Chautala echoes Haryana khap panchayat demand; rape not a black-and-white law and order issue, says Renuka Chowdhury

Even as the former Haryana Chief Minister, Om Prakash Chautala, backed demands for new laws that will allow marriage of teenagers saying it would help end the surge in sexual crimes reported from across the State in recent weeks, a senior Congress leader has said that the State’s rape crisis was not a “black-and-white law and order issue”.

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury defended Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda against charges that he had failed to act against the wave of attacks, in many of which the victims were dalit women and the perpetrators, upper-caste men. “Crime against women has risen. Not only in our country but all over the world. This is an issue that challenges all intelligent people,” Ms. Chowdhury said.

Ms. Chowdhury said the State government was working “discreetly to reassure the families that they will be safe and they will not have to worry about the social support they need. It is not a very simple black-and-white law and order issue only.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Brinda Karat criticised Ms. Chowdhury’s argument, noting that “in several of these cases the perpetrators videotaped and circulated their crime, while in others the victim had been murdered”.

“Whereas the protection of the victim’s identity is a very important concern, this should not become a pretext not to condemn the State government for its failure to act against the perpetrators,” Ms. Karat said.

Pinky Anand, a New-Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, also attacked Ms. Chowdhury’s remarks, describing them as bizarre: “So, murder is a law and order issue. And so is robbery. But not rape? There are these terrible crimes taking place in Haryana, and the State government is doing nothing about them — that is the problem here.”

Ms. Chowdhury was responding to questions on comments made earlier on Wednesday by Mr. Chautala, after he met with Governor Jagan Nath Pahadia to present a memorandum on the rape crisis. Mr. Chautala gave his support to Khap panchayat proposals for lowering the age of marriage, saying it would “help [curb] such crimes against women”.

Sube Singh, a prominent Khap representative, recently said “boys and girls should be married by the time they turn 16, so that they do not stray”.

Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, however, appeared to be more critical of the State government, saying he was “constantly monitoring” the situation. “We are discussing [strict measures]. My people have spoken to the Director-General of Police and I will also speak to the Chief Minister,” Mr. Shinde said.

Both Mr. Shinde and Ms. Chowdhury condemned Mr. Chautala's remarks. “In India, we have to abide by Indian law. Fifteen rape cases have been reported in Haryana in last one month — at least two of them on Tuesday — even as Congress president Sonia Gandhi visited the State to meet with the family of a 15-year-old Dalit girl who committed suicide by immolating herself after she was gang-raped on October 6 at Sacha Khera village in Jind district.

The wave of sexual assaults began on September 9 when a Dalit girl was gang-raped in Hisar town. Multimedia clips of the assault were circulated by the accused on mobile phones. The incident came to light on September 18 when the father of the girl committed suicide on learning about them.

Following this, a newly-married 19-year-old woman was abducted and raped by four men in Gohana town near Sonepat; a 30-year-old married woman from a backward community was gang-raped at gunpoint by three men in Jind district while her family members were held hostage and the crime was videotaped; and a teenaged girl was gang-raped in a moving car by three young men in Bhiwani. Both major parties in Haryana have been reluctant to challenge the Khap panchayats frontally on the rape issue, fearing losing electoral capital.

(With inputs from Smita Gupta)