Political swipes in India show rape a voter issue

Activists of Indian National Congress block traffic during a protest against a gang-rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl at Madhyamgram. Pic: AP.

NEW DELHI (AP) — The 16-year-old reported that she had been gang raped, only to be raped again by the same men the next day and later threatened for going to the police in eastern India. By the time charges were filed more than two months later, she had been set on fire and died from her injuries.

The girl’s death on New Year’s Eve in West Bengal came more than a year after a deadly gang rape in New Delhi raised awareness and outrage over chronic sexual violence in India and government failures to protect women. The New Delhi rape was considered a major reason for why voters ousted the capital’s government last month, and a furious response to the West Bengal case suggests that with general elections just months away, politicians are anxious to impress voters who are demanding that women’s safety become a police priority.

The teen’s family, allegedly run out of town by her assailants, accuses police of trying to cover up the crimes.

Improving sensitivity by police officers and medical workers is crucial to improving women’s safety in this country of 1.2 billion, activists say. Even as the government has promised to improve justice for rape victims, some trying to report sexual crimes have said they were harassed by officers making lewd comments, demanding bribes or simply shooing them away.

The girl reported being gang raped on Oct. 25 and 26, but Kolkata police did not arrest anyone until the girl ended up in a hospital Dec. 23 with severe burn injuries. Doctors then determined she was pregnant. Police initially told reporters she had attempted suicide, but the girl’s family disputed that, saying she was set on fire by associates of those who had gang raped her.

After the girl’s death led to a public uproar, police arrested and charged six suspects in the gang rapes and another two accused by the girl of setting her alight. A fast-track court will hold a first hearing in the both cases Jan. 15. Meanwhile, a forensic laboratory is determining the age of the girl’s fetus in order to establish whether she became pregnant from the rapes.

The case has reinforced the widespread view in India that police are a major part of India’s chronic problem with sexual violence.

Massive protests erupted in Kolkata, with critics including artists, rights activists and opposition politicians saying authorities ignored the family’s complaints of harassment and moved too slowly to arrest the suspects.[Full story]