News Column

Indian police question three men over suspected gang-rape and murder

September 4, 2014

Jason Burke,

Police in India have questioned three men over the suspected gang rape and murder of a teenager who had protested against the harassment of her father by village elders in the country's eastern state of West Bengal.

The father of the 16-year-old student said she had gone missing after trying to save him from being beaten as punishment for failing to repay a loan, according to a local police official.

Her body was later found on railway tracks.

The incident is the latest in a series of incidents of sexual violence towards women in India which have prompted a fierce debate in the emerging economic power and tarnished its image overseas.

Several of the worst cases have occurred in West Bengal, a large and poverty-stricken state, which is run by the Trinamool Congress party (TMC).

In October, a teenager in West Bengal was twice attacked – once on her way back from a police station – and eventually murdered by her rapists. Early this year a young woman was raped by up to a dozen men as punishment for a relationship with a local man from another community that was not sanctioned by village elders.

Informal village councils across India wield huge influence, though their actions are often unlawful and their legal status unclear. Conservative traditions – combined with a weak legal system and patchy policing – have allowed many to retain power over many communities in remote rural zones despite complaints by campaigners.

In this latest incident, which occurred 420 miles (680km) north of the state capital of Kolkata, the victim "went missing after she protested at the village council, who had called her father asking him to settle his dues for hiring a power tiller from a villager", James Kujur, additional superintendent of police, told AFP news agency.

The police said the girl's body, discovered on Tuesday morning, had been sent for postmortem examination.

Council elders have denied any involvement in the woman's death or the alleged sexual attack on her. Some local media have suggested a political dimension in the case, as the victim's family supports the local Communist party and the alleged attackers are loyal to the ruling TMC.

India introduced tougher laws to deter rapists following public outrage over the 2012 fatal gang-rape of a student on a moving bus in New Delhi. Laws were tightened but appear to have had little effect.

Many activists blame entrenched sexist attitudes, pointing to the string of Indian politicians who have made controversial comments in recent months about rape.

A minister from central Chhattisgarh state said "these kind of incidents happen accidentally", while a minister from Madhya Pradesh state said rapes were "sometimes right, sometimes wrong". A senior politician in the northern Uttar Pradesh state, where two girls were hanged after being gang-raped by local men in June, argued that it was wrong to punish young men too severely for participation in sexual violence as "boys will be boys".

Last month a rightwing Indian party said rape charges had "become a fashion" in India.

The hardline Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena made the comments in an article supporting a police officer who had been accused of rape. It questioned victims' intentions for reporting crimes, saying rape allegations were "good weapons to seek personal revenge".

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, incidents of rape in India have gone up tenfold in the past 40 years.

From 1971 to 2012 recorded cases rose from just under 2,500 to almost 25,000, while activists believe only 10% of cases are ever reported to the police.

Shortly after winning a landslide victory in May, India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, called for "zero tolerance" of violence to women and warned lawmakers against "politicising rape".

"Governments will have to work strictly against this, else our own souls will not forgive us," Modi told parliament.

Modi emphasised the importance of better sanitation for improving women's security in India in one high-profile speech. Hundreds of millions of Indian women are forced to defecate in the open, exposing them to attack when, for reasons of modesty, they venture out of their homes after dark.

The two teenagers raped and hanged in June had left their village as the sun set to go to use local fields because their home had no proper toilet.

Three months after his election victory, Modi's approval levels remain high. According to one poll released this week two-thirds of Indians are satisfied with his record so far, despite no "big bang" radical reforms.

Positive economic indicators have also led to an upward revision of India's flagging growth rate, contributing to growing business confidence.

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Source: Guardian Web

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