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As Gandhis Corner Govt on Hathras Rape, Here’s Why the Tragedy Has Generated Such Political Heat

Priyanka Gandhi shields a party workers as the police jostled them.

Priyanka Gandhi shields a party workers as the police jostled them.

The newsworthiness of a gender crime is not evaluated on the scale of brutality or injustice alone; the identity of victim and the perpetrators and the colour of the ruling party determine its news – and political – value.

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Bhavdeep Kang

The Congress has been praying for a chink in the BJP's armour ever since the NDA came to power. Now, the Hathras incident and Farm Act 2020 have afforded the party an opportunity to mobilise the middle-class and farmers against the BJP.

The brutal murder of a teenaged Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh has the potential to marshal national outrage into a Nirbhaya-like campaign, the Congress feels, as the intersecting fault lines of caste, class and gender exert a powerful emotional appeal.

In terms of sheer barbarism, the Hathras tragedy recalls the 2012 Delhi bus rape. But given the fact that the victim was a Dalit and her attackers upper caste, it resonates with the Bhanwari Devi case of 1992. The difference being that while Bhanwari survived (to see all the five accused acquitted), the Hathras victim – like Nirbhaya – did not.

Since Nirbhaya, 250,000 rapes have been reported in India. In 2019 alone, the number stood at 33,000 and Dalits were the victims in 11 per cent of the cases. Last month, a three-year-old was raped and strangled in Lakhimpur Kheri in UP. And in Balrampur earlier this week, a 22-year-old student was allegedly drugged and raped and died on the way to hospital.

Why has the Hathras tragedy generated so much political heat, whereas the Lakhimpur Kheri and Balrampur rape-murders did not? One might well compare the furore over the rape of an 8-year-old in Kathua, Jammu & Kashmir, in 2018, to the relative indifference over Lakhimpur-Kheri.

In each case, the victim was brutalised and died as a result of injuries inflicted by the attackers. In both the Hathras and Balrampur cases, the victims were cremated in an unseemly hurry, casting doubts on the motives of the state.

But the newsworthiness of a gender crime is not evaluated on the scale of brutality or injustice alone; the identity of victim and the perpetrators and the colour of the ruling party determine its news – and political – value.

So Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi look to Hathras -- because that case fits the paradigm of state-enabled oppression of Dalits by the upper castes. Thus, we have a BJP government insensitive to caste and gender crimes, dragging its feet because the perpetrators were Thakurs in a state helmed by a Thakur chief minister.

Accordingly, Congress workers protest at the Delhi-UP border and the Gandhi siblings attempt to march on foot to Hathras. The Youth Congress dresses up in Gandhi-esque attire to demonstrate at Jantar Mantar and party spokespersons demand UP CM Yogi Adityanath's resignation.

Other opposition parties, including the Trinamool Congress, the AAP and the Samajwadi Party, have jumped on board, but Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is at the vanguard, breathing life into the moribund UP Congress. Already, the Congress is seeking to widen the scope of the protests into a campaign against the 'rape epidemic' in the country.

Now that the matter has been taken up suo motu by the Allahabad High Court, the Congress can claim a moral victory. Although the BJP has struck back by highlighting rape cases in Rajasthan, the Congress has scored solid points and will continue to whip up sentiments against the UP government. The fact that Yogi Adityanath has taken strong steps to bring the perpetrators and erring police officials to justice is besides the point.

Protests against the Farm Act are also continuing, although the party is aware that they will be short-lived, as the law itself is by no means anti-farmer. Misrepresenting its provisions has, however, given the Congress an opportunity to engage with farmers’ organisations.

The Congress has tried every trick in the book to rattle the BJP, from allegations of corruption (Lalit Modi, Nirav Modi, Rafale) to communalism (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019) to fiscal imprudence (demonetisation, GST) to incompetence (Covid-19 lockdown). In each case, the BJP deftly turned the tables and gained political leverage.

But the Hathras incident leaves the BJP vulnerable. For one thing, the party does not have a strong woman leader to counter Priyanka when she inveighs against gender crimes. Joining the chorus of condemnation are other Priyankas – Chopra the Hollywood star and Chaturvedi the Shiv Sena activist.

And while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently made all the right noises on gender parity and enjoys a vast following among women, the UP police's inept handling of rape cases - such as the infamous Unnao incident involving a BJP MLA - puts the ruling party on the defensive.

Disclaimer:The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.


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