August 3, 2018August 4, 2018 6min readBy Pooja Dhar
It seems as though this has become commonplace now. Waking up to one horror or another. The place changes, the circumstances change, the victims (in number and in demographics) change. And yet the news of shootings, bombings, rapes, murders seem to constantly batter our weary souls.
A few days ago, it was reported that an 11-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by 17 men over a period of several months. These men were workers in the child’s apartment complex and included several security guards, a plumber, and the elevator operator, among others, ranging from early 20s to late 60s in age. Essentially, they were people she should have been able to trust.
These were the people who drugged her, forced her to watch pornography, violently raped her, filming themselves doing so, and threatened her into silence. Keeping in mind that a large percentage of the middle class and higher Indian population retains household help, these cases are not only intolerable to anyone with the tiniest moral compass, or really anyone who is not the kind of deviant who would perpetrate such a terrible crime, they are also every parent’s worst nightmare.
Over the past few days, the number of the perpetrators, in this case, are being reported to be higher than first reported, now the numbers ranging from 18 to 22. Soon afterwards, in a stunning, and yet sadly expected fashion, people started pointing fingers even closer to home, in the classic victim-shaming cycle we seem to espouse as a society.
So, let’s analyze the scope of this problem. Frankly, even one child who faces this sort of barbaric, unforgivable molestation is one child too many. But this BBC article from December 2017 reported the sickening results of a government-run study, stating that a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes in India. Furthermore, it seems as though recently, brutal rapes and gang rapes are occurring at a greater frequency. Looking back at 2018 alone (and we’ve just barely crossed the half-year mark), we’ve heard of several gang rapes of child victims – such as the gang rape and murder of 8-year-old Asifa Bano in Kashmir, the 4-month-old baby (YES, BABY) in Indore, a 7-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh, and so many others.
For every one case that makes it through multiple news channels and reaches people globally, there are most certainly several cases that we never hear about but are reported locally – a heartbreaking search on the keyword “child rape” on theIndian Express site being the case in point. In 2016, according to a Washington Post article, child rapes reported that year were astronomically 82% higher – 19,000 of the total of 39,000 reported rapes, where the victims were children. This article points to a small town, Gajipur, where three children were raped in a span of 10 days this month, leaving the community terrified. However, their solution includes talking to little girls about “good touch” versus “bad touch.” How about teaching boys the same?
The burning question here is WHY is this happening?
There could be a multitude of factors, and I certainly cannot claim to be an expert nor an activist. However, as a woman, who grew up in India—Chennai, to be specific—and who has a (self-proclaimed) high voracity for reading about topics related to misogyny, here are a few perceived factors:
Education, or lack thereof of the perpetrators
Lower socioeconomic status of the perpetrators
Lack of proper sex education
Legal system (Panchayat systems in villages, delayed or no justice, etc.)
Blatant patriarchy supported by society and starting at home
Post-rape victim shaming/blaming and in some cases retribution
Falsified reports of rape used to cover up consensual relationships due to fear of family or society
A criminology doctoral candidate, Madhumita Pandey interviewed 100 convicted rapists in Delhi’s Tihar jail, and said only a few had graduated high school, and most had dropped out in 3rd or 4th grade. She continues to state sex education as well is lacking out of fear that speaking about sex will “corrupt” children and teenagers.
Interestingly, while there are some studies that have shown the link between porn and sexual aggression, a study conducted in India found no significant link between access to porn and rape statistics. However, it is undeniable that the act of sex carries a heavy burden of shame in India, and arguably way more so for women. I read the article detailing Madhumita Pandey’s experience, and a chill went down my spine:
“There were only three or four who said we are repenting. Others had found a way to put their actions into some justification, neutralize, or blame action onto the victim.”
One case, in particular, participant 49, sent Pandey on an unexpected journey. He expressed remorse for raping a 5-year-old girl.
“He said ‘yes I feel bad, I ruined her life.’ Now she is no longer a virgin, no one would marry her. Then he said, ‘I would accept her, I will marry her when I come out of jail.’”
Growing up in India, I learned to quickly develop a disdain for the justice system. I have heard of (even in my own family) cases being stuck in courts for DECADES. Rape cases are not immune to such a problem, and frequently take years to get justice served. An Al Jazeera report points out that only one in four rape cases in India lead to a conviction, and a large percentage of rape cases take 5 to 10 years in court to reach a verdict. Furthermore, even the process of reporting and registering the rape can sometimes take so long, that it can hamper the ability to collect physical evidence of the rape.
