The narrow bylanes of Shuklaganj in Unnao wear a look of festivity. Residents living in the homes that line the cobwebby network of roads peer out with curiosity. Some have knowing smiles on their faces while others feign disinterest as they watch Asha Singh, Congress’s much-talked-about candidate from Unnao Sadar, go from door to door seeking votes. Beside her walks her daughter, her stern face and sharp eyes keeping a watch on everything happening around her. While Congress has given tickets to many unconventional women from across the spectrum, including ASHA workers and anti-CAA/NRC protesters, Asha Singh’s name stands out because she owes her candidacy to the fact that she is a mother. The mother of a rape survivor.
The 20-year-old daughter of Asha was raped by then BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar in 2017. Her father was allegedly killed in custody, leaving Asha widowed. She herself was injured in an accident in 2019 and has since accused the Sengars of being behind it. She wears the scars on her head with pride now. They are not just scars. To her, they are reminders of the struggle and fight that went into getting justice for herself and a token to those whom she lost in the process—her father, her bhabi. Her uncle is still in jail for what she claims are trumped up murder charges. The case hit headlines in 2018 after the survivor tried to set herself ablaze outside Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s house in Lucknow in protest against the delay in the investigation of her case. Sengar was found guilty of multiple crimes, including rape and murder. He was convicted in 2018.
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Four years on, Asha is fighting a different battle. Flanked by armed security personnel and snub-faced party workers, a marigold garland-laden Asha was going door to door and seeking votes. “Panje pe chap”, she says to an old woman at her doorstep. “Ladki hoon lad sakti hoon” to another. “Priyanka ji will change the lives of women,” she says to a third. At the Congress office, from where she addressed a virtual rally, Asha talks about the twists and turns in her life. “What happened to my family should not happen to anyone else,” she tells Outlook, her eyes tearing up. “I want to work for women’s safety, employment and other issues. I will work toward fulfilling the vision of Priyanka didi (Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi)”. The party has given Singh a flat in Unnao town and Rs 25 lakh for her campaigning.
Women voters have emerged as a powerful electoral force in the state—63.61 per cent compared to 59.15 of male voters. More women have also voted in the last two assembly elections, which explain why parties are suddenly taking a fresh interest to woo women. But there is unpleasant data too. Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of crimes against women in 2020 in India, NCRB data show. For the record, there are only 43 women MLAs in the state which has a 403-member assembly, the largest in the country.
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Asha’s home in her village, Makhi, lies deserted. Makhi is also Sengar’s village. Boys in the village still refer to him as ‘MLA ji’ and believe he did nothing wrong. “It’s all a made-up case to get publicity. They knew each other closely from before the incident,” says a local reporter, clearly not shying away from victim-shaming. “It’s all for money”. They claim that the Congress paid the family much more than Rs 25 lakh. The Congress’ decision to give 40 per cent tickets to women has brought several faces like Singh to the fore. But not many have high hopes for her even within the party. A Congress Mahila Samiti leader, who is monitoring the campaigning, says that many within the party were unhappy with Priyanka Gandhi’s decision to give the Unnao ticket—formerly a Congress stronghold under the slain Ajit Singh—to a non-political entity. “It is a shame that some in the party don’t even want Priyanka to visit Unnao because it’s a losing seat. They are just sour because they didn’t get the ticket,” she adds. However, she admits that in all the six assembly constituencies of Unnao, the real fight is between BJP and SP.
The Congress’s pitch may not play out in the party’s favour but it has put pressure on other parties to give tickets to women. And the symbolism over “rape” is not lost on anyone. Mayawati’s BSP has given the ticket to Seema Kushwaha, the lawyer of the Hathras rape victim. But deploying women as symbols in elections is not new. In the 2003 Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Uma Bharti had brought a rape survivor to a women’s rally which was addressed by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The woman, who had been raped and paraded naked in her village nine years ago, sat on the dais as the PM spoke. Many at that time had slammed the BJP for using a rape survivor as a political gimmick. “In politics, symbolism is everything,” says Unnao ward adhyaksh Ramesh Singh. But his wife argues that symbolism alone cannot help win women over. “I myself have worked with the Congress for a very long time. But if there is no leadership or real work done for women empowerment, workers lose enthusiasm.”
Some kilometres away at the Kanshi Ram Colony for the destitute, another mother says she has no interest in the elections. “Asha Singh has been given a ticket because her daughter was raped. At least her daughter came back alive. I will never see mine again.” Her daughter was abducted in December 2021 and her parents claim that a Samajwadi Party leader’s son and his associates had gang-raped her and then killed her. Her body was found buried in a former minister’s plot in February. “They are Thakurs. We are Dalits. We have no power over them,” she says.
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The girl’s parents approached the police and knocked on the doors of many politicians, including Asha. “I went to Asha didi for help because I thought her and my stories were the same. Her daughter was also raped by powerful men, just like mine,” she says between sobs. Asha has met the grieving mother several times since then. She also got a call from Priyanka Gandhi, who promised to come and meet them. “We waited with our daughter’s body for two days. But she never came. That was a big let-down,” says the father of the victim. Asha did visit the family at their home and also went with them to the crematorium for the victim’s last rites. But the parents claim that the investigation has not moved an inch. Desperate for justice, the couple approached SP chief Akhilesh Yadav following which their case was heard. But no action has been initiated by the party, the father alleges.
The family now lives in fear of being attacked by Thakur men. The mother says that something like this would never have happened during Mayawati’s reign. “Our behenji was the best CM. She kept a tight leash on goons and gave women a sense of identity and strength,” she says. Last week, the family went and met Mayawati to present their case. The Dalit leader tweeted about it on February 14, stating that the family had come to her seeking “proper justice”. She also accused the SP and local police of being hand-in-glove in delaying investigation into the matter and demanded action. Incidentally, BSP has fielded Devendra Singh, brother-in-law of Asha, from the same seat that she is contesting from. Devendra had initially helped the family and had stood in support of the survivor.
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“This flip-flop attitude of politicians, when it comes to rape, proves that they don’t really care about women or their safety,” another rape survivor and activist tells Outlook. Having dealt with the trauma of sexual assault and prolonged oppression, she today runs Red Brigade, a women-only organisation that works with survivors of rape and sexual assault among others, especially Dalit women. She does not believe in giving poll tickets or other benefits like government jobs to rape survivors or their families. “It does not help in solving the problem of rape. It just gives some parties a poll plank and the opportunity to pull some sympathy votes. If political parties really want to help rape survivors, let them start by making the streets safer and police more responsive. A Dalit woman still cannot go to the cops and file an FIR when she is attacked. Let them start there.”
Back in the crowded drawing room in Kanshi Ram Colony, a faded image of their dead daughter and a big red teddy bear—painful sole reminders of the girl who once lived, laughed and slept there—sit on a shelf collecting dust. A poll slogan, ‘Jaat pe na paat pe, button dab haath pe’ (Not for caste or creed, vote for the hand), floats in through the wooden frame of their guarded doorway and makes the mother wince. She clutches on to her younger daughter, who sleeps curled inside a blanket on the bed while a horde of faces belonging to relatives of all manner sit around the room in tenacious silence. As the slogans get louder, the mother screams out, “When will these elections end?” With the Uttar Pradesh elections unfolding in seven phases spread over a month, both cops and netas are busy with the polls. They have sent DNA slides for investigation but have not heard back yet. Holding back tears, she says, “We don’t care who wins, we are ready to knock on any door that will support us. We don’t want a poll ticket. We just want justice for our daughter.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Mothers' Battle" in February 2022)
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