FOR seven years, Priya Khandelwal was blackmailed into having sex with a gang of student hoodlums. On September 5, she finally said "enough". For two-and-a-half hours that afternoon, she had been raped by seven boys, while a dozen others yelled encouragement from the corridor outside the dingy room in J.C. Bose hostel.
Battered and dazed, the boys' threats of future rape still ringing in her ears, Priya decided to seek help. Had the boys not stolen the Rs 2,000 in her purse, Priya later told her lawyer, she might just have flagged down a three-wheeler and gone home. But left with no money and no help from the unsympathetic hostel warden, she trekked 3 km to the nearest police station. And triggered off a tidal wave of public anger.
Jaipur was outraged. Just four months ago, schoolgirl Shivani Jadeja was disfigured in an acid attack by politically well-connected young men. In July, teenager Shalini Tanwar was abducted and gangraped. Priya's case was the last straw. She was not just any young woman. She was the daughter of a highly-respected journalist. Educationists, students, lawyers, activists—everyone but the politicians—channelled public anger into the most successful bandh Jaipur has seen in recent memory. The case was discussed at street corners, bus-stands, chai shops. Demonstrations continued for a week, with a dharna staged outside the Gandhinagar thana, where the case was registered, every day. Women gheraoed home minister Kailash Meghawal and tried to slip glass bangles onto his wrists.
It was then that the political establishment sat up. On September 9, the state assembly, sensing the popular mood, spent the entire day discussing the issue. Members from both the ruling BJP and the Congress strove to be seen as politically correct, exhorting the government to act. But in between platitudes and promises of expedient action, caste lobbies got to work. The seven culprits, who had escaped the police naka-bandi and fled Jaipur, were Jats. The community closed ranks and its representatives in the assembly levelled accusatory fingers at the victim.
In the House, Congress MLA Jagdeep Dhankar pointed out that Priya had not been physically coerced, by her own admission. As per the FIR, she was picked up at the Gopalpur bus stop by Sandeep Dahiya, a boy who had allegedly been blackmailing her into having sex, at 12 pm on September 5. She sat behind him on his motorcycle when they went to the J.C. Bose hostel and waited outside while he went and got the key to room 49. She made no attempt to escape, observed Dhankar. But the case, activists point out, was not about physical coercion. It was about blackmail.
"Rape associated with blackmail is a trend we have identified in recent years," says activist Kavita Srivastava. More than 60 young women were coerced into a sex racket in Ajmer, exposed in 1993 when the police seized nude photographs of the victims from the blackmailers. Last year, Alwar schoolteacher Rachna Gupta charged a BJP worker and her husband with blackmailing her (and six others who refused to press charges for fear of persecution) into having sex with various politicians.
The instruments of blackmail could be photographs, love letters written by the victim to a boyfriend, or threats to expose her relationship or hurt members of her family, say women's groups. In Priya's case, it is not clear how she was blackmailed. According to her FIR, she had grown up in a house opposite the Kisan hostel (for Jat students) and that's how she met Om Bijarniyam. He promised marriage and the two had an affair. Then the coercion began. He passed her on from friend to friend..."aur isi tarah, ek shrinkhla shuru ho gayee" (and a chain began like this). Why did Priya, who was clearly under a great deal of psychological pressure—she failed a series of examinations and dropped out of school—wait for seven years before seeking help? And how, during those years, did she keep her situation secret from her family?
WHILE these questions have yet to be answered, Dhankar's performance in the assembly has been strongly condemned by fellow lawyers. "Let's assume for argument's sake, the girl went with Dahiya willingly. Does that give six others the right to rape her?" asks Priya's lawyer, Sunita Satyarthi. The invariable response to rape by the police and political establishment has been to question the victim's character. Small wonder, she says, that few women have the courage to cry rape. "Priya's is only the latest in a series of ghastly rapes which have followed that of Bhanwari Devi in 1992 but convictions are almost non-existent, so where is the deterrent?" asks the lawyer.
The police has received flak for allowing the culprits to escape in their Sumo jeep, seen by the victim as she was leaving the hostel. "Had the victim been able to recall the licence number, we'd have seized them," says DIG A.K. Jain, who is supervising the investigation. The Sumo broke through a police naka before it could be stopped. The police gave chase but by the time the Sumo was found, it had been abandoned. On the night of the rape itself, 50 raids were conducted all over the state. The culprits are believed to have gone to the border district of Ganganagar and from there, slipped into Punjab. Four police teams were dispatched to track them down. One of the seven was arrested in Haryana on September 12.
In an apparent attempt to stall the investigation, a petition was moved to hand over the case to the CBI. "Which would have meant a delay of six months. It would also have allowed the state government to wash its hands of the entire affair," pointed out senior lawyer S.R. Bajwa who persuaded the High Court to monitor the investigation instead of passing the buck to the Centre. Once the court had taken the view that the case should remain with the state police, chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat told the House he had never intended to call in the CBI in the first place. "He's a wily old fox. Nothing would have suited him better than to send the case to the CBI. He could have told the Jat lobby and the public that the matter was out of his hands. Now, he has no option but to deal with both," says Bajwa.
Bajwa is confident of securing a conviction. "Recent Supreme Court rulings in rape cases are encouraging," he says. Although the medical examination of the victim was conducted some nine hours after the gang-rape, there is sufficient evidence against the accused, claims Satyarthi. Eight used condoms were reportedly discovered in the room where the gangrape took place. The men who allegedly exploited Priya from 1990 onwards—she has named at least 11 in a supplementary FIR—have yet to be arrested, as the police feel tracking down the seven gangrapists is a priority. On Friday last week, the court asked why one of the 11, a probationary DSP, had not been arrested (although Priya had identified him).
"All the culprits will be brought to book," says Jain confidently. He commends the media for not having named the victim. A definite consolation for Priya and her traumatised father, who says: "I don't want to become a consumer item for the media. I will speak, but not now." Whatever the outcome of Priya's case, it has once again focused attention on crimes against women. Caste lobbies often work against victims of sexual molestation, say activists. In Shivani Jadeja's case, they maintain, caste leaders pressurised her grieving father into withdrawing the names of two politically influential culprits.
When Jain muni Lokendra Vijay was accused of raping a housewife, MLAs from the community defended him staunchly and created a furore when he committed suicide on September 10. Political influence is equally pernicious. In Rachna Gupta's case, not one of the politicians allegedly involved was charged. Likewise, when four-year-old Nirmala was raped, allegedly by a government employee, political patronage allowed him to go free.
While the BJP government—and Shekhawat himself—admit that students' hostels, which are organised on caste lines ('Meena' hostel, 'Yadav' hostel etc), have become dens of gangsterism and that crime against women is on the increase, no action is forthcoming. A monthly meeting is held between the home secretary and women's groups but the bureaucracy and courts are often unable to act because of the powerful police-politician nexus.
BJP leaders Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee, who visited Jaipur to mourn the death of Rajya Sabha MP Satish Chandra Aggarwal on September 10, had no tears to spare for Priya. As for Shekhawat, when he called up the victim's father to express his sorrow and request a meeting, he was rebuffed. The anguished father refused to meet him, saying: "If you want to see me, let it be after the rapists are in custody." But it was sathin Bhanwari Devi, in Jaipur to join the protest marches, who had the final word: "If I had received justice, if the men who raped me had not gone scot-free, this case would never have happened."
(The name of the victim has been changed to protect her privacy and that of her family.)