Rape story, the anatomy of reportage
When I was asked to travel to Haryana for a ground report on the sudden spurt in the number of rape cases being reported from the state, I frankly didn't think the story was worth much. The number stood at eight rapes in about 25 days...eight was just a figure, a number, a statistic...I didn't see a story, I didn't see the trauma, I didn't see the pain. The night before I had to leave, another incident of rape was reported. A 16-year-old Dalit girl doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire after being gang-raped. A quick google search and this is what I put out:
Info on recent cases
Almost 10 cases of rape have been reported in Haryana over the last 25 days
Sept 9 - Gang rape in Hissar: father of the victim committed suicide after he found out about an MMS that had been made of the assault.
Sept 21 - A 30-year-old married woman from a backward community was raped at gun point inside her house in Jind by three men.
Sept 28 - A Class 11 girl was raped by four men in Gohana.
Sept 29 - A teenaged girl was gang-raped in Bhiwani in a moving SUV.
Oct 1 - A 15-year-old mentally challenged Dalit girl was raped in Rohtak.
Oct 3 - A newly married 19-year-old was abducted and gang-raped in Sonepat.
Oct 3 - A 13-year-old girl was raped by her neighbour in Rohtak.
Oct 4 - A 16-year-old school girl in Yamunanagar claimed that she was picked up and raped in a car by two men.
According to reports, 733 cases of rape were registered in Haryana last year.
About 367 cases of rape were reported between January, 2012 and July, 2012.
I could barely sleep that night, not so much because of the few details that I had dug up, but because I was too worked up about how the story would work out. I had done my homework, I had spoken to our Chandigarh bureau chief who had passed on important contacts. I had spoken to our local reporter in Hissar, I had lined up a lady from Aidwa in Rohtak whom I wanted to interview on my way.
So the next morning, we were off by 5 AM. At 7 AM, we found ourselves standing outside the house of Jagmati Sanghwan, an office bearer of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). She told us how in every town and city of Haryana, there were hundreds of men of marriageable age sitting idle at home, unemployed and unable to get married because there were no girls around to marry. That Haryana has a low sex ratio because of female foeticide is a well-established fact. According to Jagmati, there is a caste angle as well. Upper Caste men think they will be able to get away after raping Dalit girls. And for many years, they had successfully managed to pull it off.
On reaching Hissar I met our local reporter or stringer as they're called. News organisations can't afford to have correspondents in every city of the country which is why they tie up with local reporters from whom they source stories whenever something news worthy happens in their city. They are not employees but are paid per story. I've met many of them over the last seven years but this was the first time I was meeting a woman. She seemed to be in her mid-thirties. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a bright pink shirt. I had expected a much older woman and, for some strange reason, I had expected her to be dressed in Indian clothes.
As promised, Shashi Kanta had fixed our meetings with Khap panchayat leaders at the PWD guesthouse. I walked into a room with seven to eight men in their mid-fifties, dressed in starched white kurta payjamas with scarves around their necks. They were here for their TV interview. They saw me and knew that I was the one who had come from Delhi with the big OB van. But, yet they refused to acknowledge my presence and continued with their conversation.
These were the men who ruled the kangaroo courts of Haryana, pronouncing death sentences for couples who dared to marry within their 'gotra' - all in the name of honour. For them, I was a woman first and then a journalist. It was Shashi who intervened and told them we didn't have all day to interview them. The man who was speaking the loudest and holding court turned to us, making eye contact for the first time but continued to speak to his fellow village heads while looking at us. He claimed that men alone couldn't be blamed for this spurt in incidents of rape. He said because women had stopped dressing up according to 'Bhartiya sanskriti and sabhyata', they were attracting attention and luring men to rape them. It was a direct reference to Shashi and me. I didn't react, I needed him to make that obscene comment on camera. I wanted to capture his thoughts in the purest form without adding the colour of my judgement. But Shashi would have none of it. She let out a mouthful, abusing him and accusing him of killing girls in their mothers' wombs. She told Sube Singh that it was because of people like him, who didn't know how to respect women, that such crimes were being committed.
I was a little apprehensive about how he would behave in front of the camera. A lot of people believe in and say all kinds of atrocious things but, on camera, they try and appear as civilised as they can. But Sube Singh, the spokesperson of the 'Sarvjatiya Mahapanchayat', was not one of those people. Once the camera came on, he was ready to splash all the dirt out of his sick mind and his fellow Khap leaders nodded in agreement.
According to Sube Singh, exposure to television and films is making youngsters mature faster. He said that boys and girls have started having affairs at a young age out of lust. Sube Singh's remedy was to reduce the age of marriage for girls. When I asked him how that would prevent rapes, he claimed rape was basically consensual sex gone wrong. His theory was that girls who were sexually mature went out with their boyfriends and when they were caught red handed, cried foul. He did attach some criminality to men, as far as gang rapes were concerned.
