Why has Narendra Modi rewarded a man with rape charges against him with a ministry?

Modi’s bedraggled opposition thinks the Nihalchand Meghwal case could become an embarrassment for the month-old Modi sarkar. After all in his election campaign, he’d said a lot about protecting the honour of mothers and sisters. Now he’s taken a 4-time MP accused of rape and made him the Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers.

Meghwal’s supporters hit back saying this is nothing but “political vendetta” and point out that the Congress under Ashok Gehlot was in power when the Rajasthan police initially closed the case. India Today hints at wheels within wheels seeing the “hand of the (BJP-led) state government” in Rajasthan behind the resurfacing of the sexual assault case. After all Modi had passed over Vasundhara Raje’s son Dushyant Singh when he picked Nihalchand Meghwal.

As if the actual crime itself was not disgusting enough, rape has become little more than a political football. And however loudly the Congress shouts now, the tragedy for the woman at the centre of this story is she is dealing with politicians who are cut from pretty much the same cloth when it comes to these scandals.

The headline of an in-depth profile of the young woman by Esha Roy for the Indian Express makes that disturbingly clear.

“My husband wanted power. That’s why he brought men from both the Congress and the BJP to me.”

A protester breaks down during a rally in Delhi. AFP

The other accused have not garnered as much attention because they are not union ministers. But they include Jogeshwar Garg, a former BJP minister and Pushpendra Bhardwaj, a Youth Congress leader. The young woman tellsIE that her husband Om Prakash had been lobbying for a ticket for the last Assembly elections. “It didn’t matter to him whether he got a BJP ticket or a Congress ticket,” she said. She was just one of the favors he extended to those he deemed powerful.

She also alleges he videotaped her encounters on CCTV cameras to blackmail some of the men to make money and that he would drug her food regularly so she didn’t even know much of what was happening to her. “I did have foggy memories of different men and bodies but couldn’t account for it. I would often wake up naked in bed and wonder what was happening.”

Om Prakash rubbishes the claims saying the girl’s own uncle raped her when she was a teenager. Whatever the truth of this particular case, and whether Meghwal is innocent or not, what the story makes despairingly clear is that when a poor young woman makes rape allegations against a politician, whether it’s an A-list, B-list or a C-list politician, the system is stacked against her. You do not even have to be an elected politician. Over and over again rape stories describe alleged rapists as affiliated with one party or the other which that party routinely denies. When a Trinamool panchayat candidate and seven others were accused of gang-raping two women in Howrah to punish them as their husbands were Left supporters, Trinamool leader Mukul Roy saidtestily “The rapists cannot be identified by their religion or party. Have you seen whether the accused has a TMC identity card or not?”

In the Meghwal case the woman said the police refused to file a complaint of rape against her husband. So she filed for dowry harassment. A decision like that can backfire against the accuser later for another court can ask why the sexual assault was not included in the initial FIR. “The police filed a closure report and the court upheld it – so this proves that she’s make up these allegations,” Om Prakash told The Sunday Express. Meghwal also brandishes the closure report as his “clean chit”.

The Congress wants to make a stink. “During the elections, the whole of India heard Narendra Modi making tall promises for women’s safety. And now, he is silent on his minister accused of rape. This is shameful, and once again his double speak has become evident to the people,” said Shobha Oza, president of All India Mahila Congress, demanding Meghwal’s resignation. But even that demand makes it clear that for the Congress it’s all about Meghwal and Modi and not about the young woman.

And why should that be surprising? In Rajasthan itself the Congress’ hands are far from clean. Its legislators Malkhan Singh Bishnoi and Mahipal Maderna are accused in the Bhanwari Devi rape and murder case from 2011. Maderna was a minister in Ashok Gehlot’s cabinet till he became too much of a hot potato and the High Court rebuked him for inaction.

That case, reported India Today in 2011 was rumoured to involve a Union cabinet minister, a Delhi-based powerbroker and the adopted son of a former governor. The CBI chargesheet said Devi was blackmailing both Maderna and Malkhan (who had also fathered her child) for money. The chargesheet called the two Congressmen as being enamoured of “sura and sundari” (wine and women). Congress sources said Bhanwari had wanted an Assembly ticket in 2003. BJP MLA Arjun Garg told India Today that she had met him because “she was hurt and wanted to switch over to the BJP.”

For many politicians rape is not a crime. It’s a perk of power especially when it concerns a poor woman. And if it ever sees the light of day, and an FIR actually gets filed, it’s just a way to embarrass each other. The woman is eminently disposable. Sometimes literally. The “disappearance” of a Bhanwari Devi serves as a chilling reminder to those who might want to challenge and expose the powerful.

Long before this Bhanwari Devi, we knew of another Bhanwari Devi, also from Rajasthan, a poor potter and grassroots healthcare worker who was gang-raped for trying to prevent an infant marriage in 1992. It took 52 hours for her to just get a medical examination. That delay was held against her in court. In 1995 a lower court found the accused not guilty because as the judge said “Since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place because Bhanwari was from a lower caste.” Pinky Virani wrote in The Hindu that a state MLA organized a victory rally for the five acquitted men and the women’s wing of that political party “attended the rally to call Bhanwari, among other things, a liar.” When her own father died she was not served food at the funeral because she was “polluted” reported Shivam Vij in Tehelka. Her son found it difficult to get married. No one would buy her pots in the village where the men she accused of rape also lived.

The travails of Bhanwari Devi made a difference if not for her, for others. It led among other things to the Vishakha guidelines around sexual harassment.

Perhaps it’s a small sign of progress that we have progressed somewhat that in the Nihalchand Meghwal case, the young woman’s family seems to be standing by her. In a village where girls do not work, her mother says they will let her study because “it will be good if she gets a job”. She even says the young woman will surely remarry “but this time we will find her a good husband.” Rajasthan’s skewed gender ratio might work to this young woman’s advantage and she has apparently already gotten “good proposals”.

Some might shake their heads at a “good husband” still being the answer to all the problems faced by a woman. But the fact that her family still sees a future for her, and a village elder calls her “himmatwali”, is a sliver of a silver lining.

Read the Indian Express story in its entirety here.

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