One of the news channels, I forget which, had an exclusive interview with the elder daughter of a Mumbai-based businessman accused of raping her for nine long years—and allowing a tantrik, Hasmukh Rathod, to sexually abuse her as well.
The girl has her face covered with her dupatta and she’s just talking about how she decided to break her silence when she learned that her parents and the tantrik were now training their guns on her younger sister. Just then my husband reaches for the remote and switches channels. Sometimes, too much information can be, well, too much, especially on a Saturday night when we’re watching television with our daughters.
Truth be told, I’m glad for the switch. Every word I have read about this sick father, the mother and the tantrik in what is now known as the Mira Road incest case has left me depressed and nauseated. There are some acts that are just so depraved—and a father’s sexual abuse of his daughters must top the list—that it makes you sick to your stomach. Watching Varun Gandhi spread his brand of rabid poison is like watching Mickey Mouse in comparison.
But that’s the problem with incest. As a society we know it exists; studies sanctioned by the government even put figures on a blurry issue. But we’d rather switch channels than face an unpalatable truth. And why blame me? As a society, we’d rather keep up the pretence of the happy, undivided Indian family than even admit that incest exists within our confined doors.
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The Indian Penal Code, for instance, has no separate provision for incest. When the Mira Road trial begins, the father will face, at most, charges of rape. But surely, incest must attract harsher penalties than rape. After all, in 1983 when rape laws were amended to include policemen, prison officials and hospital staff, it was in recognition of the fact that there was a double crime: sexual violation coupled with abuse of authority and trust.
Yet, when activists argued that sexually abusive fathers must also be included, they were ignored. As a result, a Mumbai court last year let off a father who had been raping his daughter for years. His crime, incest, was not recognized as a punishable offence.
My friend Nandini R. Iyer was the first to report in the Hindustan Times on a year-long study—the world’s largest—conducted by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Prayas with support from Unicef and the department of women and child welfare. Of the 17,000 children interviewed, half said they had been subjected to some form of physical, sexual or economic abuse. In fact, she reported, 25% said they had been sexually abused, and of these, a third said it was by a relative or a person known to them.
“These findings are indeed very serious,” said a senior government official. Senior police officer Amod Kanth, who is also the founder secretary of Prayas, told Nandini that the study would act as a base for various legislation and schemes.
That was in March 2007, two years before the Mira Road story broke—coincidentally, at around the same time another sick father, Josef Fritzl, was being sentenced to life imprisonment under psychiatric care in Austria. The much-awaited legislative change simply hasn’t happened. Even the usually vociferous Renuka Chowdhury, minister for women and child development, has been silent on the Mira Road incest case. Indeed, politicians have, by and large, steered clear of such politically unfruitful issues as incest, reluctant to stir a hornet’s nest that will reap poor dividends.
In the media, the Mira Road case has invited some editorial comment—almost all of it from women columnists such as Lalita Panicker and Bachi Karkaria. Rahi, an NGO set up for incest survivors is headed by a woman, Anuja Gupta. Reportedy, the NGO is suffering a donation crunch because people would rather give to “safe” causes. And Bitter Chocolate, a book on sexual abuse, is also written by a woman, Pinki Virani. Is sexual abuse a women-only domain?
Given the statistics provided by the government, incest is clearly a serious and widespread problem. One way to counter it would be to introduce legislation that will act as a deterrent to would-be abusers. The other way is to provide progressive education (Virani talks about the importance of teaching your children the difference between “good” and “bad” touch). Yet, last year legislators in various states including Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh ganged up to ban a sex manual for schoolteachers produced by Naco (National AIDS Control Organisation). Knowledge is empowerment and any meaningful education must include not just the mechanics of reproduction but the dangers of sexual exploitation: how to avoid it and what to do when it happens.
Incest is a terrible crime; perhaps the worst in any society. We may not be able to eliminate it, but we can certainly try and make a dent. But to do that, we have to first look at it squarely in the face. The worse crime is brushing it under the carpet and condemning those who don’t have a voice to continue to live in hell.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org