Sube Singh claimed that sometimes the boyfriends called their friends to enjoy the 'party' but insisted on consent of the girl. After all, she had willingly agreed to get into a relationship with a man outside marriage. As this Khap spokesperson rambled on, his five-year-old granddaughter stood behind him, staring innocently at me and my cameraperson. I shuddered at the thought of the kind of future that awaited this young girl.
Next up was the spokesperson of the Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee, Dharamveer Goyat. The fact that he was a member of the ruling party in the state didn't stop him from endorsing the views of the Khap. In fact Goyat went a step further to say that the Supreme Court and high courts were ruining the fabric of Haryana's society. According to him, the law and order situation was much better when Khap panchayats reigned supreme. Goyat claimed that Khaps believed in castrating the culprits and ostracising them from the village community. Having said that, he added that 90 per cent of rape cases involved some kind of consent.
Dharamveer Goyat had another theory - that rape was a tool being used by Dalit girls to malign the reputation of upper caste men.
I don't know why I'd expected the Haryana Congress spokesperson to speak any differently. He was an influential member of the same society that held the victim responsible for rape. He spoke in the same voice as the community that he represented. He wasn't a reformist or an activist but a local grass root politician who had come to occupy a position of power by virtue of his equation with the dominant, upper caste men who ruled these Kangaroo courts.
Our next stop was Dabra where the first incident in this series of rapes was reported from. The victim was a 16-year-old Dalit girl. I was told that she was raped by eight men belonging to the dominant Jaat community, as four others stood on guard. The men filmed the incident and circulated an MMS. She was threatened and told that her family would be destroyed if she uttered a word to anyone. Violated in the worst imaginable manner, the girl went home but said nothing to her parents.
Ten days later, someone showed the rape MMS to her father. Unable to bear the shame, he committed suicide. It was after this that the girl and her mother finally mustered the courage to report the rape to the police. What we heard was that for four days, the girl's father's body lay in the mortuary. The police was reluctant to file a case but the girl and her mother refused to take the body till a case had been registered. It was only after the story was reported by the national media that the police obliged but not before trying to get the 16-year-old to sign a statement that she had willingly gotten into the car and driven to the site with her boyfriend. Fortunately there were others with the mother-daughter duo who noticed what was being done and had the courage to get the report corrected.
The house was on a muddy road with open drains running on both sides, built with clay bricks and mud. It had two rooms that opened into the courtyard and one tiny enclosure with a tin door that seemed to be a bathroom. There was no kitchen, only a 'chulha' or stove made out of clay that worked with firewood. Inside one of those two rooms sat a bespectacled young girl and her mother. They looked tired. The girl told me she was a class XII student. Her father had wanted her to become a doctor and she was determined to fulfill his dream. The mother looked on with grief, as the 16-year-old told me how she did not speak to any of her friends after the incident. She had tried to hide it to protect her family and somewhere I could sense that she held herself responsible for her father's death.
With the head of the family gone, there is no one left to fend for them. She has an older brother, who is still in school. She told me she wanted the culprits to be hanged. She also wanted a job for her mother and her brother. It seemed like she wanted to rebuild their lives and compensate them for the shame that she had brought upon the family. Instead of being consoled, this little girl was trying to console her family, trying to assure them that life would go on and in time people would forget what had happened to them. The mother told me she'd been getting threats from the families of the accused but more than that, she was worried about her daughter's future. She didn't seem to believe that her daughter would be able to become a doctor one day. All she could say was that no one would ever marry her daughter and she'd have to live her life in the shadow of the crime that had been inflicted on her.
As a journalist, you often find yourself in a position where the person in front of you is in dire need of help. There's nothing that you can say or do in your personal capacity that can take away their trauma or pain. What we can do is highlight their story and put pressure on the authorities to sit up and take note. What we do is give a face to the pain and suffering without which the victim remains a mere statistic, a number that's dismissed by the police who claim that the crime graph in the state has in fact improved in comparison to last year. And that's exactly what the SP of Hissar told me when I met him: just 32 rapes in 6 months. It was a number - 32 women had been raped, violated, sometimes filmed when they're at their vulnerable most, dropped like a used tissue, blamed for inviting it upon themselves and more often than not, made to bear the burden of shame and humiliation for the rest of their lives.
The president of the 'Chamar Mahasabha', who drove into the PWD guesthouse in a shiny white Ford Endeavour wanted to know why most of the victims were from the Dalit community. He didn't question why women were being raped; he wanted to know why Jaat women were not being raped.
The Haryana story taught me a lesson. If you're a woman, you're a second class citizen. If you're a woman and a Dalit, you're a third class citizen and if you're a Dalit woman with no money, then you're at the bottom of the pit. And this unfortunately holds true not just for Haryana but for our entire country.