Cover-Up ‘Goes Beyond Anything I’ve Investigated Before,’ Says Correspondent Ramita Navai of ‘India’s Rape Scandal’
Correspondent Ramita Navai talks to a family member of a woman who died after reporting she was raped, in a still from the FRONTLINE July 2021 documentary "India's Rape Scandal."
In the new FRONTLINE report India’s Rape Scandal, correspondent Ramita Navai investigates two rape cases in India, including one linked to a member of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — despite Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s pledge of zero tolerance for sexual assault.
Navai spoke with FRONTLINE about how she sees politics and India’s caste system preventing women from coming forward and about the consequences for those who do speak out.
You have reported about sexual abuse in other countries. How do rape investigations in India compare to other places?
What’s striking about India is the level of authorities’ complicity in trying to cover up rapes. It goes beyond anything I’ve investigated before. Also, rape has become a very political issue, in a way it hasn’t in many other countries. That’s because the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, used terrifying rape statistics as a stick to beat opposition parties with, when he was in opposition.
He was elected promising zero tolerance to these horrific, violent rapes — and, of course, he didn’t manage to do that. So, opposition parties now use rape cases as a stick to beat him with.
It’s almost unbelievable the number of active politicians who have been accused of crimes against women: 76 elected lawmakers from national and state assemblies. That’s everything from kidnap, acid attack, rape, sexual assault. The list includes nine members of parliament and the legislative assembly who have been accused of rape. …
If you are a journalist, you’re on very thin ice and shaky territory when you start investigating rape cases. There’s been a big crackdown on journalists, and Modi has been using this antiquated sedition law that goes back to the British empire. The overwhelming majority of sedition cases, filed against 405 Indians for criticizing politicians and governments over the last decade, were registered after 2014, when Modi took power. You can end up in prison for a long time, and journalists and activists have been charged with sedition.
The journalists who did speak to us and who did insist on speaking to us, with their faces on camera, are incredibly brave.
Was it difficult to get access to the two women’s families, in places so closely monitored by the local governments?
It was really hard getting access to some of them, because in every single case we covered, the families are directly threatened by the accused, the families of the accused, or by their neighbors and their villages — especially if caste is involved, and if the [alleged] rapist is a politician. They’re basically told, “If you continue with this case, you’ll be killed, and all your loved ones will be killed.” We’ve seen that this has happened in Jaya’s case. Her father was killed. Her two aunts were killed in suspicious circumstances, as well as her lawyer.
Because of those very real threats, the government gives 24-hour police protection to some of the survivors or survivors’ families. That means it’s almost impossible to gain access to the survivors and the survivor’s family, and that suits the government.
In Jaya’s case, the convicted rapist was a ranking member of the BJP, India’s ruling party. Does the public see political affiliation as influencing these cases?
Politicians like [Kuldeep Singh] Sengar [formerly a representative in the state legislative assembly] and even upper-caste villages are protected because of the vote bank. That’s really important to understanding the story and why there’s this level of covering up rapes in India.
First of all, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most politically important state. It determines the government. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — that’s one of the country’s most important postings at state level — relies on members of the Legislative Assembly, men like Sengar, to get him voted in. And members of the Legislative Assembly, like Sengar, rely on their vote bank, which is often along caste lines.
So, the men accused of Manisha’s rape are from the same caste as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who has to keep his vote bank and his caste happy. Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to votes. That’s why there is this level of cover-up.
Jaya was just 16 in 2017, when the incident happened. How is she doing now, four years later?
I think she’s still very traumatized by what happened. The last time we spoke to her, she said she felt she was going mad, because she’s a prisoner in her own home. She can’t do anything without police protection, even to get a haircut or to go shopping. She’s with members of her family, but they can’t leave the house without permission.
She’s also in fear of her life. She’s had to move safe houses a few times. …
Jaya is an incredibly brave young woman. She’s fought this every step of the way, and she still wants to fight — because we mustn’t forget that Sengar is launching an appeal. So, it’s not over for Jaya yet. She’s still living in fear. She still gets threats.
Are there any new developments in Manisha’s case, also known as the Hathras case?
The trial has been on hold because of COVID. We went to the village where Manisha lived. [Her family is] still living next door to the families of the accused. They are prisoners in their own home, surrounded by 24-hour police protection, because they’re in fear of their lives. There’s a constant pressure and threats on them to drop the case. And they refuse. They will not drop it; they want justice for their girl. …
After the famous Delhi bus gang rape, laws changed, which meant that rapists could be hanged, could be killed. All of the men who [were convicted of raping and killing the young woman in that case], bar one who was a juvenile at the time, have been executed. … More women now are being killed after they are raped. A woman can’t be a witness if she’s dead.
We mustn’t forget that some of these rapes also result in murder. Manisha was not only gang-raped; she was murdered. She had a painful death. She was alive for two weeks. Her body was shutting down, and she was paralyzed. She couldn’t move her limbs. But she managed to name her [alleged] rapists. She managed to give a dying declaration, which in India is seen as important evidence in a court of law. The dying declaration is taken very seriously.
Sexual violence against women happens all over the world. In the U.S., data from the Department of Justice shows that 459,310 women were raped or sexually assaulted in 2019. Are there lessons from India for other countries?
We know that it’s very bad in India, but it’s also bad in other countries. I think in India, there’s a confluence of factors that make it even harder for women than in other countries to report their rapes. There are lots of countries I’ve reported on where sex and rape is taboo; where you’ll be ostracized if you’re raped; and that if you’re not a virgin, nobody will marry you. That’s not unique to India.
But I think what is unique to India, which is an added obstacle that makes it far harder, is the caste system — and this mustn’t be underestimated. I believe this is the most insidious, frightening, shocking system of segregation, probably in the world. I feel very strongly that that must be said.
I reported on this in 2007: In much of rural India, in some villages, upper-caste men believe they have the right to rape lower-caste women. So, these rapes are not taken seriously, if you are from a lower caste. Government statistics themselves show that most rapes are not reported. And most victims of rapes are lower-caste women, and that’s why women don’t even bother reporting their rapes. Not only did they think they weren’t getting justice, but there’s no point.