Priya was raped by her father and brother for nine years till she saw on television the protests against the 16 December gang-rape
It was the first day of 2013. Priya’s family waited for the popular Aaj Tak crime show Vardaat to begin. Shams Tahir Khan, the presenter of the show for the last ten years, is something of a sensation in the North Indian heartland. He has been credited with causing train delays in non-descript towns in Uttar Pradesh when news spread that he was on a particular train and fans gathered at the railway station to see him, take autographs and pictures. “I feel so confident when he presents crime stories. I [have] never missed an episode,” says Priya.
That day after dinner, Priya and her two brothers waited patiently for a repeat telecast of the show. There were still twenty minutes to go. In the meantime, they watched the news bulletin, which included reports on the aftermath of the death of the young woman gang-raped in Delhi on 16 December 2012.
“There were two reports. First, that Nirbhaya’s father had immersed her ashes in the Ganga, and second, that there had been a fresh round of protest by young girls my age at India Gate in Delhi. As I watched, my mother scolded me for not listening to my father, who was calling me to his room. I didn’t want to miss the show,” she says. That night, she was raped by her father, as she had routinely been over the previous nine years.
PRIYA IS 25 years old and a graduate in Humanities from a college in Lucknow. Her father, Ramesh Singh, 50, is an employee of the Indian Railways. Ramesh moved to Lucknow from Dumraon, one of India’s oldest municipalities in the Buxar district of Bihar, when he got a job as a fitter in a railway workshop in Lucknow. That was 20 years ago. Ramesh is of the Kshatriya caste and his monthly income is Rs 16,000. Priya studied till Class 10 at her maternal grandparents’ home in Uttar Pradesh’s Mughal Sarai district; her naani paid the fees. She moved to her parents’ place in Lucknow in 2005 for further studies. She was then 16.
“The first time it happened, my mother was in the kitchen. My father had just come back from work. I had gone to his room to give him tea when he shut the door and pulled down my salwar. I screamed when he started doing things to me but he told me to shut up and said the jinh would get annoyed,” she says, staring blankly at her feet. Later, her father explained that it was not him who raped her; it was the jinh that had possessed Priya that would sometimes take him over and rape her.
When Priya complained to her mother Sheela, who is illiterate and hardly ever stepped out of the house, she was asked to keep quiet. And when she told her brother Amit, a year younger than her, he raped her that very night. “He blatantly told me that he was doing it for his satisfaction,” she says.
Stories of jinhs and bad spirits were not new to Priya’s family. “My grandfather’s younger brother’s wife died long back. Since then, she has been troubling many members of the family. Each time somebody falls ill, it is attributed to her spirit,” Priya tells me in a matter-of-fact tone. Her father also told her that their ‘guruji’ Ramesh Tiwari, a tantrik from the small town Sitapur near Lucknow who had helped them solve a property dispute through his ‘powers’, had suggested that he rape her. In 2009, catching the guru in isolation during a visit to her family, she confronted him over making this suggestion. He denied it, and never came back again.
“While he was raping me on 1 January, while my entire family, my mother and two younger brothers, sat outside and watched Vardaat, the words of a boy from the India Gate report rang in my ears: ‘We want the rapists of Nirbhaya to be hanged. We have maa, behen, beti (mother, sister, daughter) too.’ It disgusted me,” she says, her facial muscles clenched in anger. “Was I not a behen or a beti? Do those who have behen and beti not rape? Am I the only one?” In 2012, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 1,963 cases of rape were reported in Uttar Pradesh, of which only 12 were cases of incestuous rape.
Over the years, Priya often saw her mother being thrashed by her father. “He did not like visitors in the house. He even distanced his own relatives in the last few years by misbehaving with them each time they came to visit us. In 2008, he even threw out my naani, in whose house I grew up,” says Priya. Within a year, Priya’s grandparents passed away.
With no moral support, she started to imagine there could be solace in marriage. All girls her age known to her, her friends from college and cousins, were married. But that door was also shut. “I was desperately hoping to get married to escape this hell hole, but on three occasions my father and brother misbehaved with people who brought marriage proposals for me,” she says. “One day, I asked my brother why he didn’t get married if he wanted to satisfy himself. He said he could not get married before me. I replied, in utter frustration, why didn’t he marry me? He said he could not and walked away. The next afternoon, he was at my doorstep again, to hit me, to sodomise me.”
Priya was growing restless. Repeated abortions, assisted by her mother, were taking a toll on her. “I could not go to college, I had to cook, and my father and brother kept raping me, even two days after an abortion. My mother behaved as if nothing happened,” she says.
Watching coverage of the ongoing protests in Delhi over the 16 December gang-rape, Priya connected the dots. “There were all these cases in the papers, and I was one of them, like a mirror,” she says, confusion in her voice. With the marriage window being repeatedly slammed shut, the only other way out was economic independence, a job. “My father had refused to give me money to file an application for a post-graduate programme. So I asked him to let me work at a call centre,” she says with conviction.
