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Despite changes in the law, the authorities protect perpetrators of mass sexual violence

Representative image

Representative image

In my 50 years of journalism covering gender issues, I have encountered a tragic irony time and time again: victims of gang rape rarely get justice, especially when the perpetrators are wealthy or politically well-connected. Over time, improved technology has exacerbated this problem. While technology helps convict perpetrators, it also exposes victims to shaming by the society that is supposed to protect them. Victims hide and watch helplessly as their lives fall apart while perpetrators bravely roam free and courts hesitate to punish them. It’s the same old story, just with a technological twist.

In 1986, I reported on the gang rape of women in a village called Thangamani in Idukki district of Kerala, where the police themselves were the perpetrators. What started as a fairly harmless argument between a few students and the owner of a bus company escalated into a major fight with the police siding with the bus owner. Within days, more police forces arrived and entered the village at midnight with the support of the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) government. The men of the village had fled to the forests to escape police brutality, believing that the women would not be harassed. But what followed were gruesome events. All the women of the village, regardless of their age, were attacked, beaten and harassed. The opposition led by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) intervened and the raid on the village soon became a politicised event. And then came the irony. Most of the women who were allegedly attacked did not want to complain.

When I spoke to some of them a few months later, the women continued to deny that they had been sexually abused. Then one woman slowly whispered to me that both she and her daughter had been abused and that her younger daughter had been forcibly kissed and bitten on the cheek. They feared that if such news got around, the reputation of the whole village would be damaged and they worried about their daughters’ future.

Sexual harassment was a well-hidden crime then, usually committed under the cover of darkness. Judge Sridevi was appointed to investigate the case and I also got to know her during the many months it took her to conduct a thorough investigation. She was steadfast and fearless and the women of Thankamani were willing to confide in her because of her empathy. Although the allegations were difficult to prove, she compiled a good report that took a long time to come to light.

Let us come to the Pollachi case, which occurred about 35 years later, when social media was the preferred means of communication among young people and mobile phone cameras made it easy to secretly record sexual assaults. According to reports, as many as 60 young women were raped in Pollachi, a small town in rural Tamil Nadu, over a period of 7 years. The women befriended a gang of young men, usually through social media, and after a fake romance, the men lured the women to remote areas and sexually abused them. The acts were filmed for blackmail, and this fear kept the survivors from telling what had happened to them, even to their own families, for many years. Pollachi is a small town where everyone knew everyone and the survivors had nowhere to hide. In 2019, it was a brave girl who complained to the police and said that she had been stripped and beaten and that she had escaped before she could be sexually abused.

The gang was soon caught and three bosses were arrested. But it was too late for the victims, whose pictures had already made the rounds on social media. The police also handled the case insensitively by releasing the name and photo of the girl who complained. Her brother was promptly beaten up by the other gang members who had evaded arrest and her family panicked. The other survivors were effectively silenced. This case too dragged on.

Even today, in the case of the sexual assault videos of Karnataka Janata Dal (Secular) MP Prajwal Revanna, it is not the technology that has changed but the ease with which even the most tech-savvy users manipulate them. The attacker is the grandson of HD Deve Gowda, who comes from a prominent political family and is alleged to have sexually harassed many women over several years, including social workers, party workers and their wives, all from his Hasan constituency. He is alleged to have recorded these assaults, presumably to blackmail them into silence, but a disgruntled employee secretly obtained the recordings and passed them on to political rivals. The hitherto innocuous USB stick, normally used to store data, became the ultimate blackmail weapon and instrument of revenge.

Spreading the smear campaign was easy. No social media account was required. The target audience could pick up the USB sticks on the side of the road, at bus stops or in any public place. Dozens and dozens of them were scattered everywhere, with explicit images of assault showing the women’s faces.

But once again, it was the women who suffered, as thousands of these USB sticks flooded the small town. While the main defendant fled to Germany on his diplomatic passport and his father, also accused of being an accessory, was released on bail, the women, who had suffered physical, mental and emotional trauma, were left to fend for themselves. They now live in constant fear, not only of social stigma, but also of renewed violence, as the defendants, who are still at large, have enormous political influence.

While systems have probably gotten better in terms of gender justice, it remains a sad constant that victims of mass sexual violence rarely receive the justice they deserve. In Prajwal’s case, it remains to be seen how much more women will have to endure before they can feel safe again.

The views expressed are those of the author.