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India

India's Plague Of Systematic Rape Has Not Abated

Women's bodies have become proxy battlegrounds for prejudice and intolerance, a brutal means of imposing power over a community or caste.

A vigil for another victim of rape and murder
A vigil for another victim of rape and murder
Poonam Muttreja and Farhan Akhtar*

NEW DELHI — January 2018 will be etched in the history of our country – we will remember it like we do December 2012, to remember the eight-year-old Bakarwal girl like we do Jyoti Singh (or Nirbhaya) and the horrors that some men are capable of. The gang-rape and murder of the eight-year-old, who loved horses and playing in the meadows, has brought us to our knees in grief and shame.

The blood-curdling details of this case that unfolded in Kathua in Jammu come days after a 16-year-old girl attempted suicide outside the residence of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It was a desperate cry for help. The girl accused a BJP assembly member, Kuldeep Singh Sengar and his brother along with their accomplices, of raping her in June. The incident escalated when it was reported that her father died while in Unnao police's custody.

Painful as it is, the rape of these two girls is not a one-off story. In India, it is one of the most common forms of violence against women and girls, a way of displaying male dominance; rape is also a means of further emasculating the marginalized, a way to demonstrate class and caste superiority. However, the story of the eight-year-old in Kathua and that of the teenager from Unnao is unique in the total collapse of the constitutional means that a victim has to pursue justice. In both cases, the victims and their families have been deliberately dehumanized by the custodians of the law. There has been a blatant disregard for legal procedure, and inhumane politics has been deployed to protect the perpetrators and whip up communal discord.

The hand of the law, it seems, cannot reach that high.

We are in a playground where the bully picks on a small child because he knows there is no fight. These are cold-blooded crimes carried out by those who do not fear the consequences of terrorizing minority communities and violating moral codes of conduct. The hand of the law, it seems, cannot reach that high. All the progress and development we may lay claim to, cannot redeem us from our failing, as the pillars of our democracy crumble yet again.

The twin cases of Unnao and Kathua are examples of rape being used as a weapon, not as a crime of unfulfilled sexual desire, or the revenge of a spurned lover, but as a hate crime. We have seen similar instances before in the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur or in the rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 riots of Godhra.

Women hold placards during a protest in Manipur against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In 2004, 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama was raped and murdered, allegedly by a group of Assam Rifles men.

In situations of conflict, women and girls are particularly targeted with the use of sexual violence as a tactic to humiliate, subjugate, to instill fear, and disperse members of the community. The systematic rape of women and girls is also used as a strategy in ethnic cleansing, as we have seen strife-torn zones – in Bosnia, the Vietnam War, the Nellie Massacre and more recently the Rohingya crisis.Women become a metaphor of territorial conquest, a means of adding insult to injury and robbing the last shred of dignity.

A Kashmiri girl a placard she participates in the protest demanding justice for 8-year old Asifa​ Photo: Faisal Khan/ZUMA

Our mind cannot fathom the details of this case, the smiling face of the little girl juxtaposed with her battered and dusty body, and the eight men who conspired to carry out such unspeakable violence. We catalogue it as a hate crime to at least try and make sense of what is a senseless and barbaric act of violence. It threatens to obscure the bruised image of the little girl and numb the outrage we are experiencing. Instead, we need to say out loud what many of us have silently feared for a few years now – India is in the midst of a crisis.

Women facing such gruesome acts of violence, like canaries in a coal mine, are giving out signals of impending social strife. Their bodies have become proxy battlegrounds suffering the prejudice and intolerance of men and majoritarian sentiments. We need to avoid getting complacent; we should pay heed, and push back, we should ensure that the perpetrators do not become our leaders tomorrow, lest we compromise on the rights and dignity of the marginalized.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

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In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

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