According to the police, three suspects arrested after an uproar over the rape and deaths of two teenage girls in Badaun, in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, have confessed to their crime. Meanwhile, in western Maharashtra state, the owner of a charity was arrested after five children residing in the school run by the trust said they were sexually abused. In Etawah, the mother of a rape survivor was beaten up by the perpetrators after she refused to withdraw her complaint.
Recent incidents of sexual violence in India have quickly overshadowed the media focus on the May 26 inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers after the Bharatiya Janata Party won a major victory in national elections. Modi can steal the media spotlight back by using his party’s majority in parliament to address this scourge.
The challenges, as highlighted by the Badaun attack, are enormous. The teenagers, thought to be between 14 and 15 years old, were found raped and hanging from a mango tree. They belonged to the Dalit, or so-called “untouchable,” caste. While there are many laws and policies in India directed at ending caste-discrimination and the protection of Dalits and tribal groups, a new law to prevent child sexual abuse, and recently amended rape laws, the Badaun police still failed to take the case seriously when the family first appealed for help.
The failure of police to seriously investigate crimes, whether against members of marginalized groups, women, or children, is widespread in India. “Two of them caught hold of me,” a 14-year-old rape survivor told Human Rights Watch in January 2013. “Their faces were covered. They forced themselves on me. They tore my clothes. I managed to see one of their faces. No one believes me."
Modi campaigned as a leader who can deliver. He should take the initiative to press the police and the criminal justice system to be more responsive to cases of sexual violence. Too often, survivors of sexual abuse are too daunted to approach the police, fearing further abuse instead of receiving the support and even sympathy they need.
Modi is a controversial figure in Indian politics. Because he was accused of dereliction of duty or even complicity during religious riots in 2002 when he was heading the administration in Gujarat state, many are deeply skeptical that he will promote human rights while prime minister. However, during the election campaign Modi focused on his ability to deliver good governance. Rights protection is integral to this, and is what the country desperately needs.
Millions of voters have vested their faith in the new prime minister to revive the economy, create jobs, address poverty, and restore India’s stature in world politics. Among his challenges is to take the many good policies in India to create a more rights-respecting society, still divided by caste, ethnicity and religion, and ensure respect for the rule of law and accountability. He can make a start by ending government inaction surrounding rape, while demanding accountability not only for perpetrators of such heinous crimes but for those charged with enforcing the law.