In another case, a Panchaayat (ancient self-governance practice that continues in many villages, even today) tried to cover up reported rape, by trying to bribe and/or punish the accuser. It is important to point out that Panchayats have been claimed to be instigators of cruel punitive misogynic “justice” – such as honor killings, beatings, rapes, etc.
In so many cases, even politicians, policymakers and people within the legal system have held and expressed shamefully backward and twisted views on rapes. For example, as reported by BBC:
“Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the regional Samajwadi Party said: ‘Boys make mistakes. They should not hang for this. We will change the anti-rape laws.’”
BBC continues to point out that several of Prime Minister Modi’s own party members have been accused of rape. An even more disgusting example of this is evident in watching “India’s Daughter,” a documentary detailing the Nirbhaya case, including video testimony from the victim’s family and friends, legal professionals, the rapists themselves, and politicians. To say it is horrifying is a drastic understatement.
A big part of the problem is rooted in family, society and how gender roles play out. I recall watching a video (source unknown) where men walking in a park were stopped and casually interviewed to determine whether they understood consent. Most if not all did not comprehend the concept of marital rape.
And yet this rightly offended opinion piece writer claims that consent, in its nature, is pre-meditated, and as such, the very men who are likely to molest and rape in India, who would have never considered a woman’s consent or willingness or respect for that matter, before they felt her up on a bus or violated her physically or verbally, or with their eyes even, wouldn’t consider any of those things before they rape her.
Indian society simply instills different ideals in girls and boys. We are steeped in patriarchy, and in smaller towns and villages, and the more traditional the family, the stronger the sense that a woman simply doesn’t and shouldn’t have a voice, an opinion, or rights. Some of us were fortunate enough to have grown up in progressive households, strong female role models in our mothers, sisters, aunts and teachers, and opportunities to thrive in our socioeconomic status or surpass it. Many are not so fortunate, and women tend to pay the price.
Because in India, more so than many other countries, the stark extremes live amongst one another. The highly educated and illiterate, the obscenely rich and the starving homeless, people with extreme and opposing beliefs and values, and so on. Therefore, even villages and towns aside, these factors can apply to bustling, metropolitan cities, as is seen in the Nirbhaya case, and in the case of this little girl from Chennai.
So much more can be said in analysis, trying to dissect this problem, but it is so convoluted, that unraveling it will likely take generations of Indians bringing up their sons and daughters the right way and massive upheavals to the justice and education systems, and maybe a few stars aligning in perfect formation. I do not presume to have answers, but this is yet another outcry, just one more voice in the crowd, helplessly following the news from afar, and hoping for some peace and justice for the victims and their families, hoping for change, hoping to never have to read another such news report. But, I’m already dreading tomorrow’s headlines.
We write this letter in a time of deep, continued emergency — an open letter to our community, fellowdominant-caste Indian Americans of Hindu descent. As we speak, there is a genocide happening on the ground in Gaza, Palestine. More than825 bloodlines have been wiped from the family registry, more than50% of homes have been flattened, the death toll is more than 11,500 (and rising) in the last month alone and a child is killed every 10 minutes. It is much too late, and yet the most urgent and precisely right moment to have this conversation.
It is the moment to respond with the utmost urgency because we are witnessing a genocide, what Gazans are terming a “second Nakba.” As popular movements have told us, “Mourn those who have passed and fight like hell for the living.”
We write this to our community as two Brahmin people of Hindu descent and as community organizers working in South Asian movements and movements in solidarity with Palestine. We mention nationality, caste, and faith positionality, here because we believe these identities task us with specific responsibilities to speak up at this moment. We write to you hoping that addressing our community directly will encourage more of us to not only speak out, but show up in civil disobedience and direct action in solidarity with Palestinian people. We are also guided by the fundamental belief that it is the responsibility of those of us who have privileged identities in this moment to have this conversation with each other, while following the lead of Palestinian, Kashmiri, Indian Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, and other marginalized organizers.
So — if you are a seasoned supporter of the movement in solidarity with Palestine (of whom there are many in our community), if you have been marching, speaking up, screaming at the rooftops for Gaza — we are grateful and inspired by you. More power to you; we see you, we are with you. If you are new to this conversation, we invite you and we say, there is still time to make a difference. We need you. If you are confused, questioning, or afraid, we ask that you take a few minutes of your time to read further.
