I remember sitting in the pub many years ago with a barrister friend who had just taken part in his first court case. It involved a sexual assault. “I’m glad we were prosecuting,” he said, draining the first of many shots. “Because there’s not one bit of that that’s nice.”
And so to the latest documentary from Channel 4’s flagship current affairs strand, Dispatches, an unflinching report in which, similarly, there is not one bit that is nice. The customarily succinct and harrowing hour, directed by Jessica Kelly, is titled India’s Rape Scandal and follows two of the most high-profile of the unimaginably brutal rapes that are becoming notorious in the country. One rape is reported to the police every 15 minutes in India, yet it is estimated that more than 90% of such assaults go unreported.
The two cases here, which occurred in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, go much of the way to explaining why that rate is so low. The programme traces the efforts by some police and politicians to cover up the crimes and prevent the perpetrators being arrested, let alone tried and brought to justice. The depth and breadth of the apparent corruption traced by the journalist and presenter Ramita Navai is something to behold.
A woman known here as Jaya was raped at the age of 17, she says, by the powerful BJP politician Kuldeep Singh Sengar, whose house she had visited for a job interview. When he had finished, he wiped away her tears and promised her decent employment. Afterwards, she was kidnapped, drugged and gang-raped until she was found by police eight days later. They threatened her and warned her to stay silent.
With her family’s support, Jaya demanded that the police register her complaint and then took it to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. Shortly after that, her uncle was jailed on a trumped-up charge and her father was ambushed and beaten so badly that he died three days later. Jaya set herself on fire outside Adityanath’s residence. She survived, but the immolation brought her case to wider attention for the first time and the Delhi government ordered an investigation – essentially a vote of no confidence in the local police.
Shortly afterwards, a truck rammed into a car carrying Jaya, her two aunts and her lawyer. Only Jaya survived, with critical injuries. The Indian supreme court ordered around-the-clock protection for her and Sengar was brought to trial for her rape and the murder of her father (the crash, meanwhile, was deemed an accident). She gave evidence from her hospital bed. He got life for the rape charge plus 10 years for the murder. He has been granted leave to appeal. Jaya still lives under police guard.
The second cover-up, of the gang-rape (involving strangulation and a fractured spine) of 19-year-old Manisha Valmiki, was possibly even more contemptible. She came from a low-caste family and her attackers were high-caste. Officialdom turned its back – she was left outside the police station in the burning sun, barely conscious, on a concrete slab. The doctors at the hospital to which she was eventually taken were mostly Muslim, a group particularly targeted by and fearful of Adityanath. They refused to do a rape exam when they heard what caste her attackers were, because it was that of the chief minister and a large proportion of his supporters, unless the police registered the rape complaint. Adityanath is not accused of orchestrating either attack, but his office has been accused of being complicit in the coverup in the Manisha case. (His lawyer said there had been “a conspiracy to defame the government. Yogi Adityanath would never protect a perpetrator.”)
Manisha endured many more horrors and injustices before dying of her injuries. Her family suffered yet more when the police cremated her body without allowing them to see her or perform Hindu funeral rites, then spread the story that it was an “honour killing”.
India’s Rape Scandal is an hour that remorselessly lays out the size of the fight that women – and the men who care about them – have before them. It shows how little women matter to the men in power and – although we may argue over degree – to those elsewhere in the social order. What is perhaps most shocking is that despite the horror of these stories, their contours are familiar to women in every country. The difference of India’s rape scandal is its prevalence, but not its kind. So, where do we go from here? Because there is not one bit of this that is nice.