Ahead of Channel 4’s new documentary, India’s Rape Scandal, we speak to investigative journalist Ramita Navai.
Please be aware that this article contains details of sexual assault and violence.
76 active politicians elected in India have been accused of crimes against women, including nine senior members of parliament and the legislative assembly who have been accused of rape. This is despite prime minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narenda Modi’s pledge of zero tolerance for sexual assault in 2014.
It’s shocking to see, but the bigger picture looks even worse. This is a country where a woman or girl reports a rape every 15 minutes, and an estimated 90-99% of rapes aren’t even reported. In a new Channel 4 documentary, India’s Rape Scandal, Emmy-winning investigator Ramita Navai unpicks this systemic cover up of rapes – particularly among the powerful.
“The level of impunity is what’s most shocking,” Navai, who has investigated a number of huge sexual violence stories around the world, tells Stylist. “The number of men getting away with rape. The sheer scale of it. Also, it’s the authorities’ complicity in the systemic covering up of it. I’ve never seen it on this scale before.”
Through going undercover and reporting on the heartbreaking cases of two teenage girls, the reality of this rape crisis is unravelled. When Jaya spoke out about being raped by a ranking member of the BJP when she was 16, a number of her relatives were killed. And when 19-year-old Manisha died in hospital a week after she was gang raped, her family were denied attending her cremation – they continue to speak out about what happened.
“It’s so unusual for a young girl like Jaya to fight back the way she has,” Navai says of the significance of these girls speaking out. “In so many of the other cases we looked at – and there were many – the families were violently threatened. And Jaya’s story showed that it actually happened to her. There’s also the social shame: after being raped in a small Indian village, you’ll probably never get married. You’ll be completely ostracised. For a teenager to have the guts to speak out on this… it’s just extraordinary.”
Navia also speaks with brilliant journalists – including Aishwarya S Iyer and Nidhi Suresh – who have been working to uncover the scandal. But Navai says it is “a really terrifying time for freedom of speech in media and journalism” in India at the moment.
“The Indian government is cracking down on journalists: arresting and threatening them,” she explains. “They are using the really antiquated sedition law [a law against ‘words that attempt to bring hatred, contempt or disaffection towards the government’] against activists and journalists to shut them up – another shocking statistic is that 405 sedition cases have been made against Indians criticising politicians over the last decade.
“I spoke to so many journalists who have been threatened over covering stories about rape. This is where it gets interesting: why would the government want to censor rape stories? The number of rapes under Modi’s rule have actually increased since his pledge – that’s why they try to shut down these stories before they become public. ”
It’s almost impossible to think just how terrifying it must be to voluntarily play an integral part in outing this corruptness when people’s lives are literally at risk. “It was really hard,” Navai says. “People were really fearful of getting in trouble with the government for trying to expose the coverups. I can’t stress enough how brave the journalists who spoke out are. It takes a lot. But they know that without media attention on these rape cases, they would just disappear.”
There’s also a much wider, insidious context that the rape scandal feeds into: India’s caste system. The men accused of Manisha’s rape are from the same caste as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh; Manisha was from the lowest caste. “It’s one of the most brutal and unjust systems of segregation in the world,” Navai explains. “Most rape victims are from the lower caste. Many upper caste men feel they have the right to rape a lower caste girl, and they do.”
The documentary is a difficult but incredible watch. Navia doesn’t want it to be perceived as a story about “another rape” in India: “It’s about the systemic coverup in this country. I want people to want serious change and to scrutinise after watching it. People need to be angry, shout about it and get justice for these women.”
Dispatches: India’s Rape Scandal airs on Channel 4 at 10pm on Tuesday 27 July.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12pm - 2.30pm and 7pm - 9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre here or visit the website for more information here.
Images: Channel 4