She worked as a call centre executive for an astrology company for three months on a monthly salary of Rs 4,000 and saved enough money to buy a cellphone. “I knew that was the first thing I’d need if I wanted to seek help.” Her father began objecting to her night shifts—or her non-availability at night for his sexual gratification—and she had to quit her job. “I was constantly thinking on my feet—how to avoid his presence at home, how to work, how to go outside to find a solution for this,” she says, thrusting her fist through the air to punctuate her point. She then joined a beauty parlour training course. After the first two months of training, she started getting a small stipend and meeting a lot of customers. It was a customer who told her about Akhilesh Yadav’s jan durbar.
Last year in April, UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav opened up his official residence to ‘let the public walk in with their problems’ twice a week. This became popular—especially since his predecessor Mayawati did not hold any public hearings during her five-year tenure.
“I thought about it for almost a month, read about it in the newspaper. Finally, I wrote an application sitting in the beauty parlour. I had never spoken to anyone about it. Who would believe me if I talked about my father and brother raping me? I was scared, but I had some money and a cellphone and took the plunge.”
On 4 September, she left her house early in the morning on the pretext of submitting her ‘berozgaari bhatta’ form, to register for the Rs 1,000 per month unemployment allowance announced by CM Yadav. She took a ‘Vikram’—a triangular diesel tempo that is a popular mode of local transport in Lucknow—straight to the official residence of Akhilesh Yadav in the centre of the city.
“There was a huge queue, and a number of people sitting in a big hall. The CM was sitting right in front of me. I waited my turn for an hour. As soon as he read my application, he handed it over to the District Magistrate standing next to him. He told me that I was brave and asked me not to cry.”
Within an hour, Shiva Shukla, the in-charge of the mahila thana (all-women police station), was called and an FIR was registered. “That very day,” says Shukla, “we arrested the brother, who works at an Adidas store in the newly opened Phoenix mall, from his workplace, and later, her father from the railway workshop. Surprisingly, both of them confessed without resistance.”
Priya was sent to a shelter home run by an NGO. She received phone calls of support and solidarity from her neighbours and maternal uncles. When questioned, her mother Sheela denied any knowledge of the abuse. Priya’s brother told the police that he did it for ‘satisfaction’, and her father claimed that his ‘mind had been temporarily corrupted’, not mentioning the jinh excuse he had given Priya. Both are now in jail and a chargesheet has been filed against them.
While Priya was fortunate to receive immediate legal relief after she took the brave step of approaching the Chief Minister directly—and on a public platform no less—not many women find similar support. In March this year, Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar informed the Rajya Sabha that of the 24,000 rape cases pending in the country, 8,215 are in the Allahabad High Court. The lower courts in Lucknow are no better, with 605 pending rape cases, of which 54 gang-rape cases and 373 rape cases are in trial stage, whereas 34 gang-rape cases and 144 rape matters are awaiting committal from magistrate courts to sessions courts.
India does not have a particular law that deals with incestuous abuse. Culprits are charged either with sexual abuse and rape, or, in case the victim is a minor, for custodial offences. ‘Family values’ stand in the way of any debate around the issue. When asked about cases of incestuous abuse, Shiva Shukla, though sensitive about women’s cases in general, answers, with a tinge of hesitation, that “ninety per cent of cases are false. Recently, a girl who was an MBBS student wanted to marry a Muslim boy. She charged her father with [rape]. Parents today are still not so broadminded as to let their daughters choose their life partners. The girls then completely disregard the money their parents have invested in their education and instead immorally accuse them of something as disgusting as this.” Shiva’s comments are worrying. Had the same logic been applied to Priya’s case and her desperation to get married, she might also have been falsely accused of being immoral and lying.
A report titled Voices from the Silent Zone by Delhi-based NGO RAHI (Recovering and Healing from Incest), which works with victims of child sexual abuse, suggests that nearly three-quarters of upper and middle class Indian girls are abused by a family member, often an uncle, a cousin or an elder brother. Anuja Gupta, founder and executive director of RAHI, says, “Not legislating a strict punishment amounts to the law reiterating that it is not a serious issue. If stringent punishment were made legal, then it [would have] to be accepted that [incestuous abuse] exists. But we don’t even want to admit that. This is true across the world and it is a terrible truth to own up to.”
This reluctance to admit its occurrence is a major reason for the under reporting of cases of incestuous abuse. Bhuvan Ribhu, a lawyer and activist with child rights NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan says, “A system should be institutionalised in schools [whereby] children are taught that it is okay to report cases of abuse within the family. But this is not encouraged because of our hypocritical moral values. We only receive two to three [reports] of [incestuous abuse] a year.”
Priya is now the kitchen in-charge of her shelter home and very popular among other inhabitants. She is attending C++ computer language classes, has applied for an MA from an open university, and made Rs 2,000 this karwa chauth as a henna artist at a nearby beauty parlour.
Her story is a stinging lesson to all those who invoke their mothers, sisters and daughters—instead of all women—in their call for justice.
All names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the victim