Over the past few weeks, many of us — led by Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Kashmiri, working-class, Indo-Caribbean, and anti-Zionist Jewish organizations — have risen up inprincipled protest. We have marched in D.C., signed petitions, called our representatives, and spoken up in our social circles. Yet, some of us have remained silent. Though there have been many new outpourings of support, a culture of silence or neutrality still seems to be apparent amongst large sections of our community. We are especially thinking here of notable public figures such as celebrities, who capitalize off of “representation” politics and have previously spoken about anti-racism and superficial “decoloniality,” but have not raised their voices for Palestine. While some South Asian celebrities have chosen to celebrate Diwali at the White House, we commend the principled stance of others who have opted to boycott presidential celebrations in this moment of state-sponsored genocide instead. As a community, our analysis of white supremacy, privilege, and colonization cannot stop at “chai tea is tea-tea.” This is the trend we seek to interrupt, gently but firmly, in this writing. For those who have spoken out tentatively or fearfully, we hope we can embolden each other to unapologetically show up for Palestine, and empower each other to risk with our words and actions, what we hold dear, both ideologically and materially, in the name of justice.
We do want to note that there is a very real — and credible — silencing of those who speak out in favor of Palestine.Students have been doxxed and threatened with expulsion andretracted job offers. Othershave been terminated from employment for simply speaking out in support of a ceasefire and of Palestinian life. There are entire institutions that exist solely to target people — especially Black, Indigenous, racialized, Muslim, and/or queer people — who speak out against Israel. The United States also has a dangerous Cold-War era history ofMcCarthyism, in which alleged communists were extensively targeted by the government leading to job losses, social ostracization, and other consequences. The fear is real.
Even between the two of us, we have faced regular doxxing and harassment. But this swift and unrelenting censorship of so many voices shows us that the tide is turning, and institutions deeply invested in genocidal violence and suppression of truth know that they are losing. They seek to wield fear — the last tool they have — to silence us. Though they can target one voice, they cannot target us all. The masses of people worldwide — across race, nationality, religion, etc. — are rising up in protest to demand a ceasefire.
There have been many individuals who have justified their silence by a claim that as neither Muslims nor Jews, we must “remain neutral.” Morally, this argument overlooks the fact that we do not need to be directly impacted to call a spade a spade, and a genocide, a genocide. More specifically, as Indian Americans with caste privilege and of Hindu descent, we cannot be neutral, precisely because our existence is inherently not neutral; our heritage intertwines us with the violence of occupation.
We understand that much of this information may be difficult to grapple with or ask us to question fundamental beliefs we have held or been taught for much of our lives. Being people of conviction means not looking away from difficult truths, whether they are happening in Palestine or in Kashmir. The entire history of this partnership and its origins are beyond the scope of this article, but we have linked resources below directly from Kashmiri scholars and activists that we encourage our community to learn more.
By asking these difficult questions, we see that as Indian Americans of Hindu descent, we are not neutral because of the violence done in our name. Thus, we call on our community to use this moment as an invitation to direct action — for all liberation movements around the globe. No business as usual at a time of genocide. In line with the calls being put forth by Palestinian organizers, sit-ins, blockades, and strikes are the call of the hour. Brave activists have been rising to this call — as we saw in theBlock The Boat Action at the Port of Oakland; the mass sit-ins of Jewish protesters atGrand Central Station andCongress; and theshutdown of Elbit Systems’ office in Boston.
There is a powerful history of direct actions and civil disobedience in South Asian movement histories. Most recently, it has been used by courageoustransgender activists fighting for Horizontal Reservations in states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu;farmers and laborers in Punjab demanding a repeal of oppressive laws; and now,pro-Palestine crowds flooding the streets of major cities across India. We lean on this history and say, it is time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. Until a complete ceasefire is achieved; until the unlawful Israeli occupation and US aid to it ends; until Palestinians can live with dignity and freedom. We say “Free Palestine” with our full chest.
Here are some of the many ways to show up in direct action for Palestine:
DIVEST:Workers in Palestine have released this incredibly useful guide for tracing institutional ties to Zionism and organizing for divestment as a strategy. Agitate to end these complicities in your sphere of influence.
Even in the face of fear, we are reminded of the dire need to keep pushing against repression, in line with the unrelenting courage of the Palestinian people. Whether we look like the oppressed or the oppressors, let us stand on the right side of history to stop an ongoing genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.
Now is the time to put ourselves on the line for Palestine. We say: Free Palestine, Free Kashmir. Ceasefire Now. End the occupations. Join us!
This article has been written by Meghana N. and Nikhil Dharmaraj.
Meghana (she/her) is a Telugu community organizer and researcher from the deep South. Her work lies at the intersection of trauma-informed healing and movement-building. Meghana has worked in progressive South Asian organizing for the past decade, and her past writing has integrated research and movement work for various audiences.
Nikhil Dharmaraj is an emerging graduate researcher, creative, and aspiring accomplice/organizer. Nikhil’s work explores the intersection of technology and power, particularly along the lines of race, caste, gender, class, and national identity.
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular