ASHOK Sharma, Jaipur-based progressive poet-columnist, and his academically inclined wife Sudha led fairly humdrum middle class lives: two daughters, a son, a housing board home. Not that there weren't shadows. Vyas's second child Richa, 27, was 'moody', 'slow', an eighth grade drop-out. Withdrawn, she'd mumble about feeling 'disinterested'. He worried. Wondered why?
On 5th September 1997 he rudely found out why. Police called to tell him Richa had been brutally gangraped by nine men, at 2.30 am in a room at the JC Bose boys hostel at the local university. She arrived with a male acquaintance, was shoved into a room and despite her protests, subjected to serial rape. Men in clusters of 10 and 15 had stood outside, jeering as the nine rapists emerged from the room like conquering heroes, drove away in a Tata Sumo waving at the send-off party. Ironically, the rape was the grand finale to the booze 'n' blue-film party held to celebrate the selection of one Om Beniwal to the Rajasthan police.
Richa's silences fell into place. She was being sexually intimidated over the last seven years by 15 people whom she named in the FIR. Trysts with an alleged paramour Ramji, at the Jat Hostel opposite the house where the family lived until two years ago, led to—some say voluntary, others say forced—acquaintance, with an ever-widening circuit of hostel boys. "One mistake led to another," says woman activist Chitra Singh, till Richa found herself inexorably trapped in a sordid sexual merry-go-round where she was being passed around to various men. At one stage Tara Choudhari, University Sports Board incharge (subsequently arrested, now bailed out) played social secretary/appointment maker. It culminated in the girl's abject violation and savage sexual insult at the boys hostel. Which stung her into avenging her humiliation. Personal apprehension, parental shaming, fear of public disclosure took a backseat to her fierce desire to bring her tormentors to book. All that mattered, as she told Outlook, was that "what happened to me should never happen to anyone again".
Nothing in the state administration's subsequent handling of the sordid event was geared to pre-empt the recurrence of similar savagery. Police waited nine hours before conducting a medical examination of the girl who had walked two kms to register her FIR. The medical board that conducted the examination was only constituted when local women activists pressurised Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. By then she'd washed her underlinen, unwittingly destroyed forensic evidence. Nine months on, the police had failed to arrest three of the nine rapists named in the chargesheet viz Bhola Yadav, Ramniwas, Brijenra Punia. Nor had they arrested nine of the 15 people Richa named in the sexual exploitation case. Significantly, these included Dy SP Prahlad Singh Krishnaiya, son-in-law of local BJP MLA Richpal Mirdha; Dharmendra Punia, son of local Dy SP Jilain Singh Punia; as also the politically well-connected Manoj Sharan Chauthala. They were 'absconding', pleaded officials, even as Krishnaiya, a sexual exploitation case accused, brazenly strutted around in Jaipur. The administration contented themselves providing police security (which they withdrew during the elections pleading staff shortage) and a Rs 2 lakh 'compensation' to Richa.
More shockingly, to date, the critical DNA and serological reports on the nine condoms found at the scene of the crime have not been received from the Hyderabad Forensic Lab. "Administrative laxity? Or complicity?" asked Kavita Srivastava, chairperson of the local Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan, even as debate in the local assembly remained partisan, divided sharply along caste lines. "People of a community are being targeted," thundered Richpal Mirdha even as former Union minister and fellow Jat Jagdeep Dhankar publicly raised doubts on Richa's character. The BJP chief minister, who had decorously expressed 'regret', did little to expedite the trial or book the guilty, who belong mainly to the Jat community, undoubtedly hoping to reap electoral support and gain from the community, traditionally a Congress vote-bank, in the impending assembly polls.
On 22nd May, the criminals, cocky in the assurance of their tacit political protection, struck again. Abducted and raped Richa. Again. At 4.30 in the afternoon as she stood waiting for her autorickshaw outside the Vihan NGO, where she'd begun working barely six weeks earlier, two masked men accosted her on the pretext of asking for an address, muffled her mouth, allegedly chloroformed her, whisked her into their tinted glass Maruti van. They and two masked accomplices took turns raping the gagged and tied girl for three hours in the moving van. All the while telling her to withdraw charges against Prahlad and Dharmendra if she didn't want to be killed along with her family. Three hours later she was dropped at the same spot. A badly bruised Richa made her way to a friend's house, called her family and colleagues who had already alerted the police within an hour of discovering she was missing.
MY 27th May, Shekhawat was back at his 'expressing regrets' game. A shocked Srivastava led a torch procession to deputy CM Harishankar Bhabra's house. National Commission for Women chairperson Mohini Giri flew down to 'press conference', express solidarity, receive yet another assurance of action from Shekhawat who significantly refused to retract from his decision to hand the case to the CBI. "It's a move to obfuscate, bury, defuse rather than resolve the issue, punish the guilty," said Srivastava. Pre-empting activists' protests, Opposition Congress party orchestrated rabble-rousing, sob-sister rhetoric in an impending election scenario.
Meanwhile, a petrified Richa awaits a justice delayed that may well be denied in a state ridden with feudal prejudice and antiquated views on women, their sexuality, their place in society. Her abductors have yet to be apprehended. The issue, women activists feel, is not Richa's 'character', her 'voluntary' or 'forced' compliance in sordid sexual shenanigans but much, much larger. "The issue," says Syeeda Hameed of National Commission for Women, "is about a woman's right to her own body, her right to say no". And in view of the brutal reprisal and rape inflicted on the girl, about "the system's ruthless attitude towards women who dare protest violations committed on them". One that Rajasthan (see box) is fast gaining a dubious and prominent reputation for. The issue is also about the emerging and glaring nexus apparent between the fast-rising (at least economically) and politically protected, tacitly nurtured student mafia and community vote-banks like the Jats exploiting and in turn being exploited by the ruling party.
Richa awaits justice from a polity that ironically has a commission to protect cows but not women. Surely an indicator of their sexist and cynical political proclivities?
NOTE: Names of the victim, her family have been changed to protect their privacy.