Congress president Rahul Gandhi led a midnight candlelight march to India Gate in the heart of the national capital on Thursday against the Kathua and Unnao rape incidents as a number of student and women organisations protested in Delhi over the silence maintained by Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the horrific crimes. Similar demonstrations were also held in Kolkata and Uttar Pradesh, though much smaller in scale.
Amid nationwide grief and anger over the gang-rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano in Jammu and Kashmir's Kathua, there is a move to change the law for sexual crimes against children to bring in the death penalty for child rape. Union Minister Maneka Gandhi declared it in a video message in which she said she was "deeply, deeply" disturbed by the Kathua rape case.
Maneka Gandhi said her Women and Child Development Ministry would move a cabinet note on Monday to amend POCSO, the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act.
"I have been deeply, deeply disturbed by the rape case in Kathua and all the recent rape cases that have happened on children. I and the ministry intend to bring an amendment to the POCSO Act asking for the death penalty for rape on children below 12 years," said Maneka Gandhi in a video posted on YouTube.
Little Asifa was kidnapped on January 10, raped again and again and killed by a group of men whose motive was to drive her nomadic Bakerwal community out of the Rassana area of Kathua. The police say she was kept sedated and without food the entire time. Before she was strangled, one of the men, a police officer, insisted on raping her one more time.
Eight men have been arrested but Hindu groups have rushed to their defence; those arrested are Hindu and Asifa's Bakerwal community is Muslim.
Local leaders of the BJP - including two state ministers - and a lawyers' group linked to the Congress campaigned against the arrests. The central leadership of both parties remained silent.
But grisly details of the crime and the horror inflicted on the child described in a police charge-sheet submitted in court have dramatically shifted the narrative, three months on.
Yesterday, union minister VK Singh became the first central voice from the ruling BJP to call for justice for Asifa.
In perhaps the most widespread outrage being witnessed over rape cases since the Nirbhaya incident, nearly 20 city-based organisations would hold protests at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on Friday. People from all walks of life — politicians, sportspersons and actors — have spoken out and demanded strict action against the culprits.
Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal on Thursday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing concern over the increasing cases of sexual violence against women, and said she would go on an indefinite hunger strike at the Raj Ghat from Friday to protest against the Unnao and Kathua rape incidents.
In Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir, an eight-year-old girl belonging to the Bakherwal tribe was allegedly gangraped after the accused had held her in captivity in the village temple for a week in January. In UP’s Unnao district, a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped by BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar and her father was beaten by the politician’s brother before he died in police custody. Police inaction and the silence or delayed response of political leaders, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath, has intensified the anger further.
The contrast between Modi’s silence and BJP’s ‘Beti Pachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign – save the girl child, educate the girl child – has given his political opponents fresh fodder to attack the ruling party. On Thursday midnight, Congress leaders, including Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni, Ashok Gehlot, Randeep Singh Surjewala and Sushmita Dev, joined Gandhi and walked from the party headquarters to India Gate along with hundreds of party workers holding candles, recalling similar protests that had been held after the brutal gang-rape of 23-year-old paramedical student Nirbhaya in 2012. Several students, people from civil society groups, professionals and mediapersons, too, joined the march.
Priyanka Gandhi and her husband Robert Vadra were also present along with their daughter. At times, the chaotic crowd appeared getting out of control and Priyanka was shoved by some, prompting her to ask people to maintain calm and remember the “cause” for which they had come there.The Congress workers raised slogans against the Centre, while some were seen holding placards against the BJP governments at Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Gandhi said the women of the country were afraid to venture out today and asked the PM to come out of slumber. Many were shouting slogans like “Modi Bhagao, Beti Bachao” as they held candles as a mark of protest.
“We are here against crimes being committed against women, against rapes, violence and murder and the government must act on this. This is a national issue and not a political one,” Gandhi said. “This is about our women. Thousands are present here including the common people and people from all parties. This situation is such today that one after another incident of murder, rape and violence is taking place in various parts of the country. We are standing here against that and we want the government to act,” he added.
Some Congress leaders asked the people in the march to keep it a “silent” protest, even as a few were seen taking selfies as well, compounding the problems for the police, who had a tough time controlling the crowd as someof them were drunk too. Many of them had crossed over the barricades and even broke through them. Traffic movement too came to a halt near the India Gate. The SPG too had a very difficult time protecting Rahul Gandhi from the chaotic crowd.
On Thursday, organisations like the All India Progressive Women’s Association, National Federation of Indian Women, JNU Students’ Union and the Students’ Federation of India held a protest at Parliament Street over the gruesome incidents in Kathua and Unnao. The protesters alleged that the BJP’s motto of ”Beti bachao, beti padhao” rang hollow in the light of these cases. “Two incidents of rape have shocked the nation not just for the horrific nature of the crime but also for the ruling party trying to shield the accused, with its ministers even going on to support bandhs and rallies against arresting of the rape accused,” All India Students’ Association state secretary Niraj Kumar said. Kumar was referring to the two BJP ministers – Chaudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga – who attended an event organised by Hindu Ekta Manch, an outfit that has been protesting against the arrests in the Kathua case.
Mariam from the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), said, “Women of this country will not tolerate a regime that defends rape accused and further victimises complainants.”
In Mumbai, an outfit called Sadbhavna Sangh said they would organise a massive protest at Azad Maidan and they had mobilised people through several social media platforms. “You cannot treat women as commodities. It cannot continue to happen,” said Varsha Vidyavilas from Sadbhavna Sangh, adding that raping a eight-year-old girl and keeping her in a temple indicated the dearth of morality.