Thursday, 22 December 2016

In India, it’s not easy to report on rape

INDIA’S DIVIDE | This is part of a series about oppression and violence against women in India as a rising generation collides with old social mores.

The woman cried for an hour.
She wept as she told us how one wintry day, in a field she had been tilling, her boss pushed her down to the ground and raped her. She wept as she described how she’d gone to the police and they didn’t believe her. She wept as she told us how the entire village turned against her.

As she spoke, she took the edge of her sequined-trimmed sari, the color of mangoes, and wiped her cheeks. She sat alone on a string cot in her front yard in a village about four hours east of New Delhi, India’s capital. A crowd had gathered a short distance away, including the father of her alleged rapist. He was laughing at her.

“The villagers have all been very bad to me,” the woman said. “Nobody believes me. They think I’m faking it. They said they will kill me if I don’t go back on my words. I’m helpless.”

I sat near her in the fitful February sun and watched her closely. After three years reporting in villages in India, I knew enough to try to make sure her tears were real. “Checked for tears. What a cynic,” I wrote in my notebook.

That was not the last note I would write to myself that day. Later on, as conflicting stories rose around me from the victim’s family, from police, from other villagers, I would scribble helplessly, “Is everybody lying?”

Reporting about rape in Indian villages is not easy. The stigma of sexual assault is so pervasive that the first response to a rape is often silence, or victim shaming. Ancient caste and family alliances prevail, deals are struck, money changes hands.

But reporting about such crimes has taken on new urgency as the country engages in a debate about women’s safety — in streets, schools, the workplace — following a highly publicized fatal gang rape in 2012.

The country’s overheated media has been paying far more attention to rape cases in the past four years. Under the glare of the spotlight, witness statements can change or become exaggerated. A print-journalist friend told me he was once sitting talking quietly to a rape victim’s family only to have them burst into dramatic sobs when the TV cameras arrived.

Only about 1 in 4 rape cases results in a conviction. At the same time, Indian courts are littered with cases of jilted women accusing men of rape to cover up a consensual relationship gone bad, or parents trying to hide — and ruin — a romance between two young lovers from different social castes.

I’d been trying for months to write a story about informal village councils that step in to resolve sexual assaults and other crimes in lieu of the police — often with brutal punishments. The piece was to be the first of a year-long series called “India’s ­Divide,” which examined the tension and violence that result when a rising generation of women clashes with the entrenched patriarchy. But first, I had to find a case where I could pin down details. That was proving more challenging than I expected.

I am calling the woman in the village Bina, to make it easier to tell her story here. Her case seemed promising. When the 35-year-old widow arrived at the police station to file a complaint, she had claimed, the village leader ordered her alleged assailant to touch Bina’s feet (a gesture of respect), apologize and settle the matter without involving police. Authorities took her story seriously only when she went to file a complaint at regional police headquarters days later.

When I arrived in her village a few weeks after that, I went directly to the home of the village elder.
His three-story house was painted in hues of blue and orange and rose over the other modest tin-roof dwellings like a circus tent.

The man — a stocky farmer with a streak of red vermilion on his forehead, a mark of his Hindu devotion — ushered us into his courtyard, where we were brought cups of sweet, milky chai. He had just been elected village pradhan, a position similar to mayor.

It was there, sitting in the man’s courtyard, as family and neighbors looked on, that we heard our first lie of the day.

“I’m not interfering in this matter,” the pradhan said. “I said let the police handle it.”

The pradhan gestured grandly to a crowd of onlookers with a sweep of his hand.

“If her story is true, the whole village would support her anyway,” he said. “Ask these people how many of them support her?”

None of them did. A man of about 70 stepped forward to say: “What I have heard from laborers is that there was a dispute between the boss and the woman. She did not follow his instructions. He told her off and she said, ‘Well, I’m going to the police station.’ She tore her own clothes and pretended she was raped.”

Bina was an outsider in the community, having moved from the impoverished state of Bihar to marry at age 14. She told us with a sort of pride that her late husband had refrained from touching her until she was grown. She eventually had seven children.

As she cried, no one stepped forward to comfort her. Her young son hovered anxiously nearby, along with a limping baby goat.

She said she was resting alone in a field on her lunch break from her job working for the government’s rural employment program when her boss accosted her.

When he grabbed her, she recalled, she asked him sharply what he was doing.

“ ‘I’m a government servant, and I’m more powerful than you. You can’t say no to me,’ ” she recalled him saying. “He said, ‘My wife is not at home — she’s gone to her mother’s house. That’s why I’m doing this to you.’ ”

Something about this little detail of the wife being away rang true to me. But as we spoke to others in the village, I began to have doubts. The alleged attacker was hiding from the police when we visited, but his family members and others had plenty to say in support of him.

Angry relatives gathered, as well as women who had worked with Bina in the fields. The women said the rape couldn’t have happened because the area was too exposed, and they had not gone off to take their midday meal leaving her alone. Bina was not a woman of “good character,” they said, and she kept “picking fights with everyone in the village.”

Victim blaming is common after sexual assaults in rural India, where traditional notions of honor still hold sway.

And there was another possible motive for these women to lie — money. The alleged attacker was in charge of handing out places in the jobs program, and now that he was on the run, “we haven’t had any work for days,” one told me.

Things got murkier when we went to the police station, a one-story white concrete building where the officers were outside enjoying the afternoon sun. The pradhan had come to meet the victim at the station with the assailant in tow, they said, but they didn’t know what kind of deal was struck.

More damningly, they said that Bina had not told them she was raped when she first went there.

They played me a cellphone video of a later interview they had with her in which she said, “When I first came here, I never said I was raped or molested. I could never say it to anyone.”

Yet this, too, could have an explanation. Because of the stigma, many women often don’t report sexual assault right away, or at all.

And these officers too had reason to lie. A new amendment to the rape law requires authorities to register each case or face jail time of up to two years. If they hadn’t taken her seriously, they might have been in trouble.

One of the officers, Pramod Kumar Yadav, gave me a quizzical look. “What do you think of this?” he asked me. “Most cases are a misuse of rape here. It’s highly unlikely they were alone in the field. There was not even a tree to hide them.”

The entire village had accused Bina of lying. But I wasn’t sure. What possible motive could drive her to fight to have the police take her seriously and ostracize herself from her entire community? It was, as one of my colleagues put it, “a very lonely battle.”

“I don’t want money. I just want my sanity back,” she told me. “I’m scared if this happens to my daughters. There’s no protection.”

For months afterward, Bina’s words haunted me: “He said, ‘My wife is not at home — she’s gone to her mother’s house. That’s why I’m doing this to you.’­­­ ”

But I decided there were too many questions to write about her, at least in the traditional way. We bid goodbye to the police investigators who would be left to sort through the mess, and hit the road

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