and police stations, the poor have no defense or protection from rapists and violent criminals.
In short, India’s public justice system does not adequately respond to the needs of poor people. The public justice system in the country with multiple wings of police and various courts became dysfunctional, overburdened and even corrupted. Consequently, it fails to protect the poor from violence. Criminals who know this better exploit the loopholes of the system as they are certain that they do not have to be accountable and answerable to anyone. Very few people challenges their rule and even fewer people defends the poor.
Despite progress in many social and economic fronts, the epidemic of everyday violence in India undermines the human rights and development potentials of the poor. The colonial justice system which India inherited was created mainly for protecting the interests of the ruling regimes. As we continued with it, over the years, the rich had developed their own private security systems around the official systems and in that process the security of the poor became a casualty. The public justice system in India not only fails to protect the poor from violence but also helps perpetration of violence as they protect perpetrators, and make the poor further insecure. If India does not take immediate measures to mend its broken justice system, the poor in the country will not flourish and develop. Nothing we do to help the poor can be sustainable if we do not address the issue of everyday violence in the country.
India Must Establish a Functioning Public Justice System
Setting up a functioning, effective justice system, including law enforcement is the only way to protect the poor from the onslaught of everyday violence. India urgently needs police and judicial reforms including training of concerned officials, and measures to build the confidence and trust of citizens. The country should introduce strict penal measures for effective deterrence and must discourage criminal elements currently benefitting from the use of violence. Only effective law enforcement can create deterrence among perpetrators of violence and build confidence and trust among the victims. Till that happens, the poor will continue to remain disempowered and they will suffer from poverty, ill health and underdevelopment.
[Kandathil Sebastianis a social development and peace expert, author, and a novelist based in Delhi. He writes this article in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article are not necessarily that of the organization where he currently works